Vibrato and Tremolo Systems Explained!
Vibrato systems on a guitar is a device, usually a tremolo arm, or whammy bar, that is attached to the guitar’s body and is used to change the tension of the strings, which gives the instrument a vibrato-like quality.
The vibrato sound resembles a pulsating change in pitch, or another way to think about it is a when a singer sings a note and holds it, but the note sort of vibrates. There are a number of systems used on guitar to give you a vibrato effect, but before we get into that, let’s clear up the differences between this and tremolo.
Tremolo vs. Vibrato
Vibrato is the effect that varies pitch. Tremolo is the effect that varies volume. Bam. Easy.
For example, when you push that whammy bar downward, or pull it upwards, you’re changing the string tension, and therefore changing the pitch of the sound, this is vibrato.
When you use a tremolo effect pedal, it changes the volume of the sound. Tremolo effects are usually stuttering or shuddering effects. Tremolo sounds a bit like if you rapidly tap play and pause buttons super fast, or switch sound on and off. Now that we understand the differences between vibrato and tremolo, let’s talk about some of the vibrato systems used on guitars.
Bigsby tailpieces are a staple on a number of guitars from Gibson, Epiphone, Gretsch and more. The Bigsby uses a spring in conjunction with the whammy bar for operation. The system also utilizes a 'rocking bridge’ that rocks forward, loosening the strings when the bar is pushed down. This lowers the string pitch and provides that vibrato sound! The bar can also be pulled upward to raise the pitch of the strings.
Floyd Rose / Fender
The Floyd Rose design and the Fender vibrato systems are very similar. The Fender vibrato arm is set in a ‘floating’ position which means it can be used to push the strings down or pull them up, lowering or raising the string pitch. Doing this usually results in the strings going out of tune.
The Floyd Rose is a locking vibrato system that was invented in 1976. A huge advantage of using a locking system is that it does not throw the guitar strings out of tune when performing big pitch changes with the vibrato arm, like most other vibrato systems. This system locks the strings at the nut and at the bridge. For more info on Floyd Rose, check out Andertons’ great post here.
For more on vibrato and tremolo, refer to our Rock Level 1 lesson on this topic here. Anders will show you how to properly use these systems and effects in a rock context.