Vibrato systems for guitar
A variety of mechanical vibrato systems for guitar have been developed since the 1930s. They are used to add vibrato to the sound by changing the tension of the strings, typically at the bridge or tailpiece of an electric guitar using a controlling lever (often referred to as a whammy bar, vibrato arm/bar, or tremolo arm/bar). The lever enables the player to quickly vary the tension and sometimes the length of the strings temporarily, changing the pitch to create a vibrato, portamento or pitch bend effect.
Instruments without this device have other bridge and tailpiece systems. The mechanical vibrato systems began as a device for more easily producing the vibrato effects that blues and jazz guitarists had long produced on arch top guitars by manipulating the tailpiece with their picking hand. However, it has also made many sounds possible that could not be produced by the old technique, such as the 1980s-era shred guitar "dive bombing" effect.
Since the regular appearance of mechanical vibrato systems in the 1950s, they have been used by many guitarists, ranging from the gentle inflections of Chet Atkins, the exaggerated twang effects of Duane Eddy and the buoyant effects of surf music aficionados like The Ventures, The Shadows and Dick Dale. In the 1960s and 1970s, vibrato arms were used for more pronounced effects by Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, David Gilmour, Ritchie Blackmore, Jimmy Page, and Frank Zappa. In the 1980s, shred guitar virtuosos such as Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, and metal guitarists such as Ritchie Blackmore and Kirk Hammett used the "whammy bar" in a range of metal-influenced styles. The pitch-bending effects, whether subtle inflections or exaggerated effects, have become an important part of many styles of electric guitar. Terje Rypdal, David Torn and David Duhig have added to the language and extended techniques of vibrato bar usage.
Despite the common misnomer tremolo arm, these devices cannot produce tremolo in the normal sense of the word, but can produce vibrato; while some electronic "vibrato units" used by electric guitarists generally produce a tremolo effect, rather than vibrato. See "Vibrato or Tremolo".
Guitars equipped with any vibrato system can be harder to re-string, tune, and keep in tune than "stop-tail" (fixed tailpiece) guitars.
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Clear bend sound using Bigsby Vibrato Tailpiece.
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Origin of names
Historically, some electric guitarists have reversed the normal meanings of the terms vibrato and tremolo when referring to hardware devices and the effects they produce. This reversal of terminology is generally attributed to Leo Fender and the naming of the Fender "Vibroverb" amplifier, which actually used tremolo (rapid volume changes) in an attempt to create a vibrato-like (rapid changes in pitch) sound. See vibrato unit for details of the history of these terms in relation to electric guitar, and related issues. Ironically, Fender had previously introduced the "Tremolux" amplifier in 1953, which used the correct terminology.
While the (so-called) "tremolo arm" can produce variations of pitch including what is normally termed vibrato, it can never produce the effect normally known as tremolo (modulation of volume). Tremolo, on the other hand, is exactly the effect produced by the electronic vibrato units built into many classic guitar amplifiers. Other widely used names for the device include "vibrato bar" and "whammy bar", the latter named in reference to guitarist Lonnie Mack's aggressive, rapid manipulation of the pitch-bending device in his 1963 song "Wham!".
Most vibrato systems for guitar are based on one of four basic designs:
- The Bigsby Vibrato Tailpiece, introduced in the late 1940s and used in close to original form on many guitars (including Gibson, Gretsch and Rickenbacker guitars)
- The Fender Synchronized Tremolo or strat trem, introduced on the Fender Stratocaster (1954), and from which many designs developed including:
- The Fender Floating Bridge, which has two main variants:
- Cam-driven designs based on pedal steel guitar concepts, including:
Many other designs exist in smaller numbers, notably several original designs marketed by Gibson under the Vibrola name, which was also used for some licensed Bigsby units. A design patented in 2006 from Trem King uses a fixed bridge with a moving tone block.
One of the first mechanical vibrato units was the Vibrola, invented by Doc Kauffman and patented in 1935. His Vibrola was first offered to the general public by the Epiphone guitar company as an option on some archtop guitars from 1935 to 1937. Epiphone sold the Vibrola as an aftermarket option as well. This Vibrola was also used on some Rickenbacker lap steel guitars at around the same time and was introduced on their six string electric guitars beginning about 1937.
Some early Vibrolas on Rickenbacker guitars were not operated by hand, but rather moved with an electrical mechanism developed by Doc Kauffman to simulate the pitch manipulation available with steel guitars. The Vibrola distributed as an option with Rickenbacker Electro Spanish guitars was hand operated like the earliest Epiphone Vibrolas. A later unit was created and used on Rickenbacker's Capri line of guitars in the 1950s, such as John Lennon's 1958 Rickenbacker 325. It was a side-to-side action vibrato unit (rather than the up-down action of later units) that was notorious for throwing the guitar out of tune, hence Lennon's replacing his with a Bigsby B5 unit, then later with Ac'cent Vibrola unit.
The first commercially successful vibrato arm was the Bigsby vibrato tailpiece, most often just called a Bigsby, and invented by Paul Bigsby (U.S. Patent D169,120 filed in 1952, issued in 1953). The exact date of its first availability is uncertain, as Bigsby kept few records, but it was on Bigsby-built guitars photographed in 1952, in what became its standard form. In several interviews, the late Merle Travis, for whom Bigsby designed his first vibrato, recalled the prototype as being built for him in the "late '40s". The design uses a spring-loaded arm that rotates a cylindrical bar in the tailpiece, varying the string tension to create vibrato and other pitch variations. The string tension is balanced against a single, short helical compression spring, positioned under the arm pivot. The spring on the original tailpiece for Merle Travis was a Harley Davidson valve spring, as this was the only one Bigsby could find that would return to tolerance (and pitch). When a young cash-strapped John Lennon lost the spring in his Bigsby, he got a flesh-colored replacement from someone who worked on artificial limbs. Pioneering blues-rock guitarist Lonnie Mack was known for using a Bigsby on his famous 1958 Gibson Flying V. The term whammy bar is believed to derive from Mack's 1963 instrumental hit, "Wham!", in which Mack made liberal use of the Bigsby.
To this day, the Bigsby enjoys some popularity, especially on hollow-body guitars, and is available as a factory-fitted option on top-line models both hollow- and solid-bodied from many makers, and as an aftermarket addition (requiring some skill to fit however). It remains the only widely used design whose mechanism is entirely above the belly of the guitar body, making it the only design particularly suitable for acoustic and semi-acoustic guitars.
<span id="Fender "synchronized tremolo"">Fender synchronized tremolo
After the Bigsby, the next major development was Leo Fender's synchronized tremolo, the device that introduced the term tremolo arm (U.S. Patent 2,741,146 filed in 1954, issued in 1956). First released in 1954 on Fender's first legendary Stratocaster, the simple but effective design offers a greater range of pitch change than the Bigsby, and a better capability for up-bends. Somewhat confusingly, Fender labeled the arm as a "tremolo arm" rather than a "vibrato arm", conversely referring to the tremolo circuit on his amplifiers as "vibrato".
The basis of the synchronized tremolo is a rigid assembly that incorporates both the bridge and tailpiece, which pivots on the guitar belly. In the original design, this was based on the principle of the "knife edge" balance. A bevel on the front underside of a steel top plate formed a wide, sharp edge that rested on the top of the guitar body. A small imbalance in tension between the pull of the strings and the counterbalancing pull of the springs held the pivot edge firmly in place against the body.
Six hardened steel wood screws passing through slightly oversize holes just in front of the pivot point stopped the bridge from being pulled towards the neck end of the guitar. The upper portion of the screws is smooth, not threaded. These six screws are often mistakenly assumed to be the pivot point rather than the hidden knife edge. This design works, in spite of the friction caused by the edges of the six holes sliding up and down the screw shafts when vibrato is applied.
The bridge is formed by six bridge saddles held against this plate by string tension, and individually adjustable both for height and intonation. The tailpiece consists of a solid block of metal, mounted behind the "tremolo plate" and secured to it by three machine screws, and passing right through the guitar body. In a chamber routed into the back of the guitar are up to five (normally three) long coil springs, which connect to the back of the tailpiece block, and whose tension balances that of the strings.
The tremolo arm also passes through the tremolo plate and tailpiece block, providing direct and rigid connection. Ignoring the bridge adjustments, this mechanism has only two moving parts, one of them the arm itself, the same as the Bigsby. But unlike the Bigsby, the synchronized tremolo moves the bridge as well as the tailpiece, varying both the length and tension of the strings. Setting the bridge to float (typically 1/8" at the rear of the plate) allows for both increasing and decreasing pitch bending. Some players will adjust the bridge plate so it is flush with the body for better tuning stability, allowing for only a drop in pitch when the arm is pressed down.
The strings pass through the body of the guitar, in similar fashion to the Fender Telecaster. When changing strings the new string is threaded through the body from the back. However, in the Telecaster the ferrule end is held by a collar firmly anchored to the guitar body; In the Stratocaster, it is held by the moving metal block through which the strings pass.
The Stratocaster "tremolo", often just called the "Strat trem", or also called the whammy bar, is the most copied vibrato system. Similar pattern units appear on many solid-body guitars by various makers. Its design has been the basis of the premium Fender tremolo known as the two-point synchronized tremolo, and also of the Floyd Rose locking tremolo, see below. Both the original Stratocaster tremolo, sometimes called the "synchronous tremolo" and sometimes the "vintage synchronized tremolo", and derived designs such as the two-point and Floyd Rose appear on current models as of 2012.
This preeminence of the synchronized tremolo of Stratocaster guitars was finally established by Jimi Hendrix around 1967, who created a new sound and style on the strat - in an otherwise Gibson dominated era. Throughout the 1960s, the premium Fender guitars were the Jaguar range, equipped with the floating tremolo. By the early 1970s, it was obvious that most guitarists preferred the cheaper Stratocaster, regardless of price and supposed quality and prestige, and particularly liked its "tremolo arm" design. The Jaguar and indeed all other Fender guitars using any vibrato system other than the synchronized tremolo were for a time withdrawn, to return to the catalog as classic or retro models in the 1990s.
<span id="Fender two-point "synchronized tremolo"">Fender two-point synchronized tremolo
The synchronized tremolo has been further developed by Fender to produce the two-point synchronized tremolo. This is not a locking tremolo, but is often confused with the similarly named Floyd Rose two-point locking tremolo. The two systems are both developments of the original Stratocaster tremolo mechanism, but use the words two-point to describe entirely different concepts.
The Fender two-point system uses two pivot points, one at each end of the pivot, rather than a row of six as in the original Strat trem. Conceptually, such a mechanism can be achieved by removing four of the six pivot screws from a traditional Strat trem, leaving only the two at the ends of the row, and there have been magazine articles suggesting this but it is risky. In practice, both for strength and for satisfactory performance, the pivots need to be carefully engineered. In some designs the pivots are also moved further apart than the 2.2" spacing of the outermost two screws in the original, in others they are just strengthened and more carefully shaped.
Currently, the Fender two-point system is their standard and most popular design, but they also offer models with the original classic design, as well as a few models with factory-fitted licensed Bigsby units, others with licensed "locking tremolo" and still others with floating bridge designs.
Featuring stainless steel block saddles since its introduction in 1986, the Fender two-point system has been redesigned with new vintage-style bent steel saddles as of 2008. The Fender two-point system is available with two types of "tremolo bars": traditional "screw-in" type with a plastic tip at the end and deluxe "pop-in" type without the plastic tip. In the case of the deluxe two point bridge, the block saddles are made from polished steel. Custom Classic and Custom Pro Series Stratocasters feature a deluxe two point tremolo with block saddles made from milled stainless steel.
Fender floating bridge
The floating bridge featured on two Fender "tremolo arm" designs, both developed by Leo Fender subsequently to the original synchronized tremolo but overshadowed by it. Despite its not being the most popular bridge, there are side benefits unique to guitars with this type of bridge (See 3rd bridge guitars).
The floating tremolo was designed by Fender for the Fender Jazzmaster, and first appeared with the release of the Jazzmaster in 1958. A larger, heavier and more complex vibrato mechanism than the synchronized tremolo, and promoted over it by Fender as their premium "tremolo arm" mechanism, it never achieved the same popularity, though if properly set up according to Fender's recommendations, it held tune as well as or better than the synchronized tremolo unit. A major cause of the floating tremolo's increasingly poor reputation since its introduction is the far-increased availability and popularity of lighter guitar strings, which do not produce enough tension in standard tuning to compensate for the low break-angle over the bridge and, in the Jaguar's case, the exceptionally short scale length of 24 inches. This places relatively little downwards force on the bridge, making it unreliable in returning to the correct position after tremolo operation.
The main difference is that, while much of the mechanism of the synchronized tremolo including the springs is accessed by removing a rectangular plate in the back of the guitar body, and is mounted on the guitar body in a routed bay extending behind the pickups, the entire mechanism of the floating tremolo is mounted on a roughly triangular chromed plate in the front of the guitar body, on the opposite side of the bridge to the pickups. The string tension is balanced against a single short helical spring, in compression rather than tension, mounted on the back of the "tremolo mounting plate". The spring is adjustable by turning a screw located towards the center of this plate.
The ferrule ends of the strings are held on the top of the guitar in a tailpiece plate called the knife plate, which emerges from the mechanism, rather than the strings vanishing into the mechanism as with the synchronized tremolo. It is the knife plate that is moved when the tremolo arm is operated. Unlike the synchronized tremolo, the bridge is not moved directly by the mechanism, but only by the movement of the strings, and is allowed to tilt to accommodate this movement. This is called a floating bridge.
The Fender floating tremolo also features a knob that enables the player to lock and thus disable the tremolo mechanism, allowing quick recovery of tuning in the event of breaking one string, and providing tuning stability with the mechanism locked that was intended to be similar to that of a fixed bridge guitar. In practice, this stability was not generally achieved, leading some players to replace the mechanism with a fixed bridge and tailpiece to produce a high quality "hard-tail" solid body guitar not otherwise available at the time. The "floating tremolo" was greatly favored by some surf music bands, particularly for its ability to produce a pronounced and distinctive vibrato on a sustained chord without disturbing the tuning of the guitar. To fully achieve this benefit however, correct setup, as per Fender's recommendations, was essential.
An issue with the unit was the bridge itself, which Leo Fender over-engineered. The six individual bridge saddles were multi-grooved "barrels". The individual barrels were not grooved deeply enough for secure holding of the strings in heavy pick attack, and each barrel had a tiny adjustment screw at each end. Adding the intonation adjustment screws, and the screws at each end of the bridge saddle to raise or lower the bridge as a whole, gave the bridge twenty separate adjustment possibilities. The great majority of players found this much too "fiddly", and, adding the tendency of the strings to jump out of their individual saddles in aggressive playing, the overall reception was rather lukewarm for what was essentially an excellent – but over-engineered – design. Later, many players of the Jazzmaster and Jaguar found that the bridge on these instruments could be replaced with no retrofitting by the standard bridge from the Fender Mustang (below), which eliminated several of the worst problems with the original bridge.
In addition to the Jazzmaster, the floating tremolo was used on the then top-of-the-line Fender Jaguar guitars, released in 1962, and also on the Fender Bass VI, released in 1961. Jaguar and Jazzmasters share the same bridge plate and string saddles, though Jaguar bridges (and the earliest Jazzmaster bridges) have taller "legs". The two are functionally interchangeable and replacement parts for each are one and the same. The Bass VI bridge has a wider plate and longer intonation screws to allow the bass strings to be correctly intonated, and the saddles have threads cut for larger diameter strings. There have also been a small number of not very notable imitations by other makers, generally without the locking knob. Fender discontinued all floating tremolo models by 1980, but reintroduced both the Jazzmaster and Jaguar first as Japanese models in the mid 1980s, then as American-made reissues in the 1990s. The tremolo-equipped Bass VI was reintroduced as a US Custom Shop model in 2006.
One of the big advantages as well as disadvantages, depending on what you like to hear, is the string resonance appearing at several fret positions where a simple relation exists between the length to the fret and the string length behind the bridge (for instance 48:12 = 4:1). At those positions, a high overtone rises in volume. This becomes more clear when the guitar sound is driven. However the overtone might sound odd, it still has a perfect harmonic relation, so is not out of tune related to the open string. For staccato playing it can be an annoying effect. Muting the string field behind the bridge with, for instance, a piece of felt solves this issue.
The Fender Dynamic Vibrato (also colloquially referred to as the Mustang tremolo or Stang trem) was introduced in 1964 on the Fender Mustang, intended as a student model. It was also notably used on the Jagstang, a custom design by Kurt Cobain combining features of the Jaguar and the Mustang. Some late 1960s Mustangs were fitted instead with the floating tremolo, which was promoted by Fender as their premium unit, but later Mustangs returned to the Dynamic Vibrato.
The Dynamic Vibrato is still preferred by some lead guitarists above all other designs. It features a floating bridge similar to that of the floating tremolo, but the bridge is integral with the vibrato unit, unlike that of the floating tremolo, which is mounted separately. The strings are controlled by a tailpiece bar to which the vibrato arm is visibly connected, similar to the Bigsby, and the mechanism is installed from the top of the instrument, similar to the floating tremolo. It combines some features of all three basic designs.
The Dynamic Vibrato is often confused with the Fender floating tremolo, which it resembles. The original production runs of the two overlap by more than a decade, but the mechanisms are quite different. The existence of a few 1960s Mustangs factory fitted with the floating tremolo has probably added to the confusion. The concealed mechanism is in a chamber of a completely different shape and position, requiring an impractical amount of woodwork to convert from one to the other, and the mounting plate is of a different shape with different mounting holes.
The string tension is balanced against two medium length helical springs under tension, mounted on the underside of the tremolo mounting plate, one attached to each of the two feet of the tailpiece bar. Dynamic Vibrato units may be recognized by the integrated floating bridge and the stamps "Fender" and "DYNAMIC VIBRATO". Many but not all units also have the words "PAT PEND" or "PAT. NO. 3,241,418" stamped under the word "Fender". The Dynamic Vibrato was the last of the floating bridge designs to be discontinued by Fender, with the Mustang in 1982, and the first to be reintroduced, again with the Mustang, in 1990.
Other Fender designs
Still another design was used on the student model Fender Bronco, released mid-1967. This was simply known as the Fender vibrato tailpiece, or sometimes the Fender steel vibrato. It was again designed by Leo Fender although he had sold the company by the time it appeared. Basically a synchronized tremolo simplified to reduce cost, it had little popularity, and as of 2005 was the only Leo Fender vibrato arm design not available on any current Fender model. In 1981 G&L released the F-100 guitar with a Dual-fulcrum Vibrato designed by Leo Fender, one of G&L's owners.
|Period||Name / Nickname||spec|
|Earlier vibrato options|
|1950s||Gibson Vibra-Rest||adapter in guitar shape|
|1950s–||Licensed version of Bigsby vibrato tailpiece|
|Maestro Vibrola||roller bridge mechanism|
|Gibson Vibrola (Gibson Vibrola Tailpiece)|
|1962||Gibson vibrato||long tailpiece with folding arm|
|1962||short tailpiece with pearl inlay|
|1963||Deluxe Gibson Vibrato||long tailpiece|
|1964–||long tailpiece with Lyre engrave|
||long and short|
Then since the early 1960s, Gibson have marketed a number of vibrato system designs under the name "Vibrola".
Vibrola tailpieces include a licensed version of the Bigsby vibrato tailpiece, earlier version of Maestro Vibrola using roller bridge (U.S. Patent 3,124,991 filed in 1961, issued in 1964), and several in-house Gibson designs. The Gibson designs did not have the impact of the Bigsby and Fender designs, and have inspired few if any copies, but they competed reasonably successfully and continue to sell.
Gibson designs tend to have the mechanism surface-mounted on the belly of guitar, similar to the Bigsby, and are therefore equally suitable for use on acoustic guitars and especially on archtops. This reflects the Gibson company's history as the developer of the archtop guitars, and their continued strength and focus on this market, but carries over even to the designs used only on solid body guitars, such as the Short Lyre Vibrola used on some Flying V and SG models. While these do require some woodwork to install them, some more so than others, there is nothing like the extensive body routing required for all of the Fender trems.
The Gibson Vibrato, an earliest Gibson-designed vibrato systems, was a distinctive long tailpiece released in 1962 on some SG models. This mechanism later became known as the side-to-side vibrato (or Sideways Vibrola) because of the position of the lever, which emerged from the side of the long tailpiece. This lever had only restricted movement up and down in a plane close to that of the strings, so its action was unlike that of the Bigsby and Fender units, and remains unique. It was also described as the "Gibson Vibrola Tailpiece" in Gibson documents, but this name can be applied to any of the Gibson vibrato mechanisms. It was not a success and is of interest mainly to historians and collectors.
Also an earliest short vibrato, referred as "ebony vibrato with the inlaid pearl", was seen on the several Les Paul/SG Standard in the same year.
The Deluxe Gibson Vibrato (or Gibson Deluxe Vibrola, etc), released in 1963, was another long tailpiece mechanism which replaced the Gibson Vibrato. Its vibrato arm and all subsequent designs adopted the action popularized by Bigsby and Fender. Short version of Deluxe Gibson Vibrola was fitted as standard to the 1967 reissue Gibson Flying V. Also, there are two other names on the Deluxe Gibson Vibrato: "Lyre Vibrola" nicknamed after the lyre engraved on the cover plate, which was fitted to Gibson ES-335 series as an option by 1964; and "Maestro Vibrola" renamed for keeping Maestro brand, which was an option on the ES-335 by 1967.
Most Vibrola tailpieces, including the Bigsby, Lyre and Maestro, exist in both long and short versions. The long version replaces a trapeze-style tailpiece, such as found on most archtop guitars, and transmits the string tension to the guitar side. The short version replaces a string stop style tailpiece, such as found on the original Gibson Les Paul, and transmits the string tension to the guitar belly, so short versions are generally used only on solid body guitars. Long tailpieces can be used on almost any guitar (an exception being the Gibson Flying V where there is no room for one), and both long and short versions have been used on various models of Gibson SG and Gibson Les Paul guitars.
The Gibson designs were less suitable for the sounds that the Stratocaster tremolo and its derivatives made possible. They have almost always been offered as extra cost options on guitars that sold better in non-vibrato versions. As a result, some versions are rare and command high prices from restorers and collectors. Gibson encourages this trend by refusing to sell reissue units as parts, offering them only on complete guitars (a policy similar to most guitar manufacturers). As of 2006 Gibson was continuing to offer Vibrola units as options on many models, but also offered a few Fender-inspired tremolo arms such as the Floyd Rose on some Gibson branded guitars (Nighthawk, M3), and a wider variety through their Kramer and Epiphone brands. Kramer have always fitted Floyd Rose trems as standard and this association continues. See also rivalry between Fender and Gibson.
Other notable vibrato designs include the Kahler, Washburn Wonderbar, Hagstrom Tremar, The Semie Moseley-designed Mosrite "Vibramute", the Stetsbar, the crossed-roller bearing linear tremolo and the early Rockinger from Germany. This last company was contracted by Kramer to develop a new fine-tuning tremolo with Edward Van Halen. The Rockinger designs proved problematic and Van Halen ultimately came to favor the Floyd Rose tremolo.
The Mosrite Vibrato
Semie Moseley developed the vibrato unit used on his Mosrite guitars from the basic concept of the Bigsby vibrato, but with many engineering improvements. The entire vibrato unit is top mounted. The strings feed through six holes in the upright plate at the rear of the unit (somewhat similar to the Fender Floating Trem) and the bridge is also rigidly mounted. But the string saddles are vertically mounted grooved "wheels" that roll with the string during vibrato usage, and also make palm muting very easy to achieve. Moseley advertised the unit as the "feather touch" vibrato, and the touch is exceptionally light with all but heavy gauge strings. Pitch stability is excellent. Moseley made several designs of the unit, the first being sand cast, with early versions having an attached string mute beneath the bridge (much like the Fender Jaguar) and a rather short handle. This he called the "Vibramute". Two years later, he slightly simplified the design, going to a die cast design, eliminating the mute (which more players complained about than favored) and lengthening the vibrato arm slightly. This incarnation, called the "Moseley", was used on all Mosrite guitars from that point on. The actual feel and response of the two different models is virtually identical, however. Moseley also designed a companion 12-string vibrato for the 12-string version of the instrument, and this may have been one of the only – if not the only – vibratos designed for use on a 12-string guitar.
Around 1979, the locking tremolo was invented by Floyd D. Rose. The locking trem became highly popular among 1980s heavy metal guitarists due to its extremely wide range of variation and tuning stability. The original Floyd Rose system was similar to the Fender synchronized tremolo, but with a number of extra mechanisms. The first to be added and most obvious is a locking plate on the head nut, tightened with a hex key to fix the strings at this point after tuning. This provides extra tuning stability, particularly during use of the vibrato arm, but as an unwanted side effect it also prevents further adjustment of the pitch using the machine heads.
Fine tuners have been provided as part of the bridge mechanism on all but the earliest units to allow minor retuning without unlocking the nut. Some guitarists claim that the fine tuners add an instability to tuning, and that the original non-fine-tuning Floyd Rose bridges are far superior in this respect. It is rumored, but has never been confirmed that Eddie Van Halen had a part in the inclusion of the fine tuning unit. In a 1982 Guitar World interview for Van Halen's Diver Down album, Eddie claimed that he co-invented the fine tuners.
Nonetheless, a gift of a unit to Van Halen by Floyd Rose himself gave the unit instant overnight success and credibility. Still more stability was provided by the addition of a second lock on the bridge nut, making a double locking tremolo system that was more complex to set up. The double locking design is sometimes called a two-point locking tremolo, inviting confusion with the Fender two-point synchronized tremolo, which is a different concept and not a locking tremolo at all.
Most locking tremolo systems currently in production are "floating" bridges, a concept first popularized by Steve Vai. Vai, wanting the ability to both lower and raise the pitch (by pulling on the bar) had a carved "lion's claw" cavity behind the bridge to allow the bridge to be raised further than normal. Guitar manufacturers prefer this type of configuration because mounting the bridge in this way is both easier for builders (because the neck does not need to be mounted on an angle when mounted within the body of the guitar) and because it increases functionality.
See Floyd Rose for details. Floyd Rose or Floyd Rose licensed locking tremolo units are available factory fitted on many high and low end guitars, as well as complete aftermarket retrofit kits in many different designs. Fitting the correct kit to a guitar already fitted with a compatible tremolo may be quite straightforward; On others a high level of woodworking skill may be required, or it may not be possible at all.
The Fender Deluxe "Locking Tremolo" (better known as Fender/Floyd Rose) is essentially a modified American "2-point tremolo" bridge with locking saddles and pop-in arm. Designed by Fender and Floyd Rose himself, this type of tremolo bridge was introduced in the early '90s on the Deluxe Plus and Ultra series guitars. The concept is primarily intended for guitarists searching for the features of a locking tremolo system without the need to perform major surgery on their instrument. Nowadays, the Fender Deluxe tremolo is available on American Deluxe, Plus, Ultra Series and many Custom Shop guitars. The whole assembly also includes a set of locking machine heads and an LSR roller nut for optimal tuning stability. Usually available in chrome, the Fender Deluxe Locking vibrato is also featured in gold and black.
Floyd Rose also produces complete guitars featuring their tremolo systems, most notably using the Speedloader system in which the head-end tuners are eliminated entirely, and all tuning is done from the bridge end of the strings. This is accomplished without sacrificing stability by employing strings that are produced to extremely fine length tolerances, essentially having two ferrule ends and no tail. As of 2006 the Speedloader system is the latest Floyd Rose design, but has yet to catch on to the degree Floyd Rose's original tremolo did.
In 2015, the company began the commercialization of the FRX surface-mounting locking tremolo system, designed to fit exactly on Tune-O-Matic bridge guitars, but with a locking nut that is fastened to the truss rod cover. This model resembles the Washburn Wonderbar in that the springs and strings do not go through the body, thus eliminating the routing necessary to install the classic Floyd Rose tremolo in classic, fixed-bridge electric guitars.
One of the most simplified ways to have a double locking tremolo system without making any major alteration to a solid-body electric guitar can be done by using a modified American Series 2-point synchronized bridge with locking saddles, a set of locking machine heads and a low-friction LSR Roller Nut. Fender's version of this system is also known as Fender/Floyd Rose (Fender Deluxe Locking Tremolo Assembly), as it was developed in conjunction with Floyd Rose.
Other locking systems
Several other "locking" type vibrato systems have been developed, but none of these have gained the popularity that the Floyd Rose or vintage Fender "tremolo" systems have. The most notable of these is the cam-operated Kahler Double-locking tremolo, which is similar in practical use, but not in design, to the Floyd Rose. Another system that emerged in the 1980s was the Steinberger TransTrem system (meaning Transposing Tremolo).
Ibanez have their own range of double-locking vibrato systems on their range of guitars. The Edge III tremolo, featured on their low-mid range guitars, is a very similar bridge to a Floyd Rose. It features a pop in/out arm and lower profile tuners. Another system is the Edge Zero, which has what Ibanez calls the Zero Point System. This system allows the guitar's floating state to be partially locked off for tuning purposes. There is also the Edge Pro tremolo with a very low profile. Possibly its most notable feature is that it is designed to take strings without the removal of the ball end (or stringing backwards with the ball ends at the headstock). The Edge Pro also comes in a version called the Double Edge Pro, which has piezoelectric pickups for acoustic sound.
In 2007, the Super-Vee company developed a double-locking vibrato system that requires no modifications to the body or neck of the guitar. This system received a patent for its "Blade" technology which is based on what they call "frictionless action". This type of action removes the contact pivot point that all other vibrato systems rely on aiming to eliminate wear irregularities that cause tuning instability. Super-Vee also received a patent for their side-locking nut system, which does not require instrument modifications.
The Steinberger TransTrem, like the Floyd Rose Speedloader, requires special strings that can only be used on the TransTrem unit. However, the TransTrem had the novel design that the bar could be pushed in to "transpose" the tuning of the entire unit to various other keys. The system saw limited use (mainly due to its exorbitant price and limited string availability), although Edward Van Halen has continued to experiment with the system. Notable Van Halen songs where the TransTrem can be heard include "Get Up" and "Summer Nights", from the album 5150.
Vibrato system additions
Various add-on gadgets have been developed to improve functionality of vibrato systems. What is perhaps one of the main issues with nearly all vibrato systems is that bending one string leads to the others dropping slightly in pitch, a problem which is not present on fixed-bridge instruments. One after-market tool that allows for temporarily locking is the Tremol-No. Through two thumbscrews a player can choose between having the bridge completely locked, allowing it to move downwards in pitch, or free movement. One of the guitarists who use this gadget is Guthrie Govan, and it is a standard feature on his signature guitar models from Suhr Guitars. A few vibrato system designs also have various ability to "lock" the system's action: Steinberger TransTrem, Ibanez Edge Zero, Fender Floating/Jaguar/Jazzmaster, and the ChordBender.
Many vibrato systems can be set up in such a way that they allow for changing string pitch both up and down. Famous guitarist Eddie Van Halen prefers instead to have his set up so it is flush with the guitar body, which has two advantages: first, a broken string will have no effect on the pitch of the other strings; second, it allows fitting a device called a D-Tuna to the bridge. This device can drop the low E-string down a whole step to D to extend the tonal variety of the guitar, even during live performance.
The electric guitar is an instrument of unique sounds. A vibrato bar enables the guitrist to completely detune the instrument and pull it back on the fly. Many notable guitar players have used this effect over the years. Early in electric guitar history, Chet Atkins favored the Bigsby unit, and it can be heard – occasionally – being tastefully used by him in a number of his recordings. Generally, Atkins used the Bigsby just to "dip" chords. His recording of "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" with Les Paul (another Bigsby user) is a typical example of how Atkins used the device.
Surf and early rock instrumental guitar is synonymous with vibrato use. Duane Eddy established the "twangy guitar" sound with a Bigsby vibrato on his Gretsch guitar. Classic examples of this are his recordings of "Rebel Rouser" and "Peter Gunn". Both "Perfidia" and "Walk, Don't Run" by the Ventures are also typical examples. Prior to Jimi Hendrix, many guitarists used the Fender or Bigsby vibrato to approximate the pedal steel or slide guitar tones found in Hawaiian or Country music.
This early vibrato was actuated after striking chords or individual notes; lowering or modulating the pitch as the notes decayed. Hendrix completely rewrote the book on vibrato; using it while picking, hammering on, pulling off and with harmonics and feedback tones. His intense use led to problems staying in tune, which he compensated for (to some degree) by exerting tremendous right hand strength to bend individual strings within a chord back in tune and by frequently tuning, even within songs. To emphasize the tonal range of the guitar, Hendrix would push down on the Wah pedal (a customized VOX wah) and play stinging high notes and then pull back on the Wah pedal and depress the vibrato to create a freight train like rumble. When fully depressing the bar to create these low notes the slack strings would often fall off the nut and have to be quickly snapped back in position.
Hendrix's studio works "Third Stone from the Sun", "Axis: Bold as Love" and "Voodoo Child" (among others) introduced the world to this new use of the Stratocaster vibrato. Live tracks such as "The Star Spangled Banner", "I Don't Live Today" and "Machine Gun" featured the vibrato being used to mimic rockets, bombs and other sound effects, all within the context of blues-based psychedelic rock. To some degree, Hendrix used stage theatrics less and less as his career progressed, but feedback and vibrato remained a tremendous emotional outlet within his music. Many rock bands of all types have used the vibrato for all sorts of effects, especially as a vibrato over chords.
A more powerful and heavy use of the vibrato bar is the effect created by grabbing and shaking the bar violently. This style of playing is often used in the lead guitar breaks of heavy metal. The band Slayer makes heavy use of vibrato bars. A Slayer song titled "Raining Blood" fully illustrates this style. This is often combined with natural and artificial harmonics, to make a "screaming" or "squealing" sound. Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman have used these harmonic squeals since 1981.
Night Ranger guitarist Brad Gillis has based his entire playing style around the use of the "floating tremolo", more specifically the first generation Floyd Rose unit. He is widely considered a true innovator in "whammy bar" tricks and techniques. Some prime examples of this are present on the tracks "Don't Tell Me You Love Me" and "(You Can Still) Rock in America".
Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell is often said to have been one of the most influential users of the vibrato bar. His use contributed to the signature sounds and high pitched squeals that defined his playing. He used the bar extensively in all of his studio albums including Cowboys from Hell, Vulgar Display of Power, and New Found Power.
Kevin Shields, the guitarist with alt rock/shoegaze band My Bloody Valentine created a new style of guitar playing known as "glide guitar". This is primarily characterized by extensive use of note bending, via continuous manipulation of the vibrato arm on his Fender Jazzmaster. An example of this in Shields' guitar playing is the band's album Loveless.
Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello has been known to use an Ibanez Locking Trem to create his sound on many of his solos. On the track "Sleep Now in the Fire" from The Battle of Los Angeles, he uses the vibrato bar in unison with kill-switching to raise and lower the sound of the feedback from his amplifier to create a very rhythmic solo. On the Audioslave track "Original Fire" from Revelations, he depresses the bar to slack and then taps the strings against the pickups and then releases the bar to raise the pitch of the sound. This emulates the sound of monkeys laughing (solo at 2:28).
Adrian Belew has incorporated frequent use of the vibrato arm on his Stratocaster and Parker guitars as part of his unique and distinctive style. The vibrato arm is often integral to his use of the guitar to produce "sound effects" such as animal voices, industrial noises, and the like. On the track "Twang Bar King", from the album of the same title, he uses the "twang bar" in a particularly over the top way, effectively resulting in a parody of his own style and vibrato arm use in general.
Neil Young makes extensive use of a Bigsby vibrato in most of his electric-guitar work, producing an almost constant shifting of pitch in some solos, and simple chord-vibrato in rhythm work. This effect is accomplished by keeping a grip on the arm of the unit while moving the pick. This technique is prominent on more his more hard-rock songs such as "Like a Hurricane", "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" and "Rockin' in the Free World".
Joe Satriani uses the arm on his Ibanez Edge Trem System extremely often; most of the time to make his signature "Satriani Scream", where he plays a harmonic near the bridge on the G-string and raises the bar. It can be heard on many songs, including "Surfing With The Alien", "The Extremist", and "Flying in a Blue Dream". This technique is also used by many similar guitarists of the genre including Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert, Jonathan "Head" Welch and James "Munky" Schaffer of Korn and John Petrucci of Dream Theater.
Jeff Beck is an acknowledged master of the whammy bar. Arguably the best known example of his work, and something of a signature tune, is the track "Where Were You" from the 1989 album Jeff Beck's Guitar Shop.
Kirk Hammett from Metallica uses the whammy bar in some of his songs, such as the solos for the songs "Master of Puppets", "Enter Sandman", "The Thing that Should Not Be", and his live solo from Seattle, which can be heard on Live Shit: Binge & Purge.
Les Claypool, the bassist and lead vocalist of Primus, installed a Kahler "bass tremolo" on his main bass, a Carl Thompson fretted four string bass guitar (this is highly unusual for bass). He uses the "tremolo" to create the wobbling bass tone heard on "Frizzle Fry", "Nature Boy", "Too Many Puppies" and "John the Fisherman", alongside many other Primus songs and in solo work.
Andy Scott, Sweet guitarist has used his tremolo arm to great effect on Sweet recordings with his Gibson 335 and Fender Stratocaster. An example is the recording of "Sweet Fanny Adams/Desolation Boulevard", especially the "Sweet FA" end section.
Rowland S. Howard's near continuous use of his Fender Jaguar's Floating Tremolo system in bands The Birthday Party, Crime and the City Solution, and These Immortal Souls proved to influence bands from Sonic Youth to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. He coupled his use of the "tremolo" with volume and overdrive/fuzz effects to create sustained shrieks, expressive bursts of noise, extreme sound effects, and washes of warped pitch bending, feedback and distortion.
Herman Li of Power Metal band DragonForce is another notable user of the vibrato arm. He uses it in almost all of his guitar solos, including several unique sound effects made using a whammy bar. Some examples are "The Elephant", where he turns the volume down, plays a note, raises the pitch with the arm and turns the volume up at the same time, creating a sound similar to an elephant's trumpeting. He also removes the arm and strums it across the strings, creating the "Pac-Man" noise, or runs it up and down the string, creating a "Ghost noise" (Both sounding similar to their namesakes' sound effects in gameplay). In the song Cry For Eternity he combines these, playing 4 pac-man noises, followed immediately by an Elephant noise (which would be impossible live, since he would have to remove the arm, strum the strings with it, put it back in and use it, all in a matter of seconds).
Brief sample of vibrato.
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Riff with vibrato
Example of effects with the tremolo arm on some chords.
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- Tremulant (from Latin: tremulus) — pipe organ effect which produce both tremolo and vibrato effect
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- 1967 Fender Service Manual giving instructions for adjusting the then current Jaguar/Jazzmaster (floating), Stratocaster (synchronized), and Mustang (dynamic vibrato) tremolos, with diagrams of each.
- Bridge routing patterns including several strat trem options, and showing the associated pivot screws, at Warmoth Guitars.
- Buildup of a 1963 Fender Jaguar showing the installation of the tremolo unit.
- Exploded view of a Fender Jazzmaster showing the tremolo unit components.
- Mustang trem installation giving a routing template.
Vibrola and other Gibson units
- Gibson Vibrola Tailpiece setup instructions for a side vibrato unit, with a diagram showing its operation.