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A Brief History of Tremolo


Dan Formosa
October 10, 2013

In use by e arly 1940s, the De Armond Tre molo Control was the first comme rcially produce d e le ctric guitar e ffe ct.
Photo by Chris Gray

I set out to investigate the earliest recorded examples of guitarists using tremolo and the equipment they used to
do it. You might think, as I did, that the story starts somewhere in the 1930s or 40s. But the search took me
much further back: specifically, to the 9th -century Byzantine Empire and 16th -century Europe. Obviously, there
were no electric guitars then, but tremolo was being used as a musical device more than a millennium ago.

After exploring those origins, well leap ahead to the mechanical tremolo contraptions of the 1800s, and finally,
the electronic tremolo circuits of the 20th century. Well encounter the first electronic tremolo (created for
organs, not guitars) and the first electronic guitar tremolo, which also happened to be the first electric guitar effect
box. Well look at the first tremolo amps that appeared in the late 1940s, and well conclude in 1963, when
Fender introduced their then-radical photocell tremolo circuit.

By Tremolo, We Mean.
Our focus is the history of musicians ability to oscillate the volume of a note, not its pitch. Oscillating pitch
change is properly referred to as vibrato, not tremolo. But as youll see, the words have a long history of being
confused. (Theres also another musical definition of tremolo: striking the same note many times in rapid
succession, mandolin-style, a technique also known as tremolando.)

For centuries musicians have sought ways to impart a wavering, voice-like quality
to notes and chords.

Tremolos Ancient Origins


Oscillating the volume of a note is an ancient techniqueweve been able to do it with our voices as long as
weve been capable of singing or yelling. For centuries musicians have sought ways to impart this wavering,
voice-like quality to notes and chords. Any musician playing a bowed stringed instrument can create tremolo
they simply move the bow back and forth while sustaining a note, as weve seen countless violinists and cellists
do. (Their bow-wielding hand provides tremolo, while the hand quivering on the fingerboard varies the pitch of
the strings, producing vibrato.)

We dont know exactly when and where the first bowed instruments originated, but theres a Byzantine carving
from around 900 A.D. depicting a scantily clad cherub holding an extremely long bow against the strings of an
instrument known as a lyra. We dont know whether lyra players used tremolo effects, but the technique was
available.

How far back must we go to find an instrument that produces


tremolo mechanically? Sixteenth-century pipe organs used
slightly detuned pitches played simultaneously to create an
undulating effect. One of the earliest mechanical tremolos can
be found on the 1555 pipe organ in the San Martino
Maggiore church in Bologna, Italy. It includes several effeti
speziali (auxiliary stops), including drums, birdcalls, drones,
bells, and tremulanta mechanism that opened and closed a
diaphragm to vary the air pressure. As the pressure varied, so
did the volume.

But guess what? The changing pressure simultaneously alters


volume and pitch. Therefore, the tremulant mechanism
produced both tremolo and vibrato. In other words, the
confusion between the two terms far predates Leo Fenders This Byz antine carving from 900 A.D. sugge sts that
decision to call the Stratocasters vibrato-producing whammy musicians from this time pe riod may have use d tre molo
e ffe cts on stringe d instrume nts such as the lyra.
bar tremolo. We see this confusion again and again.
By the late 17th century vibrato/tremolo was being documented as a flute-playing technique. Again, fluctuating air
pressure in a flute produced both volume and pitch changes.

Fast Forward
In 1891, George Van Dusen patented a device similar in many ways to the vibrato-producing whammy bars we
know today in 1891. His mechanism, designed for any stringed instrument, anchors the string at the short end of
a spring-loaded lever. A push on the lever pulls the string tighter, raising its pitch, after which a spring attached to
the lever returns the string to its original pitch. The result is vibrato, though Van Dusen called it tremolo in the
U.S. patent application.

But Van Dusen (or should I say Munn & Company, his patent attorneys?) werent acting in isolation. The words
tremolo and vibrato both found their way into patent vocabulary, where they were used interchangeably.

Orville Lewis devised a somewhat similar device for violin in 1921. It worked by oscillating the bridge. Again, his
device varied pitch, and again, the effect was called tremolo. Clayton Kauffmann created a sort of whammy bar
for banjo in 1929. As with all whammy bars, the result was vibrato, not tremolo. And again, the product
description used the word tremolo.

There were devices that produced true tremolo, such as rotating fins on a piano cabinet that opened and closed
a sound port, or a spinning mechanism for a wind instrument mouthpiece that modulated airflow. But unlike
bowed and blown instruments, non-electric guitars have no innate tremolo techniques. It takes an amplified guitar
and electronic circuitry to produce a wavering-volume effect.
This Storytone piano by is one of only 150 made and was the world's first e le ctric piano mode l. It de bute d at the 1939 World's Fair
and the e arly mode ls had De Armond tre molo units mounte d unde r the ke yboard. Photo by Dave Fey

Early Electric Guitar Tremolo


By 1941 the DeArmond company had developed what may have been the first effect unit for guitarists. It resides
between the guitar and the amplifier like todays effects. Inside the metal box is a small glass jar containing a
water-based electrolytic fluid, which gets shaken by a motor. Inside the jar is a pin attached to the positive
connection of the guitar cable. As liquid splashes against the pin, signal is shunted to ground. The result: great-
sounding, liquid-like tremolo.

The 1941 date is not based on the effect being used with guitars, but on the first electric pianos. Storytone pianos
were manufactured by Story & Clark and developed in conjunction with RCA. They were first exhibited at the
1939 New York Worlds Fair. By 1941 early models boasted DeArmond tremolo units mounted directly under
the keyboard for easy access. In August of that year, pianists J. Russel Robinson and Teddy Hale performed at
the Chicagoland Music Festival, their state-of-the-art Storytones outfitted with both DeArmond units and
Hammond Solovoxes (miniature, secondary keyboards, and some of the first synthesizers.)

There wasnt much musical instrument development


during World War II, so the second effects box may
have been Andrew Appels 1945 tremolo device.
His design, housed in a metal box quite similar in
shape to the DeArmond unit, arranged resistors in a
circular pattern in ascending order of resistance. A
motor rotated a contact that successively touched
each resistor. The result, in theory, was equivalent to
quickly raising and lowering your guitars volume
control. Again, even though the effect only changed
volume, Appel described the device as creating
tremolo or vibrato effects in conjunction with an
electric type stringed musical instrument. (Note: I
have never seen this unit and am not sure if it ever
went into production. If anyone has further
knowledge, please let us know!)

Other mechanical innovations? Donald Leslie first


attempted to patent a rotating horn device in 1940.
(He abandoned that first version, but followed up in
1945 with an alternative.) His earliest design
incorporated a stationary speaker that faced upward,
its sound flowing into the small end of a rotating horn
a bit like the ones on early Victrolas. His patent
describes the effect as producing pitch tremolo or
vibrato. The rotating horn or speaker in the classic
Leslie cabinet produces tremolo and vibrato
simultaneously. As the speaker or cone moves
towards you, the sound waves move faster, slightly
Andre w Appe ls pate nt for an e arly e le ctronic tre molo de vice . raising pitch. The pitch lowers slightly as the speaker
moves away. Meanwhile, volume is greatest when the speaker faces you. Therefore tremolo and vibrato is an
accurate description of the Leslie effect.

The First Guitar Amp Tremolo


Nathan Daniel created the first guitar amplifier with vibrato in 1947, the year he founded the Danelectro
company. He called it a Vibrato System for Amplifiers, and his extended description explains that the circuit
produces a tremolo or vibrato effect.

The patent was granted in 1949, but were not sure exactly when the circuit was first used in a Danelectro amp.
According to Nathan Daniels son Howard, I have no knowledge of this, and I suspect there's no living person
who does. I can speculate, however, based on my knowledge of my dad, that he introduced tremolo sooner than
1950, as soon as he could following his application for a patent. Tremolo definitely appears on Danelectros
1950s Special model amps.
But Multivox and Gibson may have beaten
Danelectro to the market with trem-equipped amps.
A 1947 Multivox ad trumpets the companys new
model: Guitarists! You owe it to yourself to try the
new Premier 66 Tremolo Amplifier. Yes, you too
will be sold on this new amplifier from the very first
trial. The built-in Electronic Tremolo lends a new
organlike quality to your tone. Meanwhile, Gibsons
first tremolo amp, the GA-50T, appeared in 1948.

(Note to Magnate fans: While Magnatone began


manufacturing steel guitar amps in the late 1930s,
their first tremolo-enabled amplifier, the Vibra-Amp,
didnt arrive until 1955. Their true vibrato circuits,
using varistors to alter pitch rather than volume, first
appeared in 1957s Custom 200 series.)

The tremolo section of a vintage amp circuit (yes, its


called vibrato on many amps and schematics)
involves at least one tube. A wavering voltage affects
the tubes bias. How that wavering voltage is
generated, and to which section of the amp circuit it is
applied, account for the sonic differences between
various tube tremolo circuits. Without getting too
technical, lets look at how they work, using several
Fender tremolo amps as examples.

Fenders earliest tremolo amplifier appeared in 1955,


relatively late in the game. The tremolo section in a
55 Tremolux amp uses a 12AX7 tube, resistors, and The Pre mie r 66 may have be e n the first amp introduce d with
tre molo, in 1947. Gibsons GA-50T from 1948 was one of the first
capacitors to vary the voltage. All amps with two or amps to fe ature a built-in tre molo e ffe ct. Fe nde rs first tre molo
amp was 1955s Tre molux. Late r brownface and blackface Fe nde r
more power tubes include a tube called a phase amps would fe ature radically diffe re nt ve rsions of the e ffe ct.
inverter, which splits the guitar signal to allow two (or
four) power tubes to share amplification duties. The Tremolux is unique in that the wavering voltage is sent to the
cathode element of the phase inverter.
The 1956 Vibrolux operates on the same basic principle, varying the bias. It also uses resistors and capacitors,
enlisting only half of a 12AX7. (A single 12AX7 tube houses two separate triode tubes, which can be used
independently.) The modulating voltage enters the guitar signal path after the phase inverter, acting on the grid
elements of the two 6V6 power tubes.

(The brownface amps Fender introduced in 1959the Vibrasonic, Concert, and eventually other models
utilize a circuit called harmonic vibrato. Its not exactly tremolo or vibrato, although it can certainly create that
impression. Think of tremolo volume as a sine wave, with high and low peaks. Now think of a second tremolo
wave, this time offset by 180 degrees. It would cancel the first tremolothe summed volume would be flat.
However, the harmonic vibrato circuits send higher frequencies to one wave and lower frequencies to the other.
There is no actual change in volume or pitch, but rather a sort of phase shift.)

Fenders next type of tremolo featured a very different system. The blackface amps that appeared in 1963 use a
12AX7 tube and a photocell to oscillate the voltage. That system employs a neon light to open and close the
photocell. It acts on the grid of the phase inverter. Photocell tremolo tends to sound choppier than earlier bias
variation circuits. (For an example of bias variation tremolo, listen to Otis Reddings version of A Change is
Gonna Come, featuring Steve Cropper on guitar. For photocell tremolo, try the Doors Riders on the Storm.)

Early Tremolo Recordings


With DeArmond tremolo boxes underway by 1941 and amplifiers
incorporating tremolo circuits appearing by end of the decade, what
are the earliest guitar tremolo recordings? Maybe a better question
would be, why would DeArmond, Danelectro, or Gibson offer
tremolo for guitar unless guitarists were experimenting with the effect?
Since the Hammond company was using tremolo in its organs since
the 1930s, the potential for early experimentation by guitarists
certainly existed. With that thought in mind, Ill share the oldest
tremolo tracks Ive uncovered so far. If youre aware of earlier ones,
please let us know

Guitar tremolo can clearly be heard on four songs that singer/pianist


Roosevelt Sykes recorded in Chicago on April 16, 1942. Are You
Unhappy, You Can't Do That to Me, Sugar Babe Blues, and
Love Has Something to Say probably feature Big Bill Broonzy
playing through a DeArmond unit.

Les Paul, electric guitar pioneer and mad scientist of the recording
studio, may have used a subtle tremolo effect on his 1946 recording of
Sweet Hawaiian Moonlight.

You can hear Muddy Waters playing through a tremolo effect on his
1953 song Flood. Two years later Bo Diddley made tremolo a
centerpiece of his sound, using a DeArmond unit on his 1955 hits Bo
Blue sman Big Bill Broonz y is probably the Diddley, Diddley Daddy, and Pretty Thing.
guitarist on se ve ral 1942 songs by singe r/pianist
Roose ve lt Syke s. The tre molo e ffe ct is
unmistakable .
By the late 1950s electric tremolo was in full swing. Duane Eddy
famously incorporated it in many of his recordings. He obtained a
DeArmond unit in 1957 and used it on Rebel Rouser the following year. According to Eddy, the tremolo effect
was cool because it was such a simple melody. His other tremolo-based songs include Stalkin,
Cannonball, The Lonely One, and Forty Miles of Bad Road. Also in 1958, Link Wray recorded
Rumble, where you can hear the effect being turned on in the final portion of the song.

The 1960s brought an entirely new wave of tremolo-infused amps, effect pedals, and guitar recordingsfar
more than we can cover here. But even a short list of great trem-fueled 60s classics reveals how much the effect
contributed to the decades sound.

Slim Harpo, Baby, Scratch My Back

Tommy James & the Shondells, Crimson and Clover

The Shadows, Apache

Buffalo Springfield, For What It's Worth

Creedence Clearwater Revival, Born on the Bayou

The Rolling Stones, Gimme Shelter


Lets conclude our early history of tremolo with two songs that demonstrate how compelling tremolo can be: The
Staple Singers 1956 recording of Uncloudy Day (above), with Pops Staples on guitar, and Nancy Sinatras
Bang Bang, with L.A. session ace Billy Strange (below). Both songs feature vocals, tremolo guitar, and nothing
else. When you have an effect this dramatic and powerful, who needs a band?