One question many new guitarists ask when buying electric guitars is whether they need a tremolo, trem or whammy bar on their guitar or if a fixed bridge is right for them.
The tremolo bar (often called a whammy bar or shortened to trem) on a guitar is a long metal pole which sticks out of the guitar near to where the picking hand is normally positioned. This is attached to what is known as the bridge, and the purpose of this bar is to change the pitch of one or more of the strings on the guitar. Commonly found on Fender Stratocasters, these were traditionally used to create a subtle vibrato effect on chords or notes in a melody line. Vibrato is technique on stringed instruments where by the pitch moves higher or lower by a small amount repeatedly. Whilst normally done by gently wiggling the finger which is fretting the note, using a tremelo bar makes this easier on the fingers of the fretting hand and also easier to use the effect on chords. A good example of this is the song Apache by The Shadows, which features Hank Marvin putting the tremolo bar to good use on his Fender Stratocaster – the first one ever imported into the UK! There many other great examples of this through 60’s surf music, with many of these tunes being used extensively in Quentin Tarantino films.
Another version of tremolo found on electric guitars is the Bigsby Vibrato System, found throughout many models from Gretsch guitars. In a similar manner to a Stratocaster’s tremelo, the effect is made by either pulling the bar up away from the body to raise the pitch, or pushing it further into the body to make the pitch lower. However, whereas a Fender Tremolo system contains all the mechanical elements which make this possible inside of the guitar, a Bigsby being an older and more simple design has these on top. Due to a Bigsby’s simpler design, the amount which the pitch is changed is less than that on a Fender Strat, creating a much more subtler effect. This subtleness is used to great effect in a great deal of country & bluegrass guitarists, such as rockabilly artist Brian Setzer or finger picking extraordinary Chet Atkins.
Although used subtly for a number of years on Fender Stratocasters, the popularisation of rock music in the late 60’s and early 70’s brought with it a whole new way of looking at the tremolo bar. Along with his many other guitar innovations, Jimi Hendrix is also often credited as the first person to push the boundaries of what can be done with a tremolo bar. Rather than using it simply for a vibrato effect, Hendrix would press the bar till it almost touched the body, decreasing the pitch of the strings significantly. Known as a “Dive Bomb”, this once unappealing sound became much more enjoyable when combined with distortion and the variety of other newly created guitar effects pedals, Hendrix now had at his disposal other worldly and unearthly sounds which were completely new at the time. A good example of this over use would be the song Voodoo Chile by Jimi Hendrix. Although the appeal may be there to create these same sounds on your first starter Stratocaster style guitar, you may not achieve the same pleasing results. This is because Jimi Hendrix would modify his instruments to be able to handle this abuse, and without these modifications your guitar may experience tuning problems!
This leads us onto our next example at the other much more extreme end of guitar tremolo systems: the Floyd Rose system. Floyd Roses were first designed to combat some of the issues and limitations of the traditional Fender Tremolo system, such as the aforementioned tuning issues and the range of pitch notes could be lowered or raised. Popularised by 80’s Shredders such as Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satrianni and Steve Vai, Floyd Rose equipped guitars are designed to hardly ever go out of tune no matter how much you use them. This new tuning stability is aided by fine tuners near the picking hand on the bridge. This lead to the advent of “Super-Strats” which are guitars based on the shape of a Fender Stratocaster but modified with innovative new parts such as a Floyd Rose. One of the main disadvantages with a Floyd Rose is that it is much more difficult to change the strings; the ball end of the strings need to be cut off and the each string is secured at different points using an allen key, all of which takes time. Another key disadvantage is that guitars equipped with a Floyd Rose or similar Tremolo system are often in varying degrees more expensive than an electric guitar with a more traditional style of bridge.
Although each has their own advantages, the tuning problems, awkward string changes, sustain issues and cosmetic look of tremolo bar equipped guitars means many players often opt for a fixed bridge or hard tail equipped guitar. Seen on countless models from Gibson, Fender Telecasters, PRS and hundreds of other guitar models throughout the years, fixed bridge guitars are often seen to have much better tuning stability. This is particularly noticeable when playing music styles like rock or metal where palm muting is utilised, or indeed any musical style where a heavy handed approach is used for rhythm playing, such as funk or ska. The main disadvantage is simply that any vibrato or bending is limited to what can be done with the player’s fretting hand. In terms of lead playing, fixed bridge guitars are also said to have better sustain (the amount of time a note can ring out for), because the bridge has more contact with the guitars body.
As with any choice a new guitarist faces it comes down to what style of music you want to play! Look at what type of guitars that guitarists you like to listen to use, and look for a model which has the same style of bridge. If there’s a lot of chords and rhythm playing, then it may be a good idea to buy a fixed bridge equipped guitar. If there’s lots of Divebombs, Scoops and other strange techniques, it may be worth starting on a guitar with a Fender style tremolo before graduating to one with a Floyd Rose. Ultimately it is down to personal preference, and there is no right or wrong answer.