Whammy bar technology has evolved significantly from the electric guitar’s golden era to today’s ever-changing design innovations. Because of this, guitarists have been able to warble and divebomb single notes and add some shimmer to chords. There have been many designs throughout history and there are just as many being made today, but the most historically significant ones are the ones we’ll look at here: the Bigsby, Fender, Floyd Rose and Kahler tremolos. Each of these has pushed the evolution of the vibrato-ed note, while being very distinct in design, functionality, performance and practicality. Each has its own characteristics, which dictate how much wham you put in your whammy.
Before we continue, though, it should be pointed out that the wiggle stick has been historically misnamed. The term tremolo is defined as a rhythmic fluctuation of volume, whereas vibrato is a fluctuation in pitch. Technically, the contraptions being discussed here achieve vibrato; but Fender, being the most influential guitar manufacturer on the planet, named their design a tremolo. From the inception of their vibrato bridge, the term tremolo is the most widely accepted name for this particular guitar part.
Vibrato technique by hand has always been an acquired art. It’s an emotive expression of a note or chords executed by the fretting hand. It can be performed subtly or in the extreme. Tremolos give us the mechanical assistance to create vibrato in a completely different way.
One of the earliest examples of a tremolo bridge was made by acoustic harp-guitar luthier Joseph Bohmann at the turn of the twentieth century. Mounted to the bridge of the guitar, it looks like a handle with a ball grip at the tip. It has been argued that this was a hand rest. However, many who have played a Bohmann guitar report that slight downward pressure on this handle causes a flexing of the acoustic top, which creates a vibrato effect on notes and chords. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that the industrial revolution would spur the creation of a steel tremolo that was easier to use.
Hit page 2 for a look at the one that started it all: Bigsby...