Much like distortion and overdrive, one of the biggest misuses of terms in the world of electric guitar effects is the use of vibrato and tremolo. But unlike distortion and overdrive which are close enough that a mistake is only natural, vibrato and tremolo are worlds apart! Well – maybe not as different as a phaser and a chorus pedal but you get what I’m saying.
Anyways, the confusion between these two terms can be dated way back during the late 1800s when patents filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office began confusing the two. Sure, there weren’t any electric guitars back then but these early patents were merely trying to describe tremolo and vibrato devices intended for other instruments such as a violin, viola or cello. Things got further convoluted between vibrato and tremolo in the 1950s when amp and guitar makers began mislabeling their products – most likely following the advice of their attorneys when filing patents and naming these features. Suddenly guitars sprang up with “tremolo” arms and amps had “vibrato” circuitry. That’s backwards. The truth of the matter is that what Bigsbys and other whammy bars do is “vibrato” and what amps do when they stutter attractively is “tremolo.”
Simply put – vibrato is a variation in the pitch of a note or chord. It can be accomplished with the fingers, a whammy bar, a stomp box or plug-in. Finger vibrato is often a key part of the signature of a great guitarist, like Eric Clapton, for example, who uses the technique brilliantly. Finger vibrato, the practice of lightly moving one’s hand — ideally from the wrist, like B.B. King — or a finger that’s pressed on a note, creates a psychoacoustic perception of warmth and that indefinable but nonetheless recognizable quality called “soul” in one’s playing.
The first vibrato arm for guitar was marketed in the mid-1930s by guitar maker Doc Kaufman and was most notably initially used on lap steels. The first fully functional vibrato arm and tailpiece assembly for the round-neck electric guitar was patented by Paul Bigsby in 1952, although the country music six-string virtuoso Merle Travis was using one of Bigsby’s prototypes in the late 1940s. The Bigsby still remains the basic blueprint for the whammy bar we know and love today. The tension of the strings is balanced against a spring that pulls those tuned strings back into proper pitch when the downward pressure on the bar itself is released. Gibson Flying V legend Lonnie Mack used the Bigsby unit to historic effect on his 1963 instrumental smash “Wham!” — creating the nickname “whammy bar” In the process.
In acoustic music, tremolo is typically accomplished with the finger, by applying and reducing pressure on a string to sound a repetition of a note. For electric guitarists, tremolo is also produced via a circuit in an amp or an effects device. A tremolo circuit automatically turns volume up and down. The degree in those highs and lows is often identified by a “depth” control, while the frequency of the repetition of that effect is the province of the “rate” dial. Amps with tremolo use several different kinds of technology to achieve the effect, including low frequency oscillators, bias modulation and light dependent resisters. Without getting bogged down in such details, think of the tremolo effect simply as somebody turning a volume pot up and down with superhuman efficiency. The sound is unforgettable once it becomes familiar.
So there you have it; vibrato is always about pitch while tremolo signifies a shift in volume. Not too difficult, right? We even learned some history! While both of these effects are not as popular as they were during the psychedelic sixties or the new wave eighties, they are still very much in use in today’s modern music and offer two of electric guitar’s most signature sounds so if you’re looking to add a bit of pitch oscillation and volume shifting into your own tone, why not check out PAL’s great selection of Tremolo and Vibrato pedals?