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more... GearGear HistoryApril 2009

Trem Wars: The Whammy Arms Race

It Begins With The Bigsby

The Bigsby Vibrato was the first successful production tremolo. It was conceived in the late 1940s but produced with technology that is representative of the 1950s. The original intent was for downward movement of the tailpiece to cause a slacking of the strings. The Bigsby was designed to be mounted on the top surface of either a hollowbody or solidbody guitar. The strings are anchored and wrapped around a metal bar that is the moveable part of a big hinge. The strings then pass over a rocker bridge that is mounted onto the face of the guitar. The arm rests on a thick gauge return spring, and the pressure of the strings holds the spring in place. When the arm is pressed, the slacking of the strings causes the bridge to move in the strings’ direction, which lowers their tension and thus, their pitch. When the arm is returned to its resting position, the strings should return (ideally) to tuned pitch.

This first Gretsch Custom Shop guitar, a Pink Penguin with Bigsby tremolo, was master-built by Stephen Stern for Boz Boorer, guitarist and musical director for Morissey. Photo courtesy Fender

This tremolo takes little effort to use, and the arm has a limited range of downward travel. An inability to return to pitch accurately and a thinning of the tone, however, are inherent characteristics on the original Bigsby. A design revision shows a retainer bar preceding the strings’ travel to the bridge, creating a sharper break angle to increase sustain, which was a good thing. The revision also added more pressure on the bridge to couple it to the body more substantially, which increased the resonation factor, but resulted in the problem of friction at the bridge saddles.

Bigsby with retainer bar Fender Synchronized Tremolo
Photo courtesy Dave’s Guitar Shop
While pushing the arm down, the strings move over the bridge and the nut, two critical areas of friction. With the Bigsby tremolo, players not only had to deal with friction at the nut, but also the strings catching on the bridge. The saddle offered by Bigsby was a piece of aluminum with compensated positioning on the surface to pre-intonate the strings. Strings hung up in this bridge saddle, largely because the windings got caught in the string slots. To alleviate this, Bigsby developed a rounded-surface bridge that improved the travel of the strings but still provided enough of a break angle for the strings to achieve much-needed sustain.

Players with a need for warbling enjoyed the Bigsby for a time, but the limitations created a need for improvements. The Bigsby’s arm was only intended for a downward motion that lightly detuned the pitch of notes and chords. Pulling up on the arm would cause catastrophies, like the return spring falling out.

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