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Titans of Tremolo


The Steinberger ZT-3 guitar introduced in 2008 featured the third version of Ned Steinberger’s innovative TransTrem design, which keeps entire chords in correct pitch during use and lets you lock the bridge in six different keys.

Beyond Tuning Stability
As double-locking trems grew in popularity, numerous aftermarket add-ons emerged. Some players who preferred the vintage feel, low profile, and less-complicated operation of Strat-style bridges turned to locking tuners and more sophisticated and finely tuned fulcrum designs by the likes of Wilkinson, or the John Mann-designed bridges on Paul Reed Smith guitars. Meanwhile, some shred-oriented guitar brands developed their own versions of the double-locking recipe, as Ibanez did with its many iterations of the Floyd Rose-inspired Edge tremolo. Most of these, however, owed a debt to Floyd Rose designs and were marked with language such as “Licensed under Floyd Rose Patents.”

Floyd Rose developed new designs, too, including the SpeedLoader, which eliminated the time-consuming need to snip off the strings’ ball ends, though it necessitated buying proprietary strings. Eddie Van Halen’s EVH brand also released the D-Tuna—a simple device that replaces the string-locking screw of a Floyd Rose’s low-E saddle and that, when pulled, instantly lowers the string’s pitch to D.

Ned Steinberger took the locking and detuning concepts even further with 1984’s Steinberger TransTrem bridge. The TransTrem, an evolution of his original S-Trem design, appeared on Steinberger headless guitars. It used special double-ball strings (though a single-ball string adapter was later offered) and allowed entire chords to stay in tune as the bar was manipulated. Perhaps the most unique feature of the TransTrem was that it allowed you to raise or lower pitch with the bar and then lock the bridge in place in order to play in six different keys—as far down as a perfect 4th (B-standard tuning), or up a minor 3rd (G-standard).

Headless guitar manufacturers like Klein made the TransTrem standard equipment on their designs. After Steinberger stopped producing TransTrem-equipped guitars, the trems themselves became hot commodities, fetching upwards of $1,000 on eBay. The scarcity and expense proved to be a significant impediment to headless guitar manufacturers, who turned to alternate solutions such as JCustom’s recently released XS-Trem, a direct replacement for the Steinberger S-Trem. Since then, manufacturers such as Carvin have explored headless guitars, including the Allan Holdsworth HH1 and HH2.

In 2008 Ned Steinberger introduced an updated version called the TransTrem 3, which coincided with the release of the Steinberger ZT–3 guitar.

The Stetsbar mounts to guitars with a Tune-o-matic-style bridge without requiring any drilling.

Going Where No Trem Had Gone Before
For a long while, the evolution of vibrato bridges seemed to coincide with the development of more modern playing styles. But many Les Paul and Tele fans secretly longed to join the whammy parade without sacrificing what they love about those unique guitar designs. However, those with vintage instruments were apprehensive about permanently modifying them, because any irreversible modification would severely impact a guitar’s value. Thankfully, many innovations have come to market to address these concerns.

Back in the ’80s Eric Stets wanted a trem on his ’71 Gibson Les Paul Custom but didn’t want to drill holes in it. He subsequently designed and patented the Stetsbar, which fits existing bridges and doesn’t require any guitar modification. He also offers versions for Strats, Teles, and other guitar designs. Meanwhile, the Vibramate kit lets Bigsby fans mount the spring-powered legend to the studs of a stop-tail bridge without drilling. For Teles, you simply swap your “ashtray” bridge assembly with a modified Vibramate bridge that fits in the existing holes. It connects to a tailpiece secured by the strap endpin. The Bigsby mounts on the tailpiece rather than the guitar body.

To Infinity and Beyond
Though they’re the unequivocal benchmarks of vibrato design, the models discussed here are only the tip of the trem iceberg in terms of sheer numbers. Likewise, the players mentioned are merely those most immediately associated with each device them in the broader guitar consciousness. Countless other players have enriched our lives with inventive, soul-touching vibrato work.

As with everything in our gear universe, nothing will stop the wheels of change. Given how far tremolos have come, it may seem difficult to fathom where designs could go next. But at least one company seems poised on the brink of the future. EverTune’s tension-monitoring bridge wowed guitarists the world over in 2010 with its promise to never let a guitar go out of tune, regardless of temperature, climate, or heavy-handed playing. At press time, the company told us they are about a year away from offering a tremolo version that’s sure to make waves.

And yet the designs we’ve come to love, whether vintage or modern, are sure to remain popular for a long time to come. Whether you’re the one wiggling that bar, or the one enjoying it from the crowd, there’s no denying the power of the tremolo.