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Tremolo Bridges: A Guide Through the Decades

Tremolo Bridges: A Guide Through the Decades

Ever wondered what the differences are between tremolo bridges?

Whammy bars, (or tremolo bridges/ vibrato bridges, to give them their more ‘correct’ names) are commonplace in the guitar world. They’ve featured on guitars since the 1930s, and have evolved into many varieties. With this choice available, you might be confused as to the differences between them.

Well, here’s a mini-guide to the main types you might expect to see on modern guitars…

1. The Bigsby

The Bigsby is a device that brought tremolo bridges to the masses. It wasn’t the first, however. The Kaufman Vibrola appeared first on some Epiphone guitars and later some Rickenbackers. Whilst innovative, it was notorious for putting the guitar out of tune when used, due to the coiled spring design. Merle Travis played a guitar equipped with one of these bridges. Frustrated by its instability he took it to his friend, a mechanic named Paul Adelburt Bigsby, and if he could fix it. He didn’t- he designed a whole new tremolo system. The Bigsby Bridge was born.

Essentially, the Bigsby is based around a rocker bridge. The strings are attached to a metal bar within this, to which the tremolo arm is attached. The bridge is counterbalanced with a spring. When the arm is pushed forward, the strings loosen, and the pitch drops. When released, it returns to its original position. The Bigsby is still incredibly popular, in part due to its stunning, vintage looks, but also for its unique tone and feel. As a result, you’ll often see these on classic archtop style guitars. Compared to some, more modern designs, it does suffer from slightly less stable tuning, however. Plus, you can only really go down in pitch, and not very far either. But, for some, this is a small price to pay…

2. The Fender Synchronised Tremolo

Leo Fender developed what is widely regarded to be the second major step forward in the development of the tremolo bridge. Presumably, this was in some time he had free between designing some of the most iconic guitars and amps of all time… The Fender Synchronised Tremolo first appeared on what would become one of these astonishingly influential and enduring guitar designs: the Stratocaster. The synchronised tremolo worked by having an integrated bridge and tailpiece. This had a bevelled pivot edge on the top metal plate, which sat against the top of the guitar. The bridge was a solid piece of metal, with 6 individually adjustable saddles.

The tailpiece was a solid block of metal hidden behind this, inside the guitar, lending it a string-thru-body design. This was attached to 3 springs, which were hidden away inside the rear of the guitar. The arm travels through both the bridge and the tailpiece, making an incredibly solid connection. It used the difference in tension between the strings and springs to keep the pivot firmly lodged in place.

Unlike the Bigsby, the Fender tremolo system could be mounted either flush to the guitar top, or with a gap beneath that would allow it to be used for increasing pitch and decreasing pitch.

Because the tailpiece moved with the bridge, the Fender design was significantly more stable in use and less prone to tuning and intonation issues. However, its range was still fairly limited. The vast majority of modern tremolo systems are inspired by this design, and it evolved into Fender’s 2-point pivot system, which is used today. Oh, it was also Leo Fender that misnamed it (some say intentionally) a tremolo, too. Before this, it was correctly named a vibrato system. Vibrato relates to pitch, tremolo relates to volume….

3. Locking Tremolo Systems

The locking tremolo has become a staple of rock, metal, and all manner of other guitar shredding. Floyd D. Rose developed the original in 1979. It was, perhaps, his gift of an early unit to Eddie Van Halen that propelled the Floyd Rose to greater recognition. The design owes much to the Strat trem system, but the ‘locking’ part of the name relates to the fact that the strings are ‘locked’ into place. The nut features an Allen key locking mechanism designed to hold the string in place after tuning. Plus, later units added a locking system at the bridge, too. This adds greater overall tuning stability.

Aside from very early units, Floyd Rose bridges feature fine tuners at the bridge, allowing strings to be tuned after the nut has been locked. The Floyd Rose is a floating system, meaning that an area behind the unit is carved away, allowing the pitch to be raised or dropped easily, with the tension in the strings and springs ‘floating’ the bridge between. The main reason that players use locking tremolo bridges such as the Floyd Rose is that they offer a wide range of pitch change. If you want to perform huge pitch dives or bends, you won’t achieve it with anything else other than perhaps an effects pedal.

Locking trems do tend to be more stable, too. The main drawback is that setting them up can be, well… aaaaaaaaarrrrggghhh!!!! Not always, of course, but it’s a fiddly process, to say the least. Plus, if you change string gauge, this change in tension can cause the bridge to sit forward or backwards, and require another set-up… These are the most common types of tremolo bridge. There are variations, of course, but most are based on these three main types.