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A 1930s Rickenbacher Spanish Model B 6-string with a Kauffman Vib-Rola.Photo by Robert Corwin.
Whether it’s used to add a shimmering vibe to a cloud of ethereal chords, impart a seasick feel to a surf riff, or unleash a sonic assault of bowel-rattling divebombs, the tremolo bar has played a huge role in the guitar’s capabilities as an expressive instrument. It’s difficult to imagine a modern musical genre that wouldn’t sound a lot different without the remarkable range of textures that a deftly used tremolo can yield. To celebrate the contributions of this wonderful piece of hardware—and the brilliant minds that made it possible—let’s look at the tremolo systems that changed not just the way guitar is played, but the entire musical landscape since the 1930s.
First, some nomenclature: Although many use the terms “tremolo” and “vibrato” interchangeably, they aren’t always synonymous. There are different types of tremolo: On bowed string instruments, tremolo can refer to rapid reiteration of the same note, or movement between two notes (sometimes called “tremolando”). This explains why the fast picking at around the 0:30 mark in Edward Van Halen’s “Eruption” is often called “tremolo picking.” But with some instruments, including guitar and organs, “tremolo” refers to a variation in volume—which explains why famous amplitude-modulating pedals like the Demeter Tremulator and Fulltone’s Supa-Trem2 are named as they are.
Confused yet? That’s only half the picture. Those who insist tremolo is a volume-related musical effect will tell you that, theoretically, vibrato refers to pitch fluctuation. But try keeping that straight in your head the next time you’re playing a Strat outfitted with Fender’s pitch-altering “Synchronized Tremolo” through a Twin Reverb equipped with the company’s deliciously hypnotic volume-modulating circuit labeled…“vibrato.”
The Good Doc’s Vib-Rola The tremolo bar’s origins go back to the 1930s, around the time the electric guitar was born. In 1935, Clayton Orr “Doc” Kauffman was aiming to replicate the sound of a Hawaiian steel guitar. He invented the Kauffman Vib-Rola, one of the first incarnations of a vibrato tailpiece. Initially, the Epiphone guitar company had exclusive distribution rights, even installing the Vib-Rola on some of its acoustic guitars. Before long, though, Rickenbacker (which still went by the original German spelling: Rickenbacher) took over the rights and began installing Vib-Rolas on its Electro Spanish guitars, as well as its lap-steel guitars. A little later, the Rickenbacher Vib-Rola Spanish, a variant of the Electro Spanish, featured a bar-less, motorized version of the Vib-Rola with knobs for speed and volume.
The Vib-Rola earned its place in the annals of tremolo-bar history by ending up on the 1958 Rickenbacker 325, which John Lennon used as the Beatles began their ascent to the pop throne. However, because the Vib-Rola was seemingly incapable of smoothly returning to correct pitch after even light use, it never became as timeless as the Fab Four’s discography. When Lennon returned to Liverpool, he went to Hessy’s Music Centre to have the Vib-Rola replaced with a unit that avoided many of the problems associated with Doc Kauffman’s design.
Tremolo pioneer Paul Bigsby finished work on this guitar for country session ace Jimmy Bryant on October 7, 1949, though it ended up going to Ernest Tubb sideman Billy Byrd. The vibrato—which is inset to be flush against the guitar’s top—was added not long after the design’s introduction in ’52. Photo courtesy of Bigsby/Fred Gretsch Enterprises, Ltd.
Vibrato Goes Big with the Bigsby Introduced in 1952 and patented in 1953, the Bigsby vibrato was the first successful production tremolo system. Although exact details of its chronology are a little sketchy, it seems legendary country picker Merle Travis became friends with guitar builder and fellow motorcycling enthusiast Paul Bigsby in 1944 or ’45. At some point Travis mentioned to Bigsby—who boldly proclaimed he could fix anything—that his Kauffman Vib-Rola-equipped Gibson L-10 wouldn’t stay in tune. Though it’s unclear whether Bigsby ever worked on Travis’s Vib-Rola, historians believe this interaction focused Bigsby’s mind on developing a better vibrato.
However, according to vintage-guitar guru Deke Dickerson, Travis obtained a custom Bigsby guitar—the first modern solidbody—in mid 1948, years before getting a Bigsby vibrato. It wasn’t until 1952 that Travis received Bigsby’s first vibrato unit. The future Country Music Hall of Fame inductee then had the aluminum-alloy design installed on his Gibson Super 400. Bigsby’s first guitar design to come equipped with the vibrato was the doubleneck he built for country guitarist Grady Martin in October 1952.
It didn’t take long for the vibrato system to gain popularity among guitarists worldwide. John Lennon’s friend Chris Huston, guitarist for Liverpool band the Undertakers, had a Gibson guitar with a factory-installed Bigbsy. Lennon liked Huston’s Bigsby so much that, in May of 1960, Huston contacted Paul Bigsby to request a unit for Lennon. One day in 1961, Lennon approached Huston with the news that his Bigsby had arrived. The pair went to Hessy’s and swapped out Lennon’s Vib-Rola for the Bigsby. There are many similar stories of music icons adopting the Bigsby.
Bigsbys are often found on hollowbody and semi-hollowbody guitars because the vibrato mounts to the guitar’s top and is less physically invasive than other systems. The Bigsby’s spring-loaded rocker arm attaches to a pivoting axle that the strings wrap around. The pull of the strings works in conjunction with the pressure of the spring. When the arm is pushed down, the bridge rocks forward and the strings loosen, lowering their pitch. When pressure on the arm is released, the strings return to pitch.
Although Paul Bigsby’s design improved on many of its predecessors’ shortcomings, it’s by no means a low-maintenance piece of machinery. Pre-1956 versions had a fixed-position vibrato arm that got in the way of strumming. Once the swivel arm was introduced, the bridge became much more popular. Even so, if you pull the bar up, there’s risk of the spring falling out. Additionally, string changes can be tricky and more time consuming than with some more modern designs. But for countless Bigsby devotees in genres ranging from country to rockabilly to indie rock, these inconveniences are a small price to pay for the smooth, undulating magic of a Bigsby.