Who's to blame for tremolo?

I'm taking a detour this week. I started looking for some corroboration for a commonly-held belief and began digging into guitar history. I thought what I found was interesting. Hope you do too.

So…

Why do we call it a tremolo bridge and not a vibrato bridge?

Who’s to blame for ‘tremolo’?

You know that tremolo bridge on your guitar? It’s really a vibrato bridge.

Turns out.

Tremolo arm? Nope. Vibrato arm.

Whammy bar? Well… You can keep whammy.

Many players know this already, but most of us use ‘tremolo’ incorrectly when it comes to those wobbly bridges on our guitars.

Why?

Why does everyone call it a tremolo bridge?

Well, if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably heard it was all Leo Fender’s fault. Leo referred to the vibrato bridge on the Strat as a tremolo and that was that.

In fact, I started out researching to find confirmation of that very fact. After a little bit of digging, however, it seems that might not be the full story. We’ve got a cold-case guitar investigation on our hands. A historical mystery.

Before we call in the CSI forensics team, let’s take a step back.

Tremolo versus Vibrato

Is you want to know something, ask Wikipedia (which is never wrong). They say that vibrato is “a musical effect consisting of a regular, pulsating change of pitch”, whereas tremolo is a “variation in amplitude… (to) rapidly turn the volume of a signal up and down”.

So, vibrato wobbles the pitch of a note and tremolo wobbles the volume of a note.

With this in mind, our bridge — which causes notes to rise or lower in pitch — should definitely be called a vibrato bridge.

So what went wrong?

Paul Bigsby

Well, we probably can’t blame Paul Bigsby.

Bigsby patented his wobbly bridges in 1953 (although he’d been using them since the ‘40s). In both patents12, they were referred to as a ‘Tailpiece Vibrato for String Instrument’.

Seems like Bigsby’s off the hook.

Leo Fender

Then, in 1954, came the Fender Stratocaster.

Woah. What a guitar! All crazy curves and cutaways. It’s a piece of the future, today. And what’s this…? A vibrato bridge?

Nope.

I think you’ll find that’s a Synchronized Tremolo.

The patent application3, filed in 1954 for one Clarence L. Fender, detailed a ‘Tremolo Device for Stringed Instruments’. Soon after, advertisements for the Strat loudly touted its ‘synchronized tremolo action’.

And that was that.

In the minds of the guitar playing public, vibrato became tremolo. Guitars had ‘trems’ fitted and players searched the recesses of guitar cases for tremolo arms.

Leo had spoken. Tremolo was the word and the word was tremolo.

That’s what I’d heard and, if you know about the tremolo/vibrato debacle, that’s probably what you heard too.

Case closed. Leo’s in the frame. Take him downtown and book him, boys.

But wait…

Doc Kauffman

It’s worth noting that Paul Bigsby invented his vibrato unit while trying to improve on another that was already on the market: The Kauffman ‘Vibrola’.

Invented by Clayton ‘Doc’ Kauffman, the Vibrola tailpiece had been available on some Epiphone archtops and Rickenbacker instruments since the 1930s. Of course, it seems obvious that Vibrola is derived from vibrato, right?

Not necessarily.

Doc Kauffman was granted a patent for his device in 1932 (not 1935 as Wikipedia — which is almost never wrong — mentions).

That patent4 is for an ‘Apparatus for Producing Tremolo Effects’. Kauffman’s patent wording mentions tremolo extensively but neglects to include the word vibrato.

So what’s the real story?

The most obvious explanation is that the terms tremolo and vibrato had been interchangeable for some time.

While the popularity of the Strat has probably helped cement this misnomer in players’ heads, my guess is that the mixup was in common use long before Leo Fender installed a tremolo bridge on his fancy new guitar.

Now make your peace with it

While I’m as pedantic as the next know-it-all, I’ve made my peace with this. I suggest you do the same. Correcting the tremolo/vibrato mistake isn’t a fight that can be won (or even that needs to be fought).

Get over it. Just happily use tremolo when referring to… well… tremolo bridges.

Because that’s what they are now.

Afterword: The Cosmos Is Balanced

Perhaps in an effort to achieve a weird symmetry, it’s worth noting that Leo Fender also referred to the tremolo circuit in some early Fender amps as ‘Vibrato’.

Balance has been restored.

And there you go. Hope you enjoyed this little diversion. Well, you'd better have enjoyed it — it's got footnotes and everything. 😉

  1. https://patents.google.com/patent/USD170109S ↩︎
  2. https://patents.google.com/patent/USD169120S ↩︎
  3. https://patents.google.com/patent/US2741146A/en ↩︎
  4. https://patents.google.com/patent/US1839395A ↩︎