11 Tremolo Pedals

From old school R&B and blues players to rockabilly cavemen and dance-band texturalists, tremolo is a go-to effect with myriad uses. Often confused with vibrato, which is pitch modulation, tremolo—a volume fluctuation—was introduced on various guitar amps in the late ’40s (most notably on Gibson and Premier models). In 1955, Fender introduced its first tremolo-equipped amp, the tweed-covered Tremolux. Guitarists soon discovered that whether you’re using trem for a fast, helicopter stutter, or a subtle ripple, it’s an amazing tool for adding sonic intrigue and texture without adding a bunch of fake goo to your sound. The pedals tested here run the gamut from butt-simple approximations of tube-amp trem, to extremely involved feature-laden boxes with tap tempo and stereo outputs. For our tests, we used various Fender Strats and Telecasters, a Gibson Les Paul and SG, and a Hamer Talladega through a Fender Deluxe Reverb, a Savage Rohr, and a Cornford Carrera.

Boss TR-2

File the Boss TR-2 under “Keep It Simple.” With Depth, Rate and a variable Wave control—which sweeps from a sine wave to a choppier square wave—the TR-2 is a no-brainer to dial in. This unit yields nice undulations with a good amount of speed variation, from slow and supple to a fast, motor-boat sputter. Adjusting the Wave control, I heard only subtle differences with the trem’s shape, however. The effect still sounded good, mind you, it’s just not a drastic change. As I tried to dial in some subtle washes, I was a bit dismayed at how the Depth control doesn’t begin to impart any effect until it’s nearly halfway up. That’s a lot of wasted range. The TR-2 isn’t quite transparent, as it mutes the top end a bit, and also compresses your low-end. And without any type of volume boost whatsoever, you may have a hard time being heard over a loud live mix, as tremolo is an effect that by its nature is subtractive, and the perfect cure is a slight boost when the effect is engaged. Still, the TR-2 is simple and musical, and it won’t take up a lot of pedalboard real estate.

Cusack Tap-A-Whirl

Simply put, the Tap-A-Whirl is an insane trem unit that is absolutely loaded with features that allow you total mastery over your trem turn-ons. Not only that, the Tap-A-Whirl breathes the rarified air of being one of the few creatively designed and musical stompboxes that also doubles as an idea generator. The Tap-A-Whirl gives you 24 waveforms (including sine, ramp, blip, bleep, square, waver, echo, and ping pong, as well as whacked-out 7/8 time signature pulses), each of which can be tweaked and saved as a preset. You also get Tap Tempo, Brake Speed (which adjusts how quickly the pulsing slows up or down), and Fade-in (a function that determines how quickly the pulse kicks in when you engage the effect). There’s also Tap Divide, which controls how your tap will be divided (quarter notes, eighth notes, triplets, and sixteenths).

Sonically, the Tap-A-Whirl is killer. It’s wonderfully transparent—retaining all of the character of our test guitars and amps. There’s also an internal trimpot that adjusts the pedal’s output to the point of yielding a nice boost. You could conceivably plug-in-and-go with the Tap-A-Whirl, but it begs some quality time in order to really tap its potential. The Brake function is a blast, as I would ramp it up to a jittery stutter for a tune’s chorus section, and bring it back down to a slow subtle swell for a solo. The Tap-A-Whirl is as deep as you want to make it, and it’s well worth the effort. There wasn’t a single trem sound that I couldn’t get from this thing. It’s not the easiest pedal to work with, as it’s very involved. And even though being able to store presets is cool, you can’t scroll through them with your feet. And unless you write it down, you’d never know where the preset is, as there is no read-out screen. Still, the Tap-A-Whirl is an inspirational trem that will give back however much effort you put into it.

Demeter STRM-1 Stereo Tremulator

James Demeter’s first Tremulator pedal was built at the request of Ry Cooder 25 years ago, and the little box quickly became a hit in the burgeoning boutique pedal world. The STRM-1 Stereo Tremulator is the logical evolution of this groundbreaking trem, as it’s basically the same proven unit, except in stereo. Sporting separate Depth controls for each output, the STRM-1 also offers a Sync control that allows the trem’s pulse to undulate in mono (in sync), or bounce between the two amplifiers in a stereo setup (out of sync). You also get a Phase switch, as well as two recessed trimpots that fine tune the amount of depth the effect offers. The STRM-1 is preset with a classic triangle wave shape—the same as Cooder’s Fender Twin Reverb.

Sonically, the Demeter is outstanding. All of your guitar’s character comes through, and the pedal delivers a slight +3dB boost to put the effect up in the mix. Although it works fine as a mono trem pedal, a stereo setup is the only way to really behold its wonders. The separate Depth functions allowed me to go as crazy or as subtle as I wanted. For instance, set the Sync switch to Out with the Depth controls cranked, and the pulse bounces between the amps with a hammer-like ferocity. Dial back the Depth—or offset them a bit—and the trem ripples back and forth with a wonderful three-dimensional shimmer. In fact, with the Phase and Sync switches set to Out, I conjured a drippy, liquid-like effect that bordered on psychedelic. There are a lot of sounds to be found in this bad boy, and the more you get into it, the more you will discover.

EBS Triple Tremolo Controller

The diminutive, Swedish-made EBS Tremolo packs a righteous wallop, with three selectable waveforms (sine, triangle, square), and Depth and Speed controls. The pedal’s Volume/ Fitler switch yields traditional trem in the Volume mode, and the Filter setting lets the lows pass uneffected, modulating only the high frequencies. But the nut of the EBS is its stereo operation. Running into our Savage Rohr 15 and a Cornford Carrera, the effect was absolutely huge. The Speed and Depth controls are loaded with a ton of range that allow for subtle shades or extreme chop, as well as the vast expanse in-between, with barely a nudge of the controls. All three of the waveforms differ distinctly from each other, and are extremely musical and audible—thanks to the pedal’s internal volume trimpot, which supplies a touch more volume when cranked. It’s not quite enough to kick an amp into overdrive, but it’s very effective. The Filter trem settings are absolutely gorgeous, providing a deep, syrupy-thick pulse that turned every editor’s head whether I dialed it in for a subliminal ripple or a pounding throb. Very well done. And you’ve got to love the small size!

Gig-FX Pro Chop

You want to get nuts? Well, if you’re looking for insane stereo-tremolo effects, the Gig-FX Pro Chop is just what you’ve been waiting for. Oh yeah, and if you’re a MIDI guy, the Pro Chop has you covered with an onboard MIDI jack to sync up with a drum machine or sequencer. All of this potential sonic debauchery comes with a price, however, and that price is learning how to use the Pro Chop. This thing is deep, man. (Gig-FX’s Chopper pedal is a simpler, stripped-down version, sans MIDI and the LCD.) The pedal sports an all-analog signal path with two independent oscillators—one on each side of the large onboard expression pedal. One provides a square wave (the Chop side), and the other produces a triangle wave (the Pan/Trem) side. You can use each side separately or together. There’s also an LCD that tells you what’s happening BPM-wise.

Even though it’s a deep, feature-laden pedal, there is actually quite a bit of instant gratification—even when plugging in and running the Pro Chop in mono. Its raison d’être is definitely more modern trem sounds with ridiculous on/off textures, and the ability to speed up and slow down with the footpedal. There isn’t any volume boost on the Pro Chop, but the levels stay loud enough to cut through a mix—even in some of the more extreme settings. However, running the Pro Chop in stereo is where the rubber meets the road. The amount of tones and effects you can get across the stereo spectrum is nothing short of astounding. Faux delays ping-pong back and forth between the amps, or slow, chewy pulses zig-zag in and out. The options boggle the mind. In fact, my mind started to boggle trying to figure the Pro Chop out! The manual isn’t the easiest to grok, and I found myself stumbling around trying to repeat some of the amazing swirls I was conjuring to no avail. You can coax more traditional trem out of the Pro Chop if you need to, but that’s not what it does best. If you’re an experimental texturalist or a dance band guitarist linked to a click track, the Pro Chop will pay dividends big time. But it’s also a blast to sit between two amps and get lost in its swirls. Bring your thinking cap, though.

Keeley Electronics TR-2 V-Trem

Aside from his own killer stompbox designs, Robert Keeley’s M.O. is modding classic tried-and-true pedals that have been inhabiting guitarists’ pedalboards the world over. And, of course, that means a lot of Boss boxes. Keeley’s modded Boss TR-2 adds a concentric knob on the Depth control that acts as a Volume control, allowing you to goose up the trem effect, push the front end of your amp into overdrive, or both. The Keeley also sports a higher fidelity signal when the effect is engaged. The highs are a tad more crystalline, and the low end is more present than with the stock TR-2. However, as with the Boss, the Keeley TR-2 doesn’t impart any effect until the Depth control is nearly halfway up. A bit of a bummer, but the Keeley takes a good trem unit and makes nearly all of the correct fixes to yield a more robust and usable effect.

Red Witch Pentavocal Trem

The Pentavocal flaunts a sweet paint job and cool green graphics, as well as a footswitch to alternate between a more classic triangle wave and a choppier square wave. The Pentavocal also sports a coupe of controls that make it a stand out from the trem pack. The most prominent is a 5-position Voicing switch that changes the pedal’s overall tone from skinny and bright to a more beefy chunk. This feature is not only good for fine-tuning the pedal to a guitar/amp rig, it also makes it invaluable as a studio tool, giving you a wide range of frequencies and timbres. Without a doubt, however, the Bottom function is the Red Witch’s most unique control, as it adjusts the effect’s mid and high cut as the volume decreases in the trem cycle. For example, I set the Voicing switch to position 1 (the skinniest setting), and turned the Bottom and Depth controls fully clockwise, and was greeted with a chewy, borderline Uni-Vibe pulse—a beautifully subtle effect that no other pedal in the roundup can do. In fact, with the tweakability of the Pentavocal’s control set, you can find all sorts of delectable delights. The unit didn’t really excel at crazy, whacked-out undulations or Apocalypse Now renderings. The Volume control provides a very hearty boost, capable of pushing my Fender Deluxe Reverb into overdrive. The Red Witch can slow down with the best of them, and though it never clamps the signal completely off for crazy chopper effects, the unit is more than capable of some amazingly washy volume swells that flow wonderfully with sparsely played, harmonically expansive chords.

Rocktron Pulse Tremolo

With only three controls (Speed, Intensity, and a Wave selector switch for sine or square), the Rocktron Pulse is blissfully simple. A huge, neon-blue LED blinks in time with the pedal’s Speed setting, and the unit’s enclosure is sturdy and rugged. The Pulse Tremolo has a nice range of slow undulations and fast choppy stutters. In fact, for a pedal in this price range, it gets the award for over-the-top helicopter trem. I was also very satisfied with the Pulse’s ability to ape a nice, subtle shimmer. The Pulse isn’t the most transparent pedal, however. Engaging it, I was pleased to hear a subtle, yet noticeable volume boost—which is always welcomed—but the feature is not adjustable, and it also brings up some high end. The Pulse is an excellent bang-for-buck trem, and its simplicity, excellent construction, and easy-to-dial tones will find it a home on many a pedalboard.

Seymour Duncan Shape Shifter

Although it’s the largest pedal in the roundup, the Shape Shifter makes up for its corpulent dimensions with great sounds and an intuitive, well-implemented feature set. One of two pedals that sports tap tempo, the Shape Shifter also lets you lord over the trem pulse’s rise and fall time with the Shape control, as well as a variable Wave function that goes from a smooth sine to triangle to a square on/off pulse. Sonically, the Shape Shifter can do classic trem very well, and it’s easy to dial in. There’s no volume loss when the effect is engaged, and the tap tempo is easy to master—thanks to the Rate control’s graphic, which lets you know exactly what the beat ratio is you’re tapping. There’s also a Ratio Mode/Rate Mode switch. In Rate Mode, your taps correspond to where the Rate knob is set. In Ratio Mode, your taps default to eighth notes. The Shape Shifter delivers good approximations of classic Fender trems, but I found it most useful for its tap-tempo function, as well as its ability to deliver faux backwards effects, courtesy of the Shape control. No other pedal in this roundup can deliver those types of textures. The Shape Shifter also provides insane chop or subtle, smooth waves of musical tremolo. A well-designed pedal that covers all of the bases, and then some.

T-Rex Tremster

Sporting a wonderfully painted candy-red enclosure, the Tremster offers Depth and Speed controls, as well as a powerful Volume control that packs a healthy wallop to your amp’s front-end with a hearty +15dB of boost. Yowza! According to the Tremster’s manual, the Mode switch gives you tremolo and vibrato, but, to my ears, this control simply intensifies the trem effect without resorting to any pitch modulation, or even waveform changes. The Tremster excels at delivering clean, classic triangle wave trem. It doesn’t have the ability to go crazy with fast on/off stutters or super-slow volume swells, but it does sound amazingly cohesive, clear, and rich, with lovely, shimmering textures. The Tremster isn’t the most far-ranging, powerful trem, but players looking for an honest, ruggedly built, vintage-sounding tremolo pedal can’t go wrong.

Vintage Technology BFD Tremolo

In the case of this Vintage Technology unit, BFD doesn’t stand for what you think it stands for. Instead, it stands for blackface Deluxe, as in Fender’s Blackface Deluxe Reverb—a classic amp that offers some of the most tube-o-licious trem ever. The BFD aims to recreate the buttery pulse of this classic amp trem, and, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if it doesn’t do it. The BFD is as barebones as it gets—no AC power adapter jack, no status LED (one can be added as an option), and no true-bypass. But the second I kicked the pedal on, I realized the BFD real quick! The trem sounds react to your playing dynamics with an almost compressed bloom. If you really lay into your guitar, the effect almost squashes out, only to reappear with a milky resonance. There isn’t a pronounced boost when you kick on the BFD, but there is no volume loss, either. Kicking it on in a full band setting was never a problem, as it came through loud and clear whether I was going for extreme pulsing or a slow n’ soulful Pop Staples-style shake. Sure, a lot of trem snobs will probably dismiss the BFD for what it doesn’t have, but for those looking for the warm, organic magic of tube tremolo, the BFD is a big deal indeed.