In use by early 1940s, the DeArmond Tremolo Control was the first commercially produced electric guitar effect.
Photo by Chris Gray

I set out to investigate the earliest recorded examples of guitarists using tremolo and the equipment they used to do it. You might think, as I did, that the story starts somewhere in the 1930s or ’40s. But the search took me much further back: specifically, to the 9th-century Byzantine Empire and 16th-century Europe. Obviously, there were no electric guitars then, but tremolo was being used as a musical device more than a millennium ago.

After exploring those origins, we’ll leap ahead to the mechanical tremolo contraptions of the 1800s, and finally, the electronic tremolo circuits of the 20th century. We’ll encounter the first electronic tremolo (created for organs, not guitars) and the first electronic guitar tremolo, which also happened to be the first electric guitar effect box. We’ll look at the first tremolo amps that appeared in the late 1940s, and we’ll conclude in 1963, when Fender introduced their then-radical photocell tremolo circuit.

By “Tremolo,” We Mean….
Our focus is the history of musicians’ ability to oscillate the volume of a note, not its pitch. Oscillating pitch change is properly referred to as vibrato, not tremolo. But as you’ll see, the words have a long history of being confused. (There’s also another musical definition of tremolo: striking the same note many times in rapid succession, mandolin-style, a technique also known as tremolando.)

For centuries musicians have sought ways to impart a wavering, voice-like quality to notes and chords.

Tremolo’s Ancient Origins Oscillating the volume of a note is an ancient technique—we’ve been able to do it with our voices as long as we’ve been capable of singing or yelling. For centuries musicians have sought ways to impart this wavering, voice-like quality to notes and chords. Any musician playing a bowed stringed instrument can create tremolo—they simply move the bow back and forth while sustaining a note, as we’ve seen countless violinists and cellists do. (Their bow-wielding hand provides tremolo, while the hand quivering on the fingerboard varies the pitch of the strings, producing vibrato.)

We don’t know exactly when and where the first bowed instruments originated, but there’s a Byzantine carving from around 900 A.D. depicting a scantily clad cherub holding an extremely long bow against the strings of an instrument known as a lyra. We don’t know whether lyra players used tremolo effects, but the technique was available.

This Byzantine carving from 900 A.D. suggests that musicians from this time period may have used tremolo effects on stringed instruments such as the lyra.

How far back must we go to find an instrument that produces tremolo mechanically? Sixteenth-century pipe organs used slightly detuned pitches played simultaneously to create an undulating effect. One of the earliest mechanical tremolos can be found on the 1555 pipe organ in the San Martino Maggiore church in Bologna, Italy. It includes several effeti speziali (auxiliary stops), including drums, birdcalls, drones, bells, and tremulant—a mechanism that opened and closed a diaphragm to vary the air pressure. As the pressure varied, so did the volume.

But guess what? The changing pressure simultaneously alters volume and pitch. Therefore, the tremulant mechanism produced both tremolo and vibrato. In other words, the confusion between the two terms far predates Leo Fender’s decision to call the Stratocaster’s vibrato-producing whammy bar “tremolo.” We see this confusion again and again.

By the late 17th century vibrato/tremolo was being documented as a flute-playing technique. Again, fluctuating air pressure in a flute produced both volume and pitch changes.

Fast Forward In 1891, George Van Dusen patented a device similar in many ways to the vibrato-producing whammy bars we know today in 1891. His mechanism, designed for any stringed instrument, anchors the string at the short end of a spring-loaded lever. A push on the lever pulls the string tighter, raising its pitch, after which a spring attached to the lever returns the string to its original pitch. The result is vibrato, though Van Dusen called it tremolo in the U.S. patent application.

But Van Dusen (or should I say Munn & Company, his patent attorneys?) weren’t acting in isolation. The words tremolo and vibrato both found their way into patent vocabulary, where they were used interchangeably.

Orville Lewis devised a somewhat similar device for violin in 1921. It worked by oscillating the bridge. Again, his device varied pitch, and again, the effect was called tremolo. Clayton Kauffmann created a sort of whammy bar for banjo in 1929. As with all whammy bars, the result was vibrato, not tremolo. And again, the product description used the word tremolo.

There were devices that produced true tremolo, such as rotating fins on a piano cabinet that opened and closed a sound port, or a spinning mechanism for a wind instrument mouthpiece that modulated airflow. But unlike bowed and blown instruments, non-electric guitars have no innate tremolo techniques. It takes an amplified guitar and electronic circuitry to produce a wavering-volume effect.