Tremolo (guitar)

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Close up of a Stratocaster with tremolo

A tremolo (depending on model also vibrato called; English also Trem ) is a mechanical device on the tailpiece of a guitar , to cause pitch changes by means of a lever movement. If the lever is moved, the tension of the strings changes and with it the tuning of the instrument. While the system was originally intended to produce harmonically oscillating pitch fluctuations in the sense of a vibrato , guitarists have developed various playing techniques over time to create completely new sounds on the guitar with the help of the tremolo. Although the technically correct name for the system would be "Vibrato (r)" due to its mode of operation, the term " tremolo " has established itself in common parlance as a name for guitar accessories. Other names are also next vibrato Wang Bar , Whammy (Bar) , commonly known as mournful / Wimmer hook or Wibbel .


Epiphone Casino with Bigsby-style vibrato

The tremolo developed parallel to the development of the electric guitar . In 1929 Clayton "Doc" Kaufmann applied for a patent for his "Kaufmann Vibrola" tremolo . The "Vibrola" consists of a tailpiece, which is equipped with a spring and a lever. When the lever is moved, the tailpiece moves and a slight vibrato is heard. The original “Vibrola” could subsequently be installed on all archtop guitars where the tailpiece and bridge were separated from each other due to the strong curvature of the guitar top. The first series production of the tremolo took place for the Rickenbacker company , where it is still used on some models today (picture here ). The "Vibrola" was well received by experimental guitarists (musician and inventor Les Paul used a modified version of the "Vibrola" on his experimental guitar " The Log " in 1941 ), but initially remained an exotic one. In addition to the small range, the poor tuning stability in particular deterred many guitarists.

Merle Travis , a country guitarist , turned to motorcycle mechanic Paul Bigsby in the 1940s to repair his worn out "Vibrola". Bigsby recognized the weaknesses of the design and made a whole new tremolo for Travis. The "Bigsby Vibrato", which was equipped with a spring from a Harley-Davidson , could also be installed as a replacement for the tailpiece of archtop guitars. When Bigsby began producing its own electric guitars in 1948, the tremolo was offered both as a standard accessory for Bigsby guitars and as an accessory for other instruments. A short time later, the Gibson company also offered the option of installing a Bigsby vibrato as standard on their first full-fledged electric guitars.

Leo Fender , who launched his first Telecaster electric guitar at the same time , kept a close eye on this development. Fender's guitars were characterized by a flat top, which could only be retrofitted with a Bigsby vibrato with great effort. A different approach had to be chosen for the new Stratocaster model . While the first prototypes of the Stratocaster also had a tremolo construction in which the tailpiece and bridge were separate, Leo Fender quickly developed a combined tailpiece / bridge construction. This system was small, optically inconspicuous and, by tilting the bridge, allowed the strings to be tuned down to the point of complete slack. For reasons that were not clear, Fender applied for a patent for the system under the name "Tremolo" and not under the correct term "Vibrato". This confusion runs through the entire range of the company, since the amplifiers of the brand Fender, which actually have a tremolo (in the sense of periodic volume fluctuations), are labeled with the wrong addition vibrato . This system went into series production with the Stratocaster in 1954. Due to the widespread use of the Stratocaster, the wrong term "tremolo" for the vibrato device of guitars became established. A revised version of the tremolo construction originally intended for the Stratocaster was later used on the Fender Jazzmaster and the Fender Jaguar .

While the development of tremolos stagnated in the 1960s, various manufacturers developed concepts in the 1970s to make tremolos - above all the tremolo of the Stratocaster - more stable. The most radical was the development of Floyd Rose , who by clamping the strings to the bridge and bridge achieved almost perfect tuning stability even with extreme use ("locking tremolo"). This system is based on the original concept of the Stratocaster tremolo, but contains many fine mechanical detail solutions to achieve high tuning stability. The various versions of the “Locking Tremolo” represent the previous end point of development.

Different types of tremolos

Bigsby vibrato

The Bigsby vibrato , which has been produced by the Bigsby Guitars company almost unchanged since the 1940s , is a tailpiece in which the strings are wound around a rotatably mounted steel shaft. If you move the vibrato lever, the strings are wound or unwound. A massive spring, originally from the engine of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle , counteracts the tension of the strings . The spring is still part of the Harley-Davidson spare parts program today.

Bigsby vibrato uses a compression spring to allow pitch fluctuations in both directions (1–2 semitones ) and is mostly used where a slight “shimmer” should be added to a clear guitar tone, e.g. B. in jazz , country and rock 'n' roll . To this day, Bigsby vibrato is widespread in the archtop guitars of the Gretsch and Gibson brands used in these styles . Audio samples can be found with country musicians such as Merle Travis and Chet Atkins as well as with representatives of rockabilly , such as B. the Stray Cats . Depending on the geometry of the guitar and bridge used, a Bigsby vibrato can work differently well. If the strings on the bridge are severely kinked or if the bridge creates a lot of friction on the strings, the guitar gets out of tune very quickly when the vibrato is used. If the strings run over the bridge at a gentle angle or if it has very little friction (e.g. by attaching small rollers over which the strings run), a bigsby works almost without detuning.

Audio sample: Bigsby chord ? / iAudio file / audio sample

Fender or vintage tremolo

Principle of a floating tremolo system: I basic position, II relaxation of the strings (red), III tension of the strings
Ibanez Roadstar II Series RS 440 tremolo system

The Fender tremolo (also called "Vintage Tremolo" by some manufacturers because of Fender's copyright ) is the original shape of the Stratocaster tremolo. Since the Stratocaster is one of the best-selling electric guitars, its tremolo is also the most widespread and has contributed significantly to the development of new systems, as well as the confusion of the names “tremolo” or “vibrato”. It consists of a tailpiece where the strings are threaded into a steel block just below the bridge. The strings run from the steel block directly over the bridge structure. The bridge is only held on one side by screws, so that it is possible to tilt it towards the neck using the tremolo lever. On the back of the body there are built-in springs that counteract the tension of the strings and pull the bridge into a horizontal position. Depending on the setting of the springs, it is possible that the tremolo rests on the body and detuning is only possible downwards. Often, however, the springs are adjusted so that the tremolo remains in a slightly tilted position to allow upward detuning. Further developments of the vintage type are usually designed in such a way that they float a few millimeters above the ceiling in the basic position. Detuning in both directions is possible from the outset with a floating system.

Due to its construction, the tremolo allows a large detuning of the strings. Especially in the downward area, it is possible to tune the strings down with a lever movement so that they rest slack on the fingerboard. This effect is known as "Divebomb" because it creates sound effects that are reminiscent of crashing planes. Jimi Hendrix celebrated this effect impressively in his version of " The Star-Spangled Banner " at the Woodstock Festival , where he used the tremolo to weave the sound of attacking planes and exploding bombs into the US national anthem. The disadvantage of such extreme treatment, however, is that the guitar will be out of tune when the tremolo returns to the rest position. During Hendrix's appearance in Woodstock, one can see in several scenes of the film how the musician tunes his guitar.

Audio sample: Divebomb ? / iAudio file / audio sample

Locking tremolo or Floyd Rose

Floyd Rose Original Tremolo

The Floyd Rose tremolo (often also called "locking tremolo" ) differs very significantly from conventional tremolo systems, because here the strings run neither movably over a saddle nor over bridge riders, but are fixed at both ends: the system is friction-free , The strings cannot get caught / slip after tremolating, so they cannot get out of tune. The main difference to conventional tremolo systems is that the pitch is not achieved by changing the string tension for the same length , but by changing the string length itself.

This detuning-free mechanism also has three main disadvantages compared to freely movable strings:

1.) Octave purity : Since the fine tuning of a Floyd Rose tremolo is done with adjusting screws directly on the bridge terminals, this can only be done by changing the string lengths : to the disadvantage of a controllable octave purity.

2.) Tuning procedure : The guitar must be tuned once using the usual peg mechanisms on the guitar head. Then the strings are firmly clamped on the saddle, which requires tools. - Spontaneous retuning of the strings by half or whole tones is then no longer possible. If a string breaks at a concert, it is uncertain whether the mood will be maintained because the bridge system is out of balance.

3.) Playability / sound : The Floyd Rose system has a fairly high overall height due to the bridge's tuning mechanisms. This prevents the strings from being plucked very close to the bridge (sharper intonation: twang). Also, the ball of the hand of the playing hand cannot be placed on so well without moving the tremolo, as is problem-free with conventional tremolo systems (Fender, Gretsch, Gibson ...).

“Floyd Rose” with numbered parts

The original Floyd Rose tremolo consists of the following parts:

  1. Saddle - support point of the string.
  2. Tailpiece - Small metal block that clamps the string in the saddle.
  3. Saddle screw - The saddle screw is used to adjust the intonation of the string. If the screw is loosened, the saddle can be moved a few millimeters back and forth. An Allen key is required for adjustment .
  4. Fine tuner - screw to tune the respective string
  5. Tremolo Arm - The tremolo arm is used to move the tremolo while playing the guitar to create the pitch fluctuations.
  6. Clamp saddle - The saddle is used on the head of the guitar in front of the machine heads to hold the strings in place. Depending on the model, you need an Allen key or a screwdriver to clamp the strings to the saddle.
  7. String hold-down - metal rod that is installed on the headstock to guide the strings to the clamping saddle at a certain angle.
  8. Springs - The springs are located inside the guitar and create a counter-pull to the strings. This counter-pull holds the tremolo in its basic position. Depending on the strings used, up to five springs can be used.
  9. Penholder - the springs are suspended from the penholder. The spring holder can be adjusted with the help of two screws so that the tremolo remains in the floating basic position when not in use.
  10. Allen wrench - The Floyd Rose tremolo usually requires three different Allen wrenches for string changes and adjustment.

The so-called backbox is a very useful tool .

More types

Gibson SG with Maestro tremolo

Tremolos are offered by various manufacturers, with the majority of the models being further developments of the Bigsby or Vintage type.

  • The system of the Fender Jazzmaster or Jaguar was Leo Fender's version of the Bigsby principle. In contrast to the Bigsby, Leo used a movable metal sheet on which the strings are hung. While this tremolo is actually similar to the Bigsby vibrato in terms of sound and feel, it has a decisive design disadvantage: Due to the flat top of the guitars, the strings only exert little pressure on the bridge. This is fatal with the Jazzmaster tremolo, which is only held together by the pressure of the strings: Depending on the strings used, the tremolo produces rattling noises, which are caused by vibrating metal parts of the tremolo. For this reason, employees convinced Leo Fender not to use this system on the Stratocaster.
  • Gibson developed a tremolo, also inspired by the Bigsby system, called "Maestro" . In this case, the strings are suspended from a bent sheet of metal, which can spring in itself. The "Maestro" can be found mainly on guitars of the " SG " and "Firebird" types .
Tremolo construction by Brian May's "Red Special"
  • Brian May (guitarist of the band Queen ) chose his own way with the tremolo of his guitar " Red Special " : Since May constructed this guitar himself as a teenager, he used materials for the tremolo that could be found in the house. The tremolo lever is the brake lever of an old bicycle, the handle of the lever is the head of a knitting needle on its mother. The massive metal block, which, similar to the Jazzmaster, takes up the strings, is rotatably mounted on an old bread knife. As with Bigsby, the spring comes from the engine of an old motorcycle.
  • Since the tremolo of the Fender Stratocaster was the most widespread, the different variations of this design are almost unmanageable. The most important trend within these developments concerns the effort to improve tuning stability. Both Fender themselves and other manufacturers have reduced the suspension of the tremolo from six to two screws in order to avoid unnecessary friction. In addition to the systems from Floyd Rose, there are also various systems that also work with clamping the strings. Attempts are also made to achieve a similar effect with special tuning mechanisms that lock the string when the string is pulled. Furthermore, attempts were made again and again to improve the sound of the tremolo by using more stable constructions. The solid metal design, in particular, improves the sustain compared to the sheet metal construction used by Fender. The tremolos from the American manufacturer "Wilkinson" in particular contain the various further developments without deviating from the original tremolo, both optically and mechanically.
  • Ned Steinberger achieved a revolutionary development in the 80s with the transposing tremolo , which for a long time was delivered exclusively on his headless instruments. For the first time, the entire played chord is retained when the tremolo lever is operated. The system can also be "locked" into various positions with the lever, which means that the entire guitar can be retuned (transposing) while playing. In contrast to the knife-edge systems, here a free-floating part is connected to the side parts of the base plate with special tailpieces via bearings. The strings then run over individually adjustable roller saddles. Thus, the tremolo does not get out of tune even with extreme contact with the hitting hand. However, a "divebomb" (pressing the lever until the strings hit the pickups) is impossible. An integrated spring, which can be adjusted from the outside with a screw, ensures an easily adjustable zero position. To achieve the necessary tuning stability, a completely new approach was used. Instead of the traditional string clamps, "double-ball" strings were used. These have at both ends via balls (engl. Ball end ), the tuning of the guitar is made of special mechanisms on Tremolo. This enables the strings to be changed quickly and the tuning procedure is much more pleasant than with the classic locking tremolos. One of the most famous Transtrem users is Eddie Van Halen , who even had the system built into some of his signature guitars by Musicman and Peavey. Recommended audio samples for the special sound of the Steinberger tremolo are u. a. "Get Up" and "Summer Nights" on the Van Halen album "5150".
  • In the 1980s, Washburn developed a tremolo based on the Floyd Rose system called WonderBar. The advantage of this system was that it could also be retrofitted to instruments that did not previously have a vibrato system. Since the Wonderbar tremolo was placed on the guitar, the respective instrument did not have to be provided with a large recess. Only four holes had to be drilled to mount the system, with some guitars mounting in existing screw holes was possible. Washburn advertised that his system was more vocal than that of the rival companies Floyd Rose and Kahler. One of the first guitars to come standard with the system was the Washburn AF-40V .

Electronic simulation

In the field of electronic effects devices , various approaches have been developed to simulate the sound of a tremolo. As early as the 1950s, companies like Fender and Vox began to incorporate tremolo effects into their amplifiers. These were initially simple circuits that - according to the original meaning of the word - modulated the volume of the musical signal at short time intervals. True to the confusion between the names Tremolo-Vibrato, the corresponding amplifiers from the Fender brand were given the suffix “Vibro”. Original, volume-changing tremolos quickly became available as external effects devices.

Audio sample: Chord with tremolo effect ? / iAudio file / audio sample

With the advent of digital sound processing it became possible to influence the pitch of the guitar with effects. The so-called pitch shifting was further developed for guitarists in such a way that shifting the pitch was also possible in real time while playing. One of the best-known effects devices of this type is the " DigiTech Whammy " , in which the pitch can be changed using a pedal while playing . The extreme pitch changes that can be generated in this way are u. a. to be heard on Tom Morello's solo in the song " Killing in the name " ( Rage Against the Machine ).

The tremolo in music

In parallel with technical developments, the use of the tremolo in music changed.

In the early days of the electric guitar, the tremolo was only used to add a slight shimmer to long notes or chords . Especially in the pop music of the 1950s and 1960s, which was partly still heavily influenced by jazz and swing , the clear, clean guitar sound (often also called twang ) was embellished with light tremolos. Famous examples are various recordings of the Shadows , whose guitarist Hank Marvin integrated the sound of the tremolo of his Stratocaster firmly into his playing. The use of the tremolo can also be heard on recordings by country and rock 'n' roll musicians Chet Atkins and Duane Eddy .

In the 1960s and 1970s, many guitarists began to create new sounds with new ideas such as the use of effects and a creative use of the tremolo. Jimi Hendrix went the furthest, not only making extreme use of the tremolo, but also exploring the limits of the electric guitar through more eccentric ways of playing ("playing" the guitar with your teeth and igniting the instrument on stage). Guitarists such as David Gilmour from Pink Floyd or Steve Hackett from Genesis also showed how the sound of a guitar can be alienated with the use of tremolo and effects.

In the late 1970s, a new approach to guitar playing began with the introduction of the almost detuning Floyd Rose tremolo. Edward Van Halen of the band Van Halen showed a completely new playing technique on the guitar on the largely unaccompanied guitar solo Eruption on the band's debut album, which was released in 1978. In addition to the smooth integration of divebombs and other tremolo techniques into the game, Van Halen also demonstrated new grip and attack techniques such as tapping and sweep picking . Steve Vai , Joe Satriani and Paul Gilbert are further representatives of this playing style, later called shredding .


  • Tony Bacon, Dave Hunter: Totally Guitar - the Definitive Guide , Guitar Encyclopedia. In it: Chapter Guitar maintenance - set-up: vibratos, pp. 79–88, with a description of different vibrato types. Backbeat Books, London 2004. ISBN 1-871547-81-4
  • Tony Bacon: Guitars - All models and manufacturers . London / Vienna 1991, ISBN 3-552-05073-6
  • George Gruhn, Walter Carter: Electric Guitars & Basses - The History of Electric Guitars and Basses. PPV, Bergkirchen. ISBN 3-932275-04-7
  • Heinz Rebellius : Why is the Strat the Strat? In: guitar and bass. MM-Musik-Media, Ulm 2004,10, pp. 98-102. ISSN  0934-7674
  • Michael Schneider, Vilim Stößer: Guitar Basics - Everything that guitarists need to know! In it: Chapter Vibrato and Strings, pp. 64–76. Press Projekt Verlag, Bergkirchen 2003. ISSN  1430-9769

Web links

Wikibooks: The Electric Guitar  - Learning and Teaching Materials
Commons : Tremolo systems  - collection of images, videos and audio files
This article was added to the list of excellent articles on March 27, 2006 in this version .