Is the Bigsby a Tremolo or Vibrato?

Discussion in 'THE Gretsch Discussion Forum' started by Gregor, Nov 16, 2020.

  1. Gregor

    Gregor Synchromatic

    Oct 17, 2018
    New Brunswick, Canada
    I've always referred to it as a vibrato but here's a rather interesting article on the subject:

    Who’s to blame for ‘tremolo’?

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

    Gerry Haze at Haze Guitars
    2 ↩︎ 3. ↩︎
    4. ↩︎
  2. thunder58

    thunder58 Super Moderator Staff Member

    Dec 23, 2010
    tappan ny
    Admin Post
    Is the Bigsby a Tremelo or Vibrato ? .......neither , it's a Bigsby :p ( sorry , just going for the laugh . I'm here all week folks )
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  3. drmilktruck

    drmilktruck I Bleed Orange

    May 17, 2009
    Plymouth, MN
    Let's just call it a Wiggle Stick and leave it at that! :cool:

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  4. macdog

    macdog Gretschie

    Dec 25, 2014
    Metal Mechanical Spring-loaded Arm-actuated Guitar String Pitch Modulation Device. Simple.
  5. audept

    audept Senior Gretsch-Talker

    Dec 1, 2010
    Sydney, Australia
    Gretsch is convinced that a Bigsby is a tremelo. That is why they add "T" to a model designation for Bigsby-equipped guitars (5420T for example)
  6. thunder58

    thunder58 Super Moderator Staff Member

    Dec 23, 2010
    tappan ny
    Admin Post
    Vibrato got my vote
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  7. speedicut

    speedicut Friend of Fred

    Jun 5, 2012
    Heh, I've had this argument plenty of times in real life!
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  8. Randy99CL

    Randy99CL Synchromatic

    Feb 17, 2020
    I don't have any problem with the surface-mounted devices being called Vibratos and the cavity-sunk designs Tremolos, as Leo called them. But that's just me.
    Last edited: Nov 16, 2020
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  9. Gregor

    Gregor Synchromatic

    Oct 17, 2018
    New Brunswick, Canada
    KISS Theory
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  10. Gregor

    Gregor Synchromatic

    Oct 17, 2018
    New Brunswick, Canada
    Who won?
  11. speedicut

    speedicut Friend of Fred

    Jun 5, 2012
    Me! :D
  12. sgarnett

    sgarnett Synchromatic

    Apr 14, 2020
    Personally, as an electrical engineer, I try to maintain an even expression as people refer to open circuits as “shorts”. Was there a flash of light or smoke? No? With the possible exception of “small signal” circuits, it was probably an “open”.

    I resolve the tremolo/vibrato issue by using my tremolo bridge to produce vibrato (when not doing it with my fretting hand instead).
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  13. tartanphantom

    tartanphantom Friend of Fred

    Jul 30, 2008
    Murfreesboro, TN
    In real-world musical terms, tremolo is a modulation of volume.
    Vibrato is a modulation of pitch.

    Two different things. Last time I checked, the purpose of the Fender "synchronized tremolo" is to modulate the pitch, just like a Bigsby. Even if you called it a "synchronized color-changing overdrive echo phase shifter" it still wouldn't change the actual mechanical function of the unit. However, in defense of Fender, Leo was never a musician of any sort and didn't have any musical training, so his use of "tremolo" as a malapropism for "vibrato" doesn't really surprise me.

    It's vibrato.
    Last edited: Nov 16, 2020
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  14. Mr. Lumbergh

    Mr. Lumbergh Country Gent

    May 14, 2013
    Initech, Inc.
    Uh no, Strat-Talk arguments are starting to bleed over onto here... :eek:

    Anywho, tremolo is a modulation in volume and vibrato is a modulation in pitch from a purely musical-definition standpoint. Leo got those backwards and we've been paying for it ever since. I reckon Bigs also calls it a trem because that's what we as guitarists all know it as now.
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  15. Scott Fraser

    Scott Fraser Country Gent

    Jan 14, 2012
    Los Angeles
    Just to add to the terminological confusion, tremolo on a bowed string instrument refers to neither pitch nor amplitude modulation. It is very rapid up & down stroke bowing, like 64th or 128th notes.
    So I guess we can say that the real definition depends on what instrument you play.
  16. emitex

    emitex Synchromatic

    Aug 21, 2014
    The easiest way I try to explain it to someone is: Vibrato sharpens or flattens a note. With Tremolo, the note stays the same but it's volume goes up and down.
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  17. Wjensen

    Wjensen Gretschie

    May 25, 2019
    Raleigh, NC
    I am curious to know how someone who was not a musician made a guitar that has become a so popular. But, this being a Gretsch forum, I suppose I shall have to search elsewhere. But it is curious...
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  18. Synchro

    Synchro The artist formerly known as: Synchro Staff Member

    Jun 2, 2008
    Admin Post
    The technical definition is vibrato, but I have to admit that I use the word “trem” all the time. Maybe the word vibrato is just too dramatic. :) I will add some murk to the waters, however, by pointing out that when you loosen strings by pressing down on the vibrato, there is less energy, hence less volume. So, you could make subtle use of a vibrato tailpiece to create a tremolo effect.

    Likewise, rapid alternate picking is called a tremolo. Think tenor banjo players or Django.
    T-Bawler, Scott Fraser and Gregor like this.
  19. Synchro

    Synchro The artist formerly known as: Synchro Staff Member

    Jun 2, 2008
    Admin Post
    By dint of being a creative genius. There is a biography written by his widow which reveals him to be a workaholic of the highest order. He wasn’t much of a player, but he knew the sound he wanted.
    Gregor likes this.
  20. Henry

    Henry I Bleed Orange

    Apr 9, 2014
    Like most things related to language, "right" and "wrong" is specific and relative. Yes, the common usage of "vibrato" means change in pitch.

    But that is not inherently correct. The word comes from the same root as vibrate. As we know, sound is the result of vibrations, and in fact one can have one consistent vibration . . . i.e. no change in pitch.

    So if common usage resulted in vibrato meaning slight changes in pitch, well, common usage could dictate that vibrato also means change in amplitude.

    Here is a great article about how language usage changes over time, and what was once wrong becomes right through usage:
    Fears of language decline seem to be a human universal

    THE English language, we all know, is in decline. The average schoolchild can hardly write, one author has recently warned. Well, not that recently perhaps. It was William Langland, author of "Piers Plowman", who wrote that “There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter.” He died in 1386.

    English has been getting worse ever since. In 1387, Ranulph Higden, a Benedictine monk and historian, found the culprit in language mixing: “By commiyxtion and mellyng, furst wiþ Danes and afterward wiþ Normans, in menye þe contray longage ys apeyred and som useþ strange wlaffyng chyteryng, harryng, and garryng grisbyttyng.” That is to say (in case your Middle English is rusty) that English speakers had taken to “strange, articulate utterance, chattering, snarling and harsh teeth-gnashing”, bad habits he put down to the mixing together of Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Norman French.

    The wailing throughout the history of the language, by people convinced that the end is nigh, can be a bit exhausting over a full survey. But it holds a lesson: language is not constant. Change is—and anxiety about change is constant too. In 1577 Richard Stanihurst praised the English spoken by old English settlers in Ireland. Because of their distance from the mother country, they had not been affected by “habits redolent of disgusting newness”.

    A century later, in 1672, John Dryden, a poet and essayist, waxed especially operatic on the decline of English—and not just schoolboys’ English, but that of the greats:

    It is not their plots which I meant, principally, to tax; I was speaking of their sense and language; and I dare almost challenge any man to shew me a page together, which is correct in both. … [M]alice and partiality set apart, let any man who understands English, read diligently the works of Shakspeare and Fletcher; and I dare undertake that he will find in every page either some solecism of speech, or some notorious flaw in sense.

    Another half-century on, another great writer was at the decline game, this time Jonathan Swift:

    our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; and the Pretenders to polish and refine it, have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities; and, that in many Instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar.

    Swift’s only comfort was that French was declining nearly as rapidly as English. (That didn’t stop him from proposing an English academy, along the lines of the Académie Française, to stop the decline.)

    Anxiety sells, and so warnings about the state of the language accelerated as dictionary- and grammar-book writers sought—and found—a mass market. Samuel Johnson, who has given this column its name, hoped to give the language some stability, but realised that trying to stop change was like trying to “lash the wind”. But many of his contemporaries were not so generous. Robert Lowth, probably the most influential English grammarian of all time, began his 1762 book with a quotation from Cicero complaining about the rubbish Latin that the Roman statesman heard in the streets around him. Lowth went on to use examples from Shakespeare, Milton and the King James Bible as “false syntax” illustrating errors, complaining that even “Our best authors have committed gross mistakes, for want of a due knowledge of English grammar.”

    Perhaps the stern Victorians, at least, mastered English? They did not; the poet Arthur Hugh Clough complained in 1852 that “Our own age is notorious for slovenly or misdirected habits of composition.” Americans in their young republic were also already going into decline, too: Adams Sherman Hill, a Harvard professor of rhetoric, found “the work of even good scholars disfigured by bad spelling, confusing punctuation, ungrammatical, obscure, ambiguous, or inelegant expressions” in 1879. Charles Henshaw Ward, another American, blamed the usual suspects, the school pupils, in 1917: “Every high school is in disrepair because its pupils are so ignorant of the merest rudiments.”

    Perhaps the greatest writer to be persuaded of declinism was George Orwell, who wrote in 1946 that “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.” The essay in which he tried to stop the rot did little good, at least as far as his successors were concerned. Dwight McDonald wrote in his 1962 review of Webster’s third New International Dictionary about modern permissive attitudes “debasing our language by rendering it less precise”. In 1973 "Newsweek" explained “Why Johnny can’t write” on its cover. That same year, a young Lynne Truss finished school in England. She would go on to sound the alarm in what would become the modern stickler’s book-length battle-cry, 2003’s “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”.

    This is in no way limited to English. I have just been sent a press release for a book called “Bin ich der einzigste hiere, wo Deutsch kann?” (“Am I the Only One Who Speaks German Here?”) with a few hard-to-translate mistakes in the German title. German has also been in decline for a while: 1974 saw the publication of Die Leiden der Jungen Wörter, "The Sorrows of Young Words" (a pun on Goethe’s Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers, the “Sorrows of Young Werther”.) Even Jakob Grimm (1785-1863) thought that German had been more expressive and elegant hundreds of years before his time.

    Have young people too lazy to learn to write been with us since the very beginning? A collection of proverbs in Sumerian—the world’s first written language—suggests that they have. “A junior scribe is too concerned with feeding his hunger,” contends one. “He does not pay attention to the scribal art.” It seems that the slovenly teenager, not to mention the purse-lipped schoolmaster, is at least 4,000 years old.
    dlew919, Alanqa, T-Bawler and 2 others like this.
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