Over the past few weeks, I’ve been keenly watching how guitarists the world over are using their tremolo arms. I’ve observed (and heard) a major difference in the way European guitarists use their tremolo arms as compared to their American counterparts. However, before we go deeper into these differences in technique, we must go back to where all this fuss began.

In my view, there are basically three main types of tremolo bars. The first really important development in this area would be the Bigsby vibrato unit, which evolved in the late 1940s. Initially, this system was intended to imitate the sound of a Hawaiian lap steel, and I believe its intended application was to create a subtle effect. Chet Atkins and the Gretsch guitars he played were instrumental in the success of the Bigsby because Chet used Bigsbys aloton his recordings. Just as that sound was getting embedded in guitarists’ ears, rock ’n’ roll got raunchier and more brazen. As a result, guitarists started using the Bigsby more physically, producing wilder sounds with the device. This was one of many instances where technique evolved along with the music of the day.

In 1954, Fender introduced the revolutionary Stratocaster model with the new optional synchronized tremolo system— the first response to the Bigsby’s opening salvo and the second crucial advance in tremolo design. Buddy Holly used his Strat’s tremolo arm more like how guitarists first used the Bigsby to generate subtle pitch bends, but it didn’t take long for guitarists to discover the Stratocaster’s trem enabled more extreme pitch changes.

With its factory-installed Bigsby, this Epiphone Casino VS is ready for
a big night of twang-filled fun. Photo courtesy of Epiphone Guitars

At about that same time, rockabilly music came along and inspired even wilder use of tremolos. As this trend grew, prominent players like Cliff Gallup (Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps), Duane Eddy (writer of the timeless “Peter Gunn Theme”), and Eddie Cochran (“Summertime Blues”) incorporated the trem into their twangy sound.

But between 1966 and 1967, Jimi Hendrix came on the scene and changed just about everything imaginable about the electric guitar. Hendrix gave the Stratocaster much more prominence than it had enjoyed before, and a huge reason for that was the radical way he used its tremolo—indeed, the way heabusedit.

So far, we’ve looked at several key examples of how American guitarists used their tremolo bars up to this point in time. But there’s an important twist to the story. If you’ve listened to many European guitarists over the same years we’ve been talking about, you might have noticed that most of them used their tremolo bars to produce what might be perceived asfinger vibrato.

For example, let’s take fusion master Allan Holdsworth’s original sound from The New Tony Williams Lifetime albumBelieve It. One of the main things that distinguished Holdsworth on that record was how he used the Maestro Vibrola bar on his SG Custom (the tune “Fred” offers a great first taste of this)—it was yet another tremolo sound, and, it was even more subtle than that of the early Bigsby players.

So, the tremolo was starting to get more use as a softer effect as a general trend among guitarists across the pond. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear a huge difference in musical intent. This European mindset was no doubt more influenced by classical music, as well. Other European guitarists who have used this type of tremolo effect include Norway’s Terje Rypdal (listen to his albumIf Mountains Could Sing) or Germany’s Thomas Blug (see hisFlashCD or look him up on YouTube). I would also recommend listening to John McLaughlin play his Bigsby-equipped Gibson Johnny Smith onThe Promise.

By 1977 or so, Adrian Belew and Edward Van Halen were emerging and—presto!—change was looming large once again! This change was heard via Talking Heads tunes, where Adrian Belew was making a ton of very unorthodox sounds with his Stratocaster’s tremolo arm (and with his vast array of effects pedals). While Belew went on to become famous for his animal-like sounds on King Crimson albums such asDiscipline, a third name would come to the forefront of vibrato design—Floyd Rose.

EVH embraced the Floyd very early on, and once again tremolo use got even crazier thanks in large part to his dive-bombing. This technique ruled for quite a spell—well into the ’80s. Toward the end of the decade, Jeff Beck would surprise the hell out of everyone with an album calledGuitar Shop. The tones he produced on “Where Were You” would prove to be among the most evocative ever pulled from a Fender Stratocaster—and that was because his super-advanced trem chops allowed him to mimic the human voice (among other things).

Since then, Beck has owned the title of Twang Bar King in many people’s opinions, and rightly so. Even more amazing is the fact that he continues to grow, making more and more otherworldly sounds with each recording. Check out the bonus track “Cry Me a River” (from Beck’s 2010 releaseEmotion and Commotion). There is a metric ton of great live Beck performances to explore on YouTube, as well.

So, to conclude for this month, I highly encourage players of all stripes to listen to what is coming in from afar. Honestly, you never can tell what you are going to do with that tremolo. You might be the next innovator!

Dean Farleyis chief designer of Snake Oil Brand Strings, and his ideas have had a significant influence on contemporary string design. He is also known as a great source of guitar, amp, and gear lore. For more information, visitsnakeoilstrings.com.