The Growth Of The Wang Bar (Part 3)
Third instalment: bending gets weirder.
Tis the season to be jolly, apparently. I dunno, the schools shut down for a couple of weeks and everyone goes barmy. Kids throwing up in the middle of pantos, kids trying to yank false beards off helpless old men impersonating Santa Claus at local department stores. Relatives that you only see once a year turn up and you have to pretend you like them. Jolly? Listen, let's forget all this bloody Christmas rubbish and get back to business. Bah, humbug etc. When you've got your wang bar in your hand and you can give it a good old thrashing, Christmas will seem a world away. Believe me.
During the early Sixties when vibrato mania was at its height there was a guitar maker and innovator whose career always seems to have been mysteriously overlooked when guitar historians put pen to paper. His name is Jim Burns, a canny Geordie who made his first solid electric in 1944, when he was nine. He went on to great popularity in the Sixties: in fact in 1959 he joined up with a guy called Henry Weill to manufacture guitars under the Burns Weill banner. Jim went solo in the same year, as Ormston Burns Ltd. During the ensuing period he produced a very successful range of guitars; so much so, in fact, that the American Baldwin piano and organ company bought Burns. They had just failed in a bid to acquire Fender: Burns was their substitute.
These were great days for Jim. He made some very interesting guitars and, in particular, tremolo arms. In 1960 the first of Jim Burns' vibrato units turned up. This was a simple design with a flat base plate bearing a non-adjustable tension spring. The successor to this unit appeared a year later; it was also available as a separate accessory as well as being fitted to early Burns guitars.
The unit this time had an adjustable spring to match different string tensions. Incidentally, this unit was also being supplied to Gretsch in America and appeared on their Jet Firebird, Duo Jet and Corvette models.
In 1961, on Jim's Black Bison guitar, a vibrato unit appeared featuring his floating bridge cradle. A rather nifty piece of engineering this one: the design featured a bridge cradle supported on bearing-spindles. These allowed it to move to and fro in relation to operation of the vibrato, giving a smooth action and also cutting down on string wear. Constant string pressure was maintained by feeding the strings under a tension bar, then up through the individual 'guide plates', and finally passing over the corresponding bridge saddles. In subsequent years there appeared various re-appraisals of this design.
In 1964, after building about 30 prototypes, came the launch of one of the most sought-after Burns guitars. It was the Marvin guitar, based on the Fender Strat with Hank Marvin's 'improvements'.
It featured Jim Burns' new 'rezo-tube' bridge and vibrato unit. This design used a knife-edged vibrato plate which was tensioned by three adjustable springs. The strings passed through individual resonator tubes mounted beneath the plate. These tubes apparently enrichened the sound and increased sustain.
Burns also had a Bigsby-type unit, used on their semi-acoustic models. But it's the rezo tube unit that proved so interesting. Many players still swear by these vibratos. Blondie's guitarist Chris Stein, for example, often flies to Britain in search of Burns models with the old rezo tube devices. The list of Burns whammy-bar users in the Sixties reads like a right old hall of fame: the Shadows, the Searchers, the Honeycombs, Elvis Presley (I kid you not) and, of course, those doyens of musical proficiency, the Troggs.
In my search for wang bars of the world, many stories and legends of mysterious tremelo units have reared their heads. The Fender Marauder has cropped up time and time again. Lots of articles and personal statements about this weird yet elusive beast abound; it's a bit like the Loch Ness monster, really: lots of opinion but very few sightings. Let me explain.
There is tell of a strange Fender called the Marauder. It appeared in the Fender catalogue of 1965. These guitars, similar in shape to the Fender Jazzmaster, appeared to have no pickups whatever. In fact they had four, but they were all concealed under the pick guard.
According to various people and publications, everything was hidden by the scratch plate. Volume and tone pots and, yes, even the tremolo arm. Descriptions of this tremolo vary from a small pressure pad hidden under the scratch plate that is depressed for the desired effect, to a visible lump emerging from the guard.
Well, I was amazed and intrigued — if a little sceptical. But the people telling me about it were, supposedly, authorities. So in search of the whole truth I decided to get it all from the horse's mouth. The horse in question is Mr Freddie Tavares. Freddie, just in case you don't know, was Leo Fender's right-hand man and chief designer. Although he is in his 70s he still works at the research and development department of Fender to this day. I had a very enjoyable chat with this warm and charming man: when quizzed about the strange and elusive Marauder he told me a few things.
"Well, I started messing around with this guitar in my spare time as a kind of hobby. Leo didn't really know about it. It had an old Strat body with all the paint stripped off. I put four pickups on it underneath a vulcanised fibre pick guard (the stuff those black drum cases are made of). There were no controls, just pickup selectors and other switches that would reverse the phase and so on. I always thought it would be an interesting instrument. It had very little attack, which appealed to me. But this was a bit against the trend of rock guitar sounds. Hell, I could get that baby to sound like an oboe — all sorts of stuff."
Very interesting, but tell me, did it have the mysterious hidden tremolo?
"No, there was no trem on my prototype. A little later, once CBS had bought Leo out, they did manufacture a few and called them Marauders. The bodies were Jazzmaster-like and they had a few controls on it. They did have one with a small vibrato on it, but it certainly wasn't hidden under the pick guard." Hmmmm. Well, I was rather disappointed. I thought I'd stumbled on to something of great significance. Oh well.
Another point worth mentioning, although not exactly related to tremolo arms (oh, tremolo arms is it?—Ed), arose from my chat with Freddie. I thought you might find it interesting.
"Guys in groups were always dropping by at the factory and seeing stuff lying on the work bench. Next thing you know there would be rumours of some new Fender development. A case in point was my double-neck. I built it purely to test the pickups. It was almost impossible to build two guitars that sound exactly the same. So I built a big one with two necks to compare pickups. Next thing I know everyone's talking about the new double-neck that Fender are developing. Soon after, competitors of ours were producing them. It was just a useful idea I came up with and we had no intention of manufacturing them. I had unwittingly started a craze."
Anyway, back to tremelo arms. By the mid-Sixties the vibrato arms popularity was beginning to fade slightly.
Instrumental groups of the Shadows' ilk were fading with them. Around this time, Gibson were producing guitars with their Vibrola tailpiece. Probably the most aesthetically pleasing of all the tremolo units, this was essentially a sprung steel plate. They are to be found on SGs, mainly the three pickup-ed Custom, and on the Firebird range (either the short type, or those with long tailpieces and covers with the Gibson logo and a lyre and leaf engraved on it).
The problem with these units is that the strings lie across the edge of the steel unit — the arm is depressed, then returned to its original position. The string windings would often get caught and thus pull the instrument sharpe.
These units are still available on Gibsons if ordered; the same is true of Bigsbys.
Fender had just about exhausted all their tremolo ideas, though a Bigsby-type unit was fitted to Fender's semi-acoustic Cornado range in 1968. In fact, Bigsbys were fitted to Telecasters in the same year.
A similar device to Gibson's Vibrola was designed by Nathan Daniel during the second half of the Sixties. Daniel was the founder of the Dan Electro company, and his device was a straightforward bridge/tailpiece and vibrato, made in 1967. It consisted of three parts: a metal plate which was both the bridge and tailpiece; the vibrato arm; and a bolt to connect the two parts. The steel plate was bent into a kind of Z shape: one end was screwed to the body of the guitar. The vertical portion acted then as the bridge saddle and the horizontal part had slots cut into its end through which the strings were anchored via their ball-ends.
The old whammy-bar itself was bolted closer to the treble side of the bridge/tailpiece, the top surface of which was angled so that the distance between the saddle portion and the rear of the assembly was greater at the treble end. This was done deliberately to increase the vibrato effect on the upper strings. This unit (like all the others, I might add) was not without its faults. Eventually the wound strings could wear grooves into the 'saddle'. This gadget appeared on the Dan Electro Hawk 2V, and Dane A-2V (both very collectable).
After my disappointment with the Fender Marauder, I did find an interesting variation. I think it's fair to say that up until now all the units I have described have had arms attached to the vibrating mechanism. Well, in 1968 one Elwin L Drake patented a tremelo that didn't. His 'vibrato tuning device' had no long lever to swing around. Instead, a bar crossing the strings controlled the unit. The operation was fairly standard though it did have some unusual features.
The vibrato's base attached to guitar's top, and on both sides of the strings it supported matching leaf-springs. These held up the bridge and provided tension to support the strings. The height at which the bridge rested, as well as the amount of "springiness", was governed by two finger-turnable screws. Two similar screws held the vibrato bar/handle. As the bar was depressed the bridge would lower and the string tension decreased. Again, when released, the leaf springs forced the bridge back into its original position. This Drake also featured rollers for the bridge.
The idea of a bar across the strings and not too far away from the bridge seems quite a good one — but I have found it elsewhere. You can play the guitar normally while resting your hand on the bar: so there's no grasping for the handle or holding the handle with your little pinky, it's there underneath your hand. Of course the draw back is that it has a limited amount of throw, and you couldn't detune the strings by that much. But these tremolos are very rare, I'm told, as old Elwin's design came out during an ebb in tremolo arm popularity.
It wasn't until Jimi Hendrix, with his feedback, tremolo and noise-guitar approach, that interest in vibrato arms came back again. There are still some interesting devices that I have yet to tell you about. Also there hasn't been much of a discography this month. What with Hendrix and pyschedelia there's a few records worth catching. This I will endeavour to do in next month's issue. So merry Christmas and a happy new year. Blimey, you read any George Orwell lately?