Whammy Bars, many times referred to as tremolo or vibrato bridges if we're getting down to details, are pretty commonly found on popular electric guitars throughout the world. They go back to the 1930s when Doc Kauffman created and patented the very first mechanical vibrato unit.
After building this device, known as the "Vibrola," on a few Epiphone Archtop guitars during the late ‘30s, the design took off. Every guitar company wanted in.
Fast forward to present times and the whammy bar has expanded in just about every way we can imagine.
The thing is, many guitarists don’t understand what makes one whammy bar different from the next. Luckily, we’ve created a small guide with all the whammy bar information you’ll ever need.
1. Bigsby Vibrato
Before the Bigsby vibrato/tremolo bridge came out, the idea of the whammy bar hadn’t quite reached the general public.
Merle Travis, a favorite country guitarist of the time, was sick of his guitar going out of tune thanks to his unreliable, spring-loaded Vibrola. He commissioned his friend, Paul Bigsby, to fix it. Paul ended up going overboard with his "fix" and ended up creating the first true vibrato system, the Bigsby.
The Bigsby Vibrato has a rocker bridge as the main component. Instead of the strings going through holes, they wrap around a metal bar that is attached to the tremolo arm. A guitarist can push the arm down and loosen the strings to get the drop in pitch.
Today, the Bigsby is probably one of the most unique whammy bars around. It has a smooth, easy-to-use feel, and is often seen on vintage, archtop guitars.
In terms of staying in tune, it's not the best, and its pitch bend is not as dramatic as others. Basically, if you're looking for a smoother, more subtle whammy bar, the Bigsby is one of the best.
Bigsby Bridges We Like:
2. Fender Synch Tremolo
The next advancement in the world of tremolos came from Leo Fender, the head designer, and inventor of Fender guitars. The Fender synch tremolo first appeared on the Fender Stratocaster, released in 1954. The idea was to create a tremolo with a greater pitch range, as well as a tremolo that was capable of bending up.
The reason it was named the synch or "synchronized" tremolo was because the saddle and strings were meant to move in unison like one significant movement. This helped to eliminate string friction with the saddle, and in turn, helped the strings to move back to their original tuning and tension when the bar was laid to rest.
In terms of design, the tailpiece is made out of a singular piece of metal that sits flush in the body of the guitar, with holes in the top to allow the strings to go through. The actual arm moves through the bridge and into the tailpiece, making it far more stable than the Bigsby. Most modern tremolos used this design to bounce ideas off of and innovate with. It is easily one of the most influential whammy bars in history.
Fender Synch Tremolos We Like:
3. Locking Tremolo
In 1979, Floyd D. Rose developed the very first locking tremolo, the Floyd Rose Tremolo. Many people believe that Eddie Van Halen was the man who pushed the Floyd Rose Tremolo to stardom, as he was one of the most prominent Shredder-style guitarists of the time.
Still to this day, if you are a rock or metal guitarists, a locking tremolo is a must.
The actual design of the locking tremolo shows a ton of influence from the Fender Synch Trem, though the big difference is that the strings are locked in place for stability in tuning and intonation.
The way it works is you tune your guitar to whatever tuning, and then lock the nut and bridge with the included Allen key. This meant that you could tune down to Drop D or C and remain in tune while dive-bombing those low notes.
Because the Floyd Rose Locking Trem is a floating system, the pitch can be raised or lowered without much work. This is because there is an open space behind the tremolo where the springs “float” between the tremolo and body.
If you’re looking to get those Eddie Halen-style dives and bends, look no further than a locking tremolo.
Locking Tremolos We Like:
4. Fender Floating Bridge
When Leo Fender came up with his tremolo design, he decided to make the first ones with floating bridges before sticking with the more stable synchronized tremolo.
You’ve most likely seen these types of bridges before, as they raise up off the body of the guitar. The reason so many people love this style of bridge/whammy bar is that you can manipulate the pitch up or down much easier.
The action sits much lower as well, meaning you can use it to give life to those long chord strums.
The main issue with floating bridges is that they go out of tune very easily if one string bends or breaks. This is because the strings on a floating bridge are balanced together.
However, if you’re looking for something that is a bit more natural sounding to help sweeten up your playing a bit like Stevie Ray Vaughan, a Fender Floating Bridge is your best bet.
These types of tremolos were found mostly on old Jazzmasters, as well as Jaguars, Mustangs, and a few vintage Fender Bass VI guitars as well.
Floating Bridges We Like:
Respect the Whammy
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, whammy bars are the pinnacle of pitch-related effects in the world of guitars. There's just nothing quite like using your hands to sweeten up your sound and add life to your guitar's tone.
Understanding the different types of whammy bars can help you to know how to make your guitar function differently. We hope that our article helped give you all the insight you'll ever need on these fantastic contraptions.
Keep calm, and whammy on!