The Birth Of The Wang Bar (Part 1)
From the dawn of time and the twang of strings comes the tremolo arm. We reveal its courageous story.
Certified whammy Fanatic Jakko Jakszyk traces the wobbly career of the tremolo arm. We bend to his wishes.
Ever since I was a five-year-old and my pop star aspirations began, I have been obsessed with tremolo arms. Even when miming to Shadows' records with an old tennis racket, I would affix one of my Mum's dish cleaning mops to the strings of the racket and shake it merrily in time to "Apache", which would be blaring out of my Dansette.
When I was 11 and subsequently longing for bad eye sight and a spotty complexion, my Dad, a Polish carpenter, built me my first electric solid. I wanted a Flying V but he misunderstood my drawing and I ended up with a very large solid Ballelika. It didn't have a tremolo arm, so I bought a fragile looking die-cast unit from my local music shop.
The arm would snap off with alarming regularity and Dad would begrudgingly solder it back on again. This started a life long addiction to the damn things, a bitter sweet love/hate relationship and a constant search for one that would stay in tune.
As a kind of therapy, I decided to find out as much as I could about their history and humble beginnings in the world of pop music, thinking that this might provide some kind of exorcism. I was wrong of course.
In the past month or so I have discovered hundreds of tremolo arms and vibrato units of all different shapes, sizes and designs, some of them great and some of them so stupid and Heath Robinson-like that they could not possibly work, but I wanted to own them all. I'm hooked and there appears to be no cure for this addiction. So for fellow members of tremolo arms anonymous, this is for you.
Let's start at the beginning; The earliest device I could unearth was a strange revolving plate that fitted onto an acoustic guitar's sound hole. This was pioneered by the very respected Lloyd Loar who joined the Gibson Company in 1919 as chief engineer (and chief of everything else it would appear). The plate did a similar job to that of the revolving mechanisms on a vibraphone. It doesn't appear to have been all that popular and was disconnected fairly shortly after its arrival. This unit didn't actually change the pitch of the strings.
The real tremolo as we know it appears to have arrived in the late Twenties and the man responsible for this innovation and my addiction was a character called Doc Kaufman, a Kansas farmer, who played various instruments and was known as a "relentless tinkerer". He was constantly messing around with bits of machinery and improving his own instruments.
He later became Leo Fender's partner in Fender's first guitar making venture in the mid Forties, but in 1929 the Doc designed and patented the first tremolo arm. Looking a little like a smashed-up baked bean can with a sardine tin opener attached to the side, this vibrola appeared on early Rickenbacker electrics, the first model being a Rickenbacker Ken Roberts. Basically it was a standard looking acoustic guitar with F holes, a big horse shoe magnet pick-up and the Kaufman vibrola.
The unit worked with a sideways motion. When the arm was pulled up, a simple hinge let the tail-piece forward, thus flattening the strings. When the arm was released a little spring returned the tail-piece to its original position.
I haven't actually used or seen one in the flesh, but the photographs I have discovered show it to be very delicate. It looks like the kind of thing that Peter and Sarah would make out of some tin foil, an old Cornflakes packet and a squeezy bottle on "Blue Peter".
The tuning was of course lousy and the early models didn't last very long. Still this was the start, and from mighty acorns little oaks don't grow or something. Rickenbacker was still using this basic design as late as 1960.
Meanwhile, back in the Forties, respected guitar player Merle Travis was responsible for getting one of the biggest names in tremolo arms off and running. One of Merle's best friends was Paul Bigsby, a pattern-maker and part-time motor cycle engineer. Travis had been playing a Gibson L-10 for a while and had fitted one of Kaufman's Rickenbacker vibrolas to it. It had started to wear out and the tuning was well dodgy, so Merle asked his friend if he could fix it.
Bigsby said he could not only fix it but design a unit that would be more efficient and stay in tune. This he did and Merle Travis was more than pleased when the unit was fitted.
"Yep, I put it on and it worked just fine," said Merle Travis. (Don't you think that this historical revelation and interesting quote bring this whole article to life?) Thus, in 1946, the first Bigsby was born. Basically a solid tail-piece leading to a roller, the strings were threaded through the back of the roller and then around it over the top to the bridge. When the arm was depressed a small but very strong spring returned the arm to its original position. That design changed remarkably little throughout its life and they became incredibly popular. Guitar makers such as Gretsch and Gibson had Bigsbys specially made for them, and because the unit worked really well, it captured everyones' imagination. Les Paul, always a great innovator, had been messing around with a few units of his own during this period, but he too plumped for the Bigsby unit.
I have tried hard to find other designs, but none seemed to come into the public eye although there were a few oddities that made very brief appearances, one of these being another Doc Kaufman invention.
Doc patented his motorised vibrato in 1939, a logical step as electric guitar technology was just picking up momentum. The actual tailpiece mechanism was much the same as his original device 10 years previous, but the guitar — the Electro Spanish — was made in two parts out of an early plastic-like substance called Bakelite. The top half was the actual guitar which held the bridge tailpiece and motor. There was a speed knob at the top for the motor and a 110 Volt AC lead that could be plugged into the service outlet of an amp.
The back-piece held nothing, it was merely a cover for the machinery. Both halves were connected with screws separated by rubber grommets to allow a certain amount of ventilation for the slowly overheating motor while a belt on the motor wheel activated numerous arms and axles that eventually shifted the vibrola unit to and fro very slightly (brilliant, eh?) The result was that the strings wavered all the time the unit was on, because what Doc was after was a continuous violin type vibrato, or, in the words of the man himself, "the vibrato is set to sound like the voice of Perry Como". NO wonder it didn't sell!
To be fair to Como, there was quite a few other reasons that only seven of these devices were produced before they were discontinued. One was that the high strings received much more vibrato than the lower ones and this sounded particularly horrible as the vibrato droned on ad infinitum.
Another major drawback was the absence of an on/off switch. To stop it you had to pull the plug out, and when you did there was a 50/50 chance that it would be at the detuned stage. I'm told this device can be heard wobbling away on early Bing Crosby records.
The really big tremolo breakthrough came in the mid Fifties with Leo Fender's Stratocaster. Both Paul Bigsby and Doc Kaufman designs had shown definite commercial appeal but were limited and still had tuning problems. Leo Fender, always a man who relished a challenge, began to design and build a prototype.
Subsequently Fender lost more than $5000 developing the first one and they junked it in 1952. Although the mechanism worked up to a point, it didn't sustain a tone too well. Fender wanted to avoid bearings or bushings in order to minimise friction that could prevent the recovery of true pitch.
Eventually Fender stole an idea from a set of kitchen scales. They use a knife edge surface balancing on a pointed centre piece, so Fender countersunk six screw holes just ahead of each individual saddle, thus giving the knife edge against which the entire tremolo mechanism would, rock.
To avoid the strings having to go over a bridge, Fender incorporated bridge, tailpiece and vibrato tail block all into one unit. When the arm is depressed the bridge not only moves forward but higher as well, avoiding possible buzzing that results from low tension strings hitting the frets or pick-ups. This guitar and its tremolo (patented in 1954), really started the "whammy bar" revolution. The basic design hasn't changed much since then and it is this unit that is the starting point of all the new modern super tremolos.
A few years later Fender were responsible for another innovation, this time with the Jazz/Master guitar. Designed specifically for the jazz player, this uncharacteristically mellow-sounding Fender came equipped with a Gibson scale length and the new Jazz Master tremolo. Ironically hardly any jazz musicians ever played the Jazz Master, in fact the guitar almost became synonomous with the Bahama-shorted surf bands of the sixties... but back to the tremolo.
It was quite a different device because there was a plate at the end of the guitar with a large spring underneath and the tail-piece of the plate moved when the arm was depressed. The strings came after the bridge, which had round saddles so as to create less friction, but the bridge itself was balanced using the knife-edged principle again. Thus the bridge moved back and forth when the tremolo was pressed.
The unit also had a Trem-lock. This was developed because when Strat players broke a string in mid performance the whole guitar would go out of tune, but this system locked the vibrato assembly and was intended to avoid de-tuning should some strings go while you smashed the thing with a surf-board. The Jazz Master's arm action was much smoother than the Strat. Since the whole unit of a Strat moves together, there was a much firmer feel to them and it was possible to gain much more throw (the amount of note bend). So in that respect the Jazz Master was more akin to the Bigsby.
Another unit similar to the Bigsby that was also knocking around during this period was the Mosrite feather light vibrato. Designed by the young Semie Moseley, it first appeared on a guitar specially built for country super picker Joe Maphis in 1954. The unit was virtually the same as a Bigsby except that the strings went over a roller type bridge so the strings slid easily without friction.
Joe Maphis played this guitar exclusively and the exposure he gave helped launch the Mosrite guitar company. Mosrite really came to prominence in the Sixties with an American group called The Ventures who only played said guitars, and it was in the sixties that the tremolo explosion really began. The units that I've mentioned so far were the start of it and all of them American inventions.
But with the advent of surf music and instrumental groups like our own Shadows, the rest of the world went crazy. For a number of years very few electrics be they cheap or expensive, appeared without arms for vibrato effects, and it's this period that is really interesting. All sorts of weird ideas turned up and we'll get round to them in the next ish. Stay detuned for part two...