All About Whammy Bars

July 1, 2009

Guitarists tend to come from three schools far as vibrato tailpieces, or “whammy bars,” are concerned: those who can’t live without them, those who can’t live with them, and those who tolerate them on their guitars, but rarely touch them—either for reasons of style, or for fear of spiraling out of tune. Love ’em or loathe ’em, vibrato tailpieces do change the sound of any guitar they’re mounted on, even when they’re not in use. If you do actually want to use one, however, and thereby indulge in the world of manual pitch-bend effects these ingenious contraptions can offer, it pays to know something about the form and function of the different types of vibrato systems that are available.

Let’s take this journey in semi-chronological order, starting off with the most popular blueprints for vibrato tailpieces of the past 60 years. The first widely available unit was the Bigsby Vibrato, which inventor/luthier Paul Bigsby introduced in 1951. It has a limited travel, works best for down bends only, and most players agree it alters the core tone of the guitar it is mounted on. That said, it does its thing pretty darn well, and has remained a staple for retro-style players and rockabilly guitarists in particular. Bigsby models are available for use with just about any type of separate bridge that would normally be paired with a trapeze or stop-bar tailpiece, as well as Bigsby’s own floating “rocker bridge”, and there are even versions for Fender Telecasters. The simplest Bigsby types—originally used on archtop guitars— feature a round steel bar that rotates in bearing-loaded cups at either side of its cast aluminum frame. The strings’ ball ends are held by pins affixed to the bar, and the detuning action occurs when the player slackens the strings by depressing the arm attached to the roller bar. A single, side-mounted vertical spring assists the roller bar in returning the strings to pitch when the arm is released. More advanced Bigsby models, such as the B5 (for solidbody guitars) and B7 (for semi-acoustics) also have a rolling “tension bar” under which the strings pass on their way to the bridge. This increases the break angle over the saddles, and, along with it, the downward pressure of the strings into the bridge and body.

Whatever type of Bigsby you encounter, they all offer about the same amount of limited downward bend—about a semi-tone at best. A Bigsby isn’t for deep dive bombs or Jeff Beck-style pitch mangling, but it’s great for subtle but emotive vibrato effects. Set up correctly, a Bigsby usually returns to pitch pretty well, but the weak points are the components it needs to cooperate with. The bridge saddles and the nut need to be hitchfree and in good condition to help keep the tuning stable.

Arguably the most inspired—and undoubtedly the most copied—vibrato unit in the world is the Fender Stratocaster vibrato, which remains extremely popular today, both in its original and modified forms. Originally dubbed the “Synchronized Tremolo” (remember, it was created by the same guys who called the tremolo effect on so many of their amps “vibrato”), Fender’s first vibrato was designed specifically for the Stratocaster guitar, which debuted in 1954. It’s an impressive and surprisingly intricate feat of engineering, too, accounting for matters of string height and intonation, sustain, resonance, virtual body mass and more, all in a single unit. The Strat vibrato’s six-screw fulcrum point and rear-loaded springs enable the kinds of serious down bends and, when set up right, a semi-tone of up-bend too, that just aren’t possible on a Bigsby. On top of all that, it carries individual saddles that are independently adjustable for both height and intonation, something that even Gibson’s hallowed Tune-o-Matic bridge didn’t achieve.

A Strat vibrato needs to be in good condition and set up right (usually by a professional) to provide its best return-to-pitch capabilities, but when properly maintained and partnered with a nut in equally good condition, it’s an impressive performer. Even with all of Fender’s clever engineering regarding the inertia block (or sustain block) that’s mounted to the bottom of the bridge plate to replace lost body mass and compensate for weaker string/bridge/body coupling, this tailpiece still alters the tone of any guitar it is mounted into. For many players, the resultant compressed, slightly “rubbery” attack and easy bending feel are part of the appeal of the Stratocaster, and have certainly become a component of classic electric blues tones. Others hear a loss of solidity and resonance in this, and some—Eric Clapton, for one— even go to the extent of locking their Strat vibratos in place by jamming a wooden wedge between the block and body.

Some later Fender Stratocasters, as well as guitars from other makers, have also carried updated versions of this vibrato design. Most often seen on the American Standard Stratocaster and, later, American Series Stratocaster (but also in designs from the likes of Wilkinson, Gotoh, and plenty of others), these units feature block-style or die-cast stainless-steel saddles, dual pivot posts (rather than six screws), into which are set the knife-edge slots of the bridge base, and modified saddle height and intonation adjustments. The aim here is to improve the performance of the original vintage Stratocaster vibrato, and some players also hear what they describe as a little more clarity or definition in the tone of guitars equipped with these updated units. Shop around, and you’ll find a dizzying array of variations on Fender’s seminal vibrato unit. Many of them offer arguably enhanced performance, although the original item still works perfectly well for countless guitarists.

Even before the arrival of these modified Strat designs, however, the Floyd Rose and other “double-locking” vibratos were introduced in the late ’70s, and became hugely popular in the wake of Eddie Van Halen’s extreme dive-bombing maneuvers. For a time, the deep-bend performance and impressive tuning stability of these vibratos were requisites of heavy rock, and it seemed like few guitarists of the genre could do without a Floyd or Kahler system, or some licensed version of the same. These totally re-engineered designs were revolutionary not for their own inherent sound, but for the sounds and playing styles they enabled. They were—and still are—complex mechanisms compared to the vintage-style Strat vibrato they evolved from, and require a lot of moving parts to do their jobs. With a double- locking vibrato, the strings are locked down at both ends using screw-down clamps. The bridges typically offer extended travel, as well as some modification of the fulcrum point of the traditional Strat vibrato, often seen as a two-post and knife-edge system not unlike the more modern Fender units mentioned above. The fact that strings are secured at both the nut and saddle, however, means that restringing and even retuning can be a hassle (although fine-tuners in the saddles help out a lot here), and they can be difficult to set up in the first place.

Some locking vibratos have a reputation for a being either thin or bright sounding (or both), but when correctly installed they are usually sonically neutral. In any case, the types of guitars that have them are most often used with high-gain distortion for heavy rock and shred playing, so tonal considerations will usually be assessed as such. Ultimately, a player’s decision whether to go with a Floyd or not will usually have more to do with functionality than tone.

One of the most popular modifications of the vintage Strat vibrato comes in the form of the Paul Reed Smith vibrato. This system, originally manufactured for PRS by Mil Com, seeks to address two of the main drawbacks of the ’50s unit by offering wider travel and improved tuning stability. Some elements aimed at achieving this include string ball-end seats that are drilled deeper into the underside of the inertia block (resulting in less dead string length behind the saddles), and the notching of the six pivot posts to receive the knife-edge-fine holes in the base plate. PRS also recognized, as did the double-locking brigade, that a big part of a vibrato’s efficiency has to do with the hardware at the other end of the neck, and have included a friction-reducing graphite-style nut and locking tuners to complete the package.

Along with these popular vibratos, a few other less-hallowed designs have also seen use through the years. Gibson’s Maestro Vibrola, a simple bent-steel-spring tailpiece, proved more effective (and remains more popular) than the short-lived and more complex Sideways Vibrola that preceded it. Fender’s “new and improved” Floating Tremolo, as seen on the Jazzmaster and Jaguar is still a favorite of many surf, garage, and indie players, while the somewhat awkward little Mustang vibrato unit has its fans, as does the single-spring Burns Vibrato, which saw use on some entry level ’60s Gretsch models, such as the Corvette. Simple or complex, however, most classic-style vibratos can only work their best when the strings move smoothly across the nut slots and saddles as you move the bar. So keep those slots slick and clean and your saddles smooth and tight to ensure reliable performance as you wiggle that whammy to add color and drama to your sound.

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