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tremolo arms

Page history last edited by Andrew Alder 14 years, 9 months ago

No content on this page was taken from English Wikipedia, but some of the text is common to my contributions to this article there, its past versions, and my contributions to related articles, all of which are covered by the GFDL of course. For any other usage of this material, if copyright might affect it then you should read the fine print.



This is very much a work in progress


See also http://tunings.pbworks.com/about-Fender-and-names




The story of the tremolo arm (so far) is largely the story of four inventors:



  • Paul Bigsby, who designed the first sucessful termolo arm.


  • Leo Fender, who designed several tremolo arm mechanisms including the most popular, the strat trem.


  • Floyd Rose, inventor of the locking tremolo system that bears his name, based on the strat trem.


Load Loar, Gibson, and the archtop guitar


The story of the tremolo arm starts before its history, with the development of the arch top guitar by Gibson.


Paul Bigsby


The Bigsby Vibrato Tailpiece


Leo Fender


The Strat trem


The Jag trem


The 'stang trem


The Bronco trem




Naming controversy


Traditionally, electric guitarists have reversed the normal meanings of the terms vibrato and tremolo when referring to hardware devices and the effects they produce. While the tremolo arm can produce variations of pitch including what is normally termed vibrato, it can never produce the effect normally known as tremolo. Tremolo, on the other hand, is exactly the effect produced by the vibrato units built in to many classic guitar amplifiers.


This reversal of terminology is generally attributed to Leo Fender.


The term vibrato unit was introduced on high-end Fender guitar amplifiers in the 1950s, in the same period in which what is now called a tremolo arm was introduced on Fender guitars.


There has been much speculation as to why Leo Fender chose to call it a vibrato unit, while he called a device that produced true vibrato a synchronised tremolo, in both cases reversing the established usage. The synchronised tremolo was introduced in 1954 on the first Stratocaster guitar. The only previously successful tremolo arm was the Bigsby vibrato tailpiece, often simply called a Bigsby. In 1958, Fender reinforced his usage with the Fender floating tremolo on the Jazzmaster and some subsequent guitars. The synchronised tremolo became the most copied of these three basic patterns of tremolo arm, although both of the others continue to have some following. Similarly, many other amplifier makers introduced vibrato units producing similar effects to the Fender units.


Although the Fender corporation called some of their later tremolo arm designs vibrato tailpieces, both the terms tremolo arm and the vibrato unit became established, with the result that electric guitarists traditionally use the terms vibrato and tremolo in the opposite senses to all other musicians when describing these hardware devices and the effects they produce. From time to time it is proposed that this should be corrected, and the term tremolo arm rejected in place of a neutral term such as whammy bar, but there is no corresponding "correct" term for a vibrato unit.


The task of producing a similarly correct term for a traditional vibrato unit is complicated by two factors:


  • The subsequent development of other guitar effects units such as chorus units, phasers (sometimes called phase vibrato units) and flangers, which can be set to produce changes in pitch similar to traditional vibrato as understood by most musicians.


  • The fact that, under harmonic analysis and contrary to the expectations of many musicians, the output of the original vibrato unit does contain other frequencies near that of the note frequencies and in place of the note frequencies. These are the mathematical result of the variation in volume of the notes, so there is a sense in which Leo Fender was quite correct in his naming of the vibrato unit (but not of the tremolo arm).


Guitarists do also use "true" vibrato, in at least three ways:


  • As finger vibrato similar to that produced by movement of the left hand on the violin and other stringed instruments.
  • By use of the tremolo arm provided (by whatever name) on many elecric guitars.
  • By manipulating the tailpiece of an archtop guitar not fitted with a tremolo arm, normally with the right hand. This is particularly a jazz and blues technique.


In common with all other musicians, all guitarists from classical to rock use the term vibrato to describe finger vibrato.


More from Gibson


Floyd Rose


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