Deconstructing mechanical vibrato leads to bold and bizarre sonic ends.
Unconventional approaches to pitch shifting yield creative results. Clever design on hardware and digital fronts. High-quality build.
Can be less than intuitive. Considerable learning curve. Expensive.
Gamechanger Audio Bigsby Pedal
It’s impressive to consider the ways Bigsby vibrato systems have been thrashed, massaged, and otherwise put to work in the service of making guitars sing in more emotional, weirder, and more humanly vocal ways. For my money, it’s one of the coolest improvements to the 6-string guitar concept ever.
There is something about the primitively mechanical manner in which a Bigsby works and feels that makes it uniquely fun among vibrato systems. Even the way it looks like a very beautiful motorcycle grafted to the face of a guitar is cool. But what’s interesting about Gamechanger’s Bigsby digital pitch shifting pedal is that it doesn’t merely reproduce the function of a conventional Bigsby. Instead it explodes the basic functions and capabilities of mechanical vibrato, making this very vintage-inspired piece of gear into a modern funhouse of polyphonic pitch-shifting possibilities. It’s full of surprises, and in the get-to-know-you phase, you’ll probably experience more than a few “what the hell?” moments. But for a lot of players these quirks will be delightful revelations. Indeed, someone out there may well invent a whole style of playing with this pedal.
Moving the Goalposts
Gamechanger puts a lot of time and resources into developing brilliant, mutant, and far-out pedals. That’s a compliment, and the guitar world is a better place for having these people around. It’s a delight to imagine the brainstorming that led to conceiving and executing this pedal. But the Gamechanger Bigsby is complex enough that there were probably a lot of challenges and headaches to deal with, too. The Gamechanger Bigsby is an ambitious design, and with MIDI control capabilities, 10 preset slots (which are accessible via MIDI program change messages), and a trove of interlaced functionalities that yield unexpected sounds and profoundly change the manner with which you interface with the pedal, Gamechanger must have had their work cut out for them to fit it all in.
“It’s a delight to imagine the brainstorming that led to conceiving and executing this pedal.”
On the surface, the pedal doesn’t look that complex. Apart from the foot-actuated vibrato arm—which here echoes the look of a traditional Bigsby, in an elegant “7” shape—there are three, dual-function, sideways-oriented rotary knobs. The three knobs can be adjusted pretty readily with your toe and illuminate in different colors and in various intensities and pulses to indicate status and level. They regulate depth (the number of semitones the pedal will detune over the pedal’s travel), wet/dry blend, and rate (which controls how precisely the pitch follows the travel of the pedal). In secondary mode, which can be accessed via a small button on the pedal’s face, the knobs regulate detune, a function that emulates the asymmetric detuning of different strings, and tone, which adds brightness to the wet signal. In secondary mode, you can use the depth control to regulate entirely different semitone ranges for pitch-up and pitch-down actions. The pitch-up-/pitch-down orientation of the rocker pedal can also be switched so that heel-down positions pitch up, and vice versa. You can even use the pedal to double as an expression pedal for other effects.
Wobbly on Yer’ Feet
Gamechanger says that the Bigsby can be set to approximate the sound of a traditional vibrato. I didn’t achieve those results so easily—there’s just no way to make your ankles and feet move in concert in quite the way your wrists and fingers do. And if, like me, you’re the kind of player who keeps a vibrato arm in hand for much of the time you play, you’ll find some nuances of that technique hard to replicate. Nevertheless, by using the pedal’s arm in the fashion of a wah treadle, applying a tender touch, darkening the tone, and keeping the semitones of travel within a modest range, you can color chords and spacious single note lines with sweet, organic pitch feathering that can animate a simple instrumental section beautifully. At these same settings, you can also twang away in classic Duane Eddy style as heard in audio Clip 1.
Transforming the Gamechanger Bigsby from a vibrato arm stand-in into something entirely different doesn’t take much effort. Quick changes to the depth and rate controls can turn the pedal into a pretty sweet-sounding vibrato/chorus/rotary speaker pedal that you can manipulate to create pitch wobbles of subtle or pronounced intensity (Clip 2). Changing the rate and darkening the tone yet again enables sleepy warped record textures that can transform and deconstruct pedestrian instrumental sections (Clip 3). And, if you put the right fuzz on either side of the Bigsby, it’s possible to replicate Kevin Shields’ melting Jazzmaster vibrato haze with a very vibrato-less Telecaster(Clip 3, section 2).
The textures described here really only scratch the surface of what the Gamechanger Bigsby can do and the demented ways in which it can twist the mechanical vibrato concept. There are easier ways to achieve many of these effects, but the unexpected paths the Gamechanger takes to those ends is a deep creative well, and it’s a great tool for those that savor unexpected musical results. Is it easy to use? Not exactly—at least in the early going. It takes practice to master the basics. The mechanical action of the pedal can feel a touch alien, and extracting the most from the pedal takes a bit of deep diving that, in the end, is well worth it, but takes time. On the other hand, it rewards blind experimentation, and this approach to using the pedal yielded some of my most fruitful discoveries. However you approach it, the Gamechanger Bigsby is an instrument that starts to live up to its creator’s bold company name. And if you like non-traditional, off-kilter, and unsubtle applications of pitch shift, the Bigsby is a riff machine in waiting.
The guitar is loaded with all of the features that define the Silhouette, now with an added Bigsby B5 vibrato.
Harmony, the world's most cherished maker of musical instruments, today announced the launch of the Harmony Silhouette with Bigsby, shipping globally in August. Proudly made in the USA, the guitar is loaded with all of the features that define the Silhouette, now with an added Bigsby B5 Vibrato for endless tonal possibilities.
Building on the success of the Silhouette, Harmony listened to their community who called for even more versatility. Enter the Harmony Silhouette with Bigsby, the perfect addition to the guitar's sought-after style and sound. Featuring the same unique body shape, premium tonewoods, proprietary gold foil mini-humbuckers and custom hardware, the added Bigsby B5 Vibrato melds distinctive tones from the Silhouette with expressive vibrato from the Bigsby. The model is available in Burgundy, Slate and Space Black color options.
The Harmony Silhouette with Bigsby is shipping in August, available at $1,549 (US MAP) via select dealers.
Patrick Breen Introduces the Harmony Silhouette with Bigsby Electric Guitar
With a Bigsby and mini-humbuckers, this special-order from 1968 is still special 53 years later.
Hey guitar ornithologists! Here's a rare bird for you: a 1968 Epiphone E360 TDV Riviera. According to shipping history, only 300 Riviera models left the factory that year, and, of those, only 19 had vibrato tailpieces. So feast your eyes!
I, too, covet this guitar, which carried a hefty-for-the-times price tag of $475 when it was new. Now, vintage Rivieras like this one go for about $4,000. (Out of my price range! LOL!) It's also from the era when Gibson and Epiphone parts were used to make both brands, which means it's got a little extra juice in its veins.
The excellent condition of the original case and the guitar itself speaks to its history as a well-loved instrument. Only 300 Rivieras were made in 1968, and just 19 with Bigsbys.
Except for the closed-back Grover tuners, all of the parts on this classy sunburst E360 TDV are original, and so is its case. The mini-humbuckers and Bigsby tailpiece were options for the Riviera that first became available in 1967, which is why it needed to be special-ordered. Without those appointments, the guitar's price would have settled in closer to $400 at the time.
But before I talk about that, here's a story we heard when this guitar was brought into the shop by the wife and son of its deceased original owner. They explained that this Riviera was special-ordered from a music store in Indiana and used by their husband and father to play gigs from '68 through a good part of the 1970s. In 1975, while loading out of a heated club into Montana's sub-freezing outdoors, the finish immediately weather-checked due to the abrupt temperature change, leaving a striking pattern on the guitar's back that resembles the kind of finger painting Jack Frost does on icy windows. I think that pattern gives this vibey guitar even more character.
In the case of the Riviera and the ES-335, the major differences were in their tailpieces, pickups, and headstocks.
The Riviera began its original production run in 1962, as Epiphone's cheaper answer to Gibson's ES-335 and Epi's own Sheraton. The sunburst finish became standard in 1965, and the original run of Rivieras ended in '69. Famous players who've hefted Rivieras onstage and in the studio include Lenny Kravitz, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lou Reed, Nick Valensi, and Noel Gallagher.
Now, let's get back to those parts. This month's '68 Riviera, serial number 521820, is among the guitars that collectors sometimes call "Gibson/Epiphones." Here's why: The Chicago Musical Instrument Company, also known as CMI, already owned Gibson when it purchased Epiphone—then Gibson's most direct competitor—in 1957. Along with the purchase came an abundance of unused Epiphone guitar parts, from the company's New York City plant, which were then blended with Gibson parts in Kalamazoo to complete new Epiphone instruments. The use of Gibson parts to make Epiphone guitars continued until 1969, when Epiphone production was moved overseas.
With the production of Epiphone and Gibson models happening side-by-side in the '60s, sometimes the only difference between similar production guitars—like the Riviera and ES-335—was the headstock.
So, Gibsons and Epiphones of that period where literally made side by side, most often with the same materials, finishes, and construction. Sometimes the only real difference was the headstock. In the case of the Riviera and the ES-335, the major differences were in their tailpieces, pickups, and headstocks. Both guitars are semi-hollow with a solid maple center block and solid maple top. On our Riviera, there's binding on the sides and along the fretboard, which has parallelogram inlays. The neck on this Riviera is slimmer than most Gibson/Epiphones from this era that I've played and reminds me of early 1960s Fender Telecasters. This is not a complaint! I like that 24 3/4" scale. The control set is the usual four-dial setup. And with mini-humbuckers, this 6-string is not as dark as most Gibson ES-335s with regular humbuckers that I've played, so the low-mid tone is nicely defined.
In 1975, the owner of this guitar was loading out of a heated Montana club into sub-freezing temperatures, and the finish immediately weather-checked due to the abrupt temperature change, leaving a striking pattern on the guitar's back.
Let's talk about those mini-humbuckers. The minis that Epiphone created for their jazz/archtop series were introduced to other models once Gibson/CMI acquired the company. With a brighter and clearer sound—kind of between P-90s and humbuckers—this was a sweet option.
I'm a big fan of mini-humbuckers and love the tone they give this Riviera, which was clearly loved. The tobacco burst finish has aged well, and there's just a little wear where the headstock meets the neck from hanging in a cradle mount. That back-side body-finish checking might be a turnoff to cork-sniffers, but I think it really adds to the personality of this instrument. I love, love, love this guitar!