I’m hoping that this doesn’t turn into a rant. It could happen, but I’m going to try to maintain objectivity and civility. Try, at any rate.
There are a few subjects that I’m passionate about. As you can see, music is one of those subjects. And, unlike what some folks have accused me of, I don’t believe that music has to be a purely academic pursuit.
You don’t need to know what golpe means, or its history, in order to make use of it. You don’t need to know the technical names to make music. You don’t need to master music theory to compose good music. You don’t have to understand the wave form changes made by your effects pedals – you just have to stomp on the pedal.
But, damn it, that’s not a tremolo bar or a ‘trem block.’ It’s sure as shit not a tremolo system. It’s vibrato and yes, even manufacturers call them tremolo bars and systems.
I’ve written about this before, but that was before the site was up and running. I’m going to expand on it and attempt to correct the record. My efforts are largely going to be futile, but I can at least inform you.
If you must, then call it a “whammy bar.”
Sometimes, folks will try to show that they know what they’re talking about and call their whammy bar a ‘tremolo bar.’ This is actually quite common. Even manufacturers call them tremolo systems and they are referenced as such in authoritative literature.
Tremolo is a cyclic change in amplitude. Go to your stereo. Turn it on. Adjust the volume from high to low. Do it again. Do it rapidly. There. You made tremolo.
Vibrato is a cyclic change in pitch. Go use your whammy bar. Move it in and out. What is it doing? It’s a cyclic change in pitch. Congratulations. You’ve made vibrato.
Here… Let me give you some citations.
When you use the whammy bar, you’re changing the tension on the string. The result is a change in pitch and not a change in amplitude. It’s not tremolo. All the people calling it tremolo, and there are many, are wrong.
Tremolo for a guitar does exist. It’s usually done in the amp. You know, where amplitude takes place. There are pedals that can change your amplitude in a cyclic manner, but even some of those are actually misnamed and will adjust the pitch and not the amplitude.
Let me show you how widespread this is. This is probably the most well known guitar vibrato system manufacturer on the planet. They call it tremolo.
They’re the leading experts, right? Sure are… They’re wrong.
At this point in the article, you’re possibly saying this to yourself. “Alright, TheBuddha, you’re correct and they are wrong. They are the wrongest wrongers to ever wrong and you’re absolutely right! Now, get to the point. I know damned well you didn’t write this just to tell us that.”
You’re a pretty good guesser, in my imagination!
And, you’re right! Nope… I’m gonna tell you how it came to be this way.
Back on June 9th, I wrote an article about the Fender Stratocaster. In that article, I made a brief comment about the vibrato system and that it was not properly called a tremolo bar. I even linked to a short publication that I’d written and it’s much the same as the above.
Why? Why in that article?
Because it’s all Leo Fender’s fault. Yup… The inventor of one of the most iconic guitars is pretty much entirely to blame for this mistake.
Back in the Dark Ages (the 1950s), Leo Fender designed and built an electric guitar that is instantly recognizable and has influenced the future of electric guitars significantly. (It was not his first electric guitar, but we’ll cover that some other day.)
Fender doesn’t just make guitars – they also make amplifiers. More specifically, they made an amp called the Twin – which was largely meant to be used with the Stratocaster guitar they’d made.
The guitar had a vibrato system. The amp had a tremolo system.
Leo Fender got ’em completely backwards and labeled them improperly.
It coming from someone who’d just invented one of the greatest guitars, we’ve kinda just run with it ever since. That’s the reason people call the damned vibrato system a tremolo system. That’s the reason why you read things like ‘trem block.’ That’s the reason people call them ‘tremolo arms.’
The proper name is probably something like ‘vibrato system control arm.’ It’s actually a whole system of components, and there are many variations on the theme.
If you want to get really confused, you can also use the whammy bar to do ‘glissando.’ Glissando is a smooth change in pitch, from one to another. You can do that with a string bend, for example. (Which is what your vibrato system is doing when you wiggle the bar.)
While I’m here…
A vibrato system allows you to more easily lower the pitch. With it, you can loosen the tension on the strings and lower the pitch. You can also do this by pre-bending a lower pitch and then continuing to adjust the bend.
Anyhow… So, for all these years, people have been calling it a tremolo bar. They’ll even argue with you and insist it’s tremolo and not vibrato.
They’re wrong. They are demonstrably wrong.
If you didn’t know before, you now know that they’re wrong and you now know why they’re wrong. It’s pretty much all Fender’s fault. The blame lies squarely at Leo’s feet. The impact of his mistake is over 60 years of ass-backwards naming.
I don’t expect that this article will actually change many people’s behavior. I’m damned positive that I’m going to continue hearing the whammy bar being called a tremolo bar – for the rest of my life. I don’t even make it a habit to correct their mistake. I just let ’em keep talking and mentally swap the name out for the correct one.
What should you call it? Well, pretty much anything but tremolo arm. The phrase whammy bar is pretty universally understood among guitarists. It’s doubtful that anyone will get too upset if you call it a tremolo bar – but doing so is just wrong and you don’t want to be wrong! Until next time…
Shut up and play us a song!