Tremolo Bar – What are your options

In an earlier article on tremolo bars we looked at what the tremolo bar was and why you would choose to have one.  In this next article we look at the tremolo bar options available and the relative pros and cons of each.

So what are your tremolo bar options?

There are many options available, and many of these can be considered just variations on a theme. However, you can break the tremolo bar options into three distinct categories based on the method used to stabilise the tremolo bar and strings.  Considering the three tremolo bar options also provides a nice potted history of the evolution of the tremolo bar.

First up…

The Bigsby Tremolo

Tremolo bar

The Bigsby Tremolo is a stylish looking unit which improved on the original Vibrola tremolo unit.

Tremolos have been fitted to guitars since the 1930s with varying degrees of success. The earliest, and best known tremolo unit, was the Kaufman Vibrola.  Although at the time it was highly innovative the Vibrola was notorious for de-tuning the guitars it was fitted to.  Country musician Merle Travis played a guitar fitted with a Vibrola and, frustrated with the de-tuning issue, he approached engineer Paul Bigsby to see if he could fix the problem.  Rather than fix the Vibrola Bigsby decided to design his own tremolo and the Bigsby Tremolo was born.  The Bigsby is a ingenious solution to the problem of de-tuning.  The guitar strings are attached to a metal bar, located in the bridge, to which the tremolo bar is attached.  When the arm is depressed the strings are loosened and the pitch drops.  The metal bar itself is counter-balanced by a spring which brings it back to its original position once the tremolo arm is released.

Compared to a modern tremolo system the Bigsby is not as stable and can only really drop the pitch of the strings as the design of the Bigsby doesn’t allow you to pull back too much on the tremolo arm. That said the vintage look and sound of the Bigsby makes it still a firm favourite amongst guitarists.

Conclusion – The Bigsby Tremolo is ideal for moderate pitch bends but is not suitable for extreme whammy bar action. If your hero is Chris Isaak then the Bigsby is for you but Eddie Van Halen wannabees should avoid.

The Fender Tremolo.

tremolo bar

The Fender tremolo unit improved on the Bigsby but still had some limitations.

The next major step forward in tremolo design is largely attributable to perhaps the biggest innovator in guitar design – Leo Fender. The genius of the Fender design was to integrate the tailpiece and bridge into one unit.  The bridge was a solid piece of metal with six adjustable saddles and a bevelled pivot edge on the top metal plate.  The tailpiece, which connected to the bridge, sat in a recess through the body.  This was then anchored in place by three springs which attached to both the tailpiece and the body of the guitar.  When the tremolo arm was depressed the bridge was pulled back into the neutral position by the action of the three springs.  The bevelled edge of the bridge allowed both up and down movement on the tremolo arm allowing guitarists to both lower and raise the pitch.  Because the bridge and tailpiece moved together as one unit the stability was greatly improved making it less prone to tuning and intonation issues.  Although an amazing leap forward in tremolo design the Fender Tremolo still suffered from tuning issues.

Conclusion – The Fender Tremolo was a quantum leap forward in tremolo design ideal for moderate pitch bends and pull backs. If you are after more aggressive whammy bar action the Fender kicks the Bigsby into touch.  However, if you are going to be hanging off your whammy bar the next development in tremolo bar design is for you.  So…

step forward the Floyd Rose Locking Tremolo.

Tremolo Bar

The Floyd Rose locking tremolo system. The pinnacle of tremolo design?

Floyd D Rose developed the first locking tremolo system in 1979. It was the donation of his locking tremolo system to Eddie Van Halen that perhaps led to the Floyd Rose becoming the locking tremolo of choice for rock and heavy metal guitarist.  In some respects the Floyd Rose owes a lot to the Fender tremolo.  The idea of the connected bridge and tailpiece, the through body design, the use of springs to balance the action of the tremolo are all straight from the Fender design book.  However, as the name suggests, the major development was that the strings were locked in place.  Originally this was through a locking nut but later developments of the Floyd Rose have the strings locked both at the nut and the bridge.  Fine tuners on the bridge allow for minor tuning when the strings are locked.  The benefit of the Floyd Rose was the wider range of pitch changes available.  If you wanted to do pitch dives or major string bends you couldn’t achieve this without a Floyd Rose.

The locking tremolo unit is undoubtedly more stable than the earlier tremolo designs. That is not to say they are perfect.  Furthermore, a major drawback of the Floyd Rose is that it has to be properly set-up and if you don’t know what you are doing this can be a major pain in the proverbials.  As the Floyd Rose is a truly floating tremolo the balance of the springs and the position of the bridge have to be set correctly to prevent any issues.  If you change the gauge of string that you use this can muck up the tension on the tremolo causing it to sit forward or backwards requiring a fresh set-up.  That said the Floyd Rose was an amazing development.

Conclusion – For many the Floyd Rose locking tremolo is the pinnacle of tremolo design.  If you are into heavy whammy bar action a guitar with a Flody Rose is essential.

tremolo bar

The Steinberger TransTrem has a unique advantage over other tremolo systems, you can pitch bend chords and stay in tune.

Finally it is worth mentioning the often over-looked Steinberger TransTrem system.  The TransTrem was a unique tremolo unit that had one major innovative attraction over the Floyd Rose locking tremolo.  Designed by Steinberger in 1984 and fitted to their headless range of guitars the TransTrem was able to maintain the pitch of each string at the proper tuning interval to the other strings when the tremolo bar is used.  This meant that whole chords could be subjected to pitch bends and stay in tune.  If you have a Floyd Rose and have ever tried to pitch bend an entire chord you will know that the result doesn’t sound good.  However, with the Steinberger TransTrem this was possible and was used to good effect by Eddie Van Halen in songs such as “Get up” and “Hot Summer Nights”.  Because the TransTrem was able to maintain the pitch of each string it was also possible to raise or lower the tuning from the standard EADGBE and lock it into a number of preset positions.  The only drawback of the system was that the TransTrem required custom double ball end strings to work properly.  Each string is calibrated to a specific length; as little as 1/16″ deviation from this specification adversely affects string tuning.  Unsurprisingly the strings are not cheap compared to standard strings and not all string manufacturers produce them.  However, despite this drawback the TransTrem gives the Floyd Rose a run for its money.

In the end the choice of Tremolo system is driven by the style of music you want to play.  If you are going to be performing a lot of whammy bar tricks the Bigsby is not going to suit your style of playing.  So what is your choice of tremolo?

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