Image Gallery: Bending Strings – The History Of Guitar Vibrato Units

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A Gallery and Brief History Of Vibrato Units

Steve Vai loves doing it. Satriani doesn’t seem to mind. Hendrix was a fan. Stevie Ray Vaughan pretty much made it into an art form. The guitars themselves don’t seem to mind it much either.

We’ve been hearing guitar vibrato units in action since the 1930s and while they’re all doing basically the same thing, they’ve changed quite a bit in that time. Lets take a journey through time and look at how the vibrato unit has evolved.

Although the vibrato unit was used most extensively from the 50s onward, it was first implemented in the 1930s. Blues and Jazz guitarists used to basically change the tension of the strings by bending the neck of the guitar slightly (you can still see this today) – or with various techniques involving the bridge or tail-piece.

The Vibrato unit came along and made this easier, and in the process also provided a host of new sounds that were never before possible.

Artists who have used vibrato units extensively since include Chet Atkins, Dick Dale, The Ventures, Zappa, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Jeff Beck, and many, many more – way too many to list here.

The hardware itself has been called a Vibrato unit, Tremolo unit, Wiggle stick, and Whammy Bar.

Tremolo is actually an incorrect term, because it refers to the modulation of volume (as in many older guitar amps), not pitch bending. Vibrato is a more correct term. Whammy bar is a more fun term. Take your pick.

Here is the Gallery – check below the images for more detail on the history.

Click any image to enlarge

History

Kaufmann Vibrola

Doc Kaufmann patented the “Vibrola” in 1935. It was used by Epiphone (as an aftermarket add-on) in the mid 30s. Rickenbacker started offering it on guitars in 1937.

John Lennon used one on his 1958 Rickenbacker 325, however – since the particular Kaufmann model was fond of throwing the guitar out of tune, he later replaced it with a Bigsby.

Bigsby

Fast forward to 1953, we find Paul Bigsby producing his own line of Vibrato units, and the first (known) reference to it as a “Whammy bar”. It is speculated that this came from Lonnie Mack’s liberal use of a Bigsby on his 1963 tune, “Wham!”.

Bigsby designed the first Bigsby Vibrato for Merle Travis, who actually used a prototype in the late 40s, which used a valve spring off a Harley Davidson for the return spring.

Until this point the Vibrato unit was seen pretty much exclusively on hollow-body guitars.

Fender

The Stratocaster arrived on the scene in 1954, and changed a whole lot of how people thought about guitars – and was also the most popular guitar with a vibrato on it early on.

The Stratocaster’s vibrato unit was called the sychronized tremolo. It had the familiar arm and had a far greater pitch range than the Kaufmann and Bigsby units. You could also pull upward on the unit and get a nice pitch bend up.

It used springs on the underside of the guitar to offset the tension of the strings, and the bridge itself was part of the unit, employing six saddles, which allowed for better intonation.

Another interesting difference – Fender’s new vibrato moved both the bridge and the tailpiece, so the guitarist was able to change the length of the strings as well as the tension.

Fender produced a few other models of vibrato units, including the Floating Tremolo, found on the Jazzmaster in 1958, and the Fender Dynamic Vibrato.

The original design was the most popular, however, and spawned more innovation than any of the others.

Gibson Vibrola

The Vibrola, made by Gibson, incorporates elements of the Bigsby and some of Gibson’s own designs. It had a very long tail-piece, and worked side-to-side rather than up and down. There were many variations on this on a multitude of Gibson guitars, from 1962 onward.

Floyd Rose

In 1977 Floyd D. Rose stepped onto the vibrato scene with his innovative new design, which incorporated many problem solving features.

The first of which was the locking nut – the strings are locked at the nut which keeps them (mostly) securely in tune, regardless of the punishment you dish out with the vibrato unit. This made it extremely popular with hard rock and metal guitarists, who wanted to be able to do more extreme bends without having to worry about a guitar that was constantly out of tune.

Eddie Van Halen was one of the early adopters of the Floyd Rose, and played an important role in it’s popularity.

The Floyd Rose wasn’t without problems, however. The strings had to be “unclamped” any time fine tuning was needed, which was a problem, especially during live performances.

Floyd Rose solved this problem by adding the fine tuners – found on the bridge near the saddles – so the guitar could be tuned with the machines, clamped down, then fine tuned with the bridge tuners.

There are many variations on the Floyd Rose, from Ibanez, Yamaha, Schaller, Kahler, and Gotoh, as well as different designs coming from Floyd Rose. There are less expensive models, as well.


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Tim Monaghan

Tim has been playing guitar & bass since he was 12 years old and has been in Jazz, funk, rock & metal bands. Influences include Jeff Beck, Stanley Clarke, Doug Stegmeyer, Baden Powell, Steve Vai, and pretty much anyone else who has a unique style that expresses their individuality. One of Tim’s many hobbies is building, tweaking, and repairing basses and guitars.

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