Order sometimes emerges from chaos and you can certainly say that’s what happened to the naming of an iconic guitar component whose game-changing contribution to the guitar sound is sometimes muffled in the cacophony of other interesting titles.
Despite its ancient origins, you can say that history has not always been kind to the venerable bar, as it will go down in it with yet another, much less flattering moniker: a whang bar. Yes, we are talking about… take a deep breath, the whammy bar, or if you prefer, vibrato arm/bar, twang bar, wiggle stick, vibrolas, silver straw, sterling spaghetti but most popularly, the tremolo bar. (Be sure to comment if I missed any)
The accumulation of nouns used for the description of a guitar part, suggests that in addition to the different sounds the tremolo produced, it also produced just as much history in terms of its development. If you are defined by your name, the tremolo bar is defined by a contradiction in its naming.
First of all, there is no shortage of blowback from social media when someone talks tremolos. Popular comments include “It’s not a tremolo, the proper term is vibrato, it’s a misnomer.” Yeah, we know that! Please stop commenting thinking you’re Neil deGrasse Tyson with your scientific explanations. What’s the difference between the two? I’m not going get too deep into this but for newer players here’s a simple explanation.
Tremolo – a trembling effect produced by slight and rapid changes in the volume (amplitude) of a note.
Vibrato – a pulsating sound effect produced by slight and rapid changes in the pitch (frequency) of a note.
(To read more in-depth, check out Fenders: Difference between tremolo and vibrato article)
So, despite the fact that tremolo modulates the pitch instead of volume, the incorrect term stuck on and it still reverberates (pun intended) in both colloquial usage and musical literature. So how the heck did we get here?
Fender, we have a problem!
Many believe this variation on the confusion of tongues took place back in the mid-1950s when Leo Fender decided to name his version of a vibrato, the “Synchronized Tremolo.” Some say that it was a marketing strategy to set Fender apart from the Bigsby vibrato system, but I believe that it runs a little deeper than that. Here’s what I mean.
One of the earliest patents issued related to “tremolo attachment for a stringed instrument” is from 1891 believe it or not, from a guy named George Van Dusen of Queens NY. Part of the patent description states: The invention consists of a tremolo-block adapted to press the free end of one of the levers of the set of levers connected with the respective set of unison-strings, so that when the hammer strikes the said unison-strings the one connected with the lever pressed on by the tremolo-block produces a higher sound, which sound mixed with the rest produces a tremolo sound of the unisonstring. (According to this description and the patent image, I think we’re looking at the first whammy bar folks!)
What’s important about this is the fact the word “vibrato” isn’t used once in the patent claim. But what’s also interesting is that this particular patent has been cited, or compared to, by 3 other inventors since that time. Emmons Guitar Company, Floyd D Rose, and you guessed it, Clarence L Fender.
So, one could argue that the name was botched well before the turn of the century and good old Leo along with his attorneys were just following suit. One could also argue that Fender cloaked themselves in a tremolo “shield” to avoid any infringement lawsuits with the boys over at Bigsby or anyone else using the term vibrato to protect their patents.
Wham Bam thank you, Mack
Yet, this was hardly the only contribution to what gave the tremolo bar its (good) name. Another popular name it’s known for is the whammy bar. But why? Surely it has a less convoluted naming history, but not less anecdotal in its quality. In any case, insiders and historians have almost reached a consensus on the theory that “whammy” in “whammy bar” stands for the description of the sound achieved by Lonnie Mack after he manipulated the pitch in his 1963 song “Wham!”.
As used here, the tremolo bar manages to deliver a bold and borderline aggressive sound. While the titular song surely ended with a wham and a bang in music history, the actual purpose of the tremolo was a bit more humble in its auditory purpose at this stage: it was supposed to achieve the sound texture of a Hawaiian steel guitar.
Going Beyond the Hawaiian Sound
Two decades before Fender’s famous naming confusion, Clayton Orr Kauffman, also known as Doc, tried to doctor the sound of his guitar to make his listeners feel like they are on vacation in the shadow of Mauna Loa. To this effect, he designed the Kauffman Vib-Rola which is still treated as a caveman ancestor of modern-day tremolos. As this happened around the mid-1930s, you can safely say that tremolo’s history follows in the footsteps of that of the electric guitar itself, a testament to its vital role in giving this instrument its distinctive sound for the ages.
Yet, since you can hardly live off the historical importance that will materialize only later, the Vib-Rola invention needed to be monetized fast enough so Epiphone picked up the distribution rights and packed the curious thingamajig with its acoustic guitars. Rickenbacker wanted to go electric with these and soon bought the rights to install this tremolo ancestor on its lap-steel guitars as well as on its Electro-Spanish models. Yet, the bar ascended to mythological status in the electric music pantheon only after John Lennon picked up his Rickenbacker 325 to conquer the pop-rock world (and a host of female hearts) back in the early 1960s.
Trailblazing the Golden Age
Still, you can say that history hasn’t been kind to Doc’s vibrato design, as the Vib-Rola proved to be just a bit too unpredictable with its ability to revert back to the desired pitch after use. What happened next with the tremolo design was equivalent to the space race back in the 1960s. With guitarists and inventors pulling in their own directions, all the while trying to placate corporate black-suited types, the tremolo bar design underwent numerous changes which, luckily, failed to have a lasting negative impact on its purpose. Be it Fender, Floyd Rose or Kahler, the tremolo evolution seemed to follow the fortunes of pop/rock music itself as its main medium, which is enriched with its warm, fuzzy, or swaggering tones depending on the audience’s preference.
Yet, it was the Bigsby variation on the tremolo theme which will have ultimately ushered in the era of its mainstream popularity, powered by industrial manufacturing and the musicians’ desire to find the proverbial philosopher’s stone when it comes to their desired sound.
Go Bigsby or Go Home: Tremolos for the Masses
The Golden Age could not begin without the tremolo going big in terms of both its technology and mass production. The answer came with appropriately named Bigsby Vibrato, designed by Paul A. Bigsby who wanted to cure all the imperfections plaguing earlier models and offer a pleasurable playing experience in the process.
Once guitar players felt comfortable enough with this piece of hardware, they could start creating a vast array of spell-like effects with their tremolo bars, ranging from subtle, shimmer-like additions to the sound to dive-bomb effects which came much later. Remember that this was 1951, the year in which guitar acrobatics were yet to find their virtuoso prophets in the body & mind of Jimi Hendrix and his epigones.
For now, this late 1940s design by Bigsby had the tremolo perform the task of loosening the strings. To that purpose, these tremolos were put on the guitar surface, with the strings fastened around a movable metal bar. From there, the strings went over the rocker bridge on the surface of the instrument, while being attached to the metal bar holding the tremolo itself. The counterweight to the bridge was provided by the spring – the pitch was lowered by slackening the strings which, in turn, is achieved by pushing the tremolo bar forward. Upon release, the tailpiece reverted back to its starting position, usually.
The legend says that Bigsby’s original intention was to improve on Doc Kaufmann’s Vibrola design, which he eventually did by actually starting all over and offering a brand new design. His patent was issued in March 1953 simply titled TAILPIECE VIBRATO FOR STRING INSTRUMENT. Yet, it seems as if old Doc had his belated revenge on the competitor, as Bigsby’s design suffered from some similar serious flaws, chief among them being the high probability of putting one’s instrument out of tune with the use of the tremolo. Despite the relative ease with which one could handle the bar, its limited downward range of movement made reverting back to the original pitch quite a feat, which increased the risk of diluting the tone itself. In addition to this, the guitarists had to correctly assess the level of friction created at the bridge and the nut, making their job at carving out the perfect sound even harder. Finally, a limited downward range of this tremolo was translated into downright hostility of the instrument to attempts of pulling it up, which sometimes resulted in the total detachment of the instrument’s return spring.
For all of its design flaws, you can say that future developments were kind enough to Bigsby Vibrato, as its exceptional vintage design has made it an attractive choice for the visually-minded, nostalgic, or simply jaded guitar players. Those among them who do not want to be perceived as players who put visuals before the sound would claim that Bigsby simply has that hardly definable “feel” and tonal texture, a price they are willing to pay even at the risk of facing unstable tuning once in a while. This made it popular among the surf, country, and rockabilly crowd of bygone and our age. Just check Duane Eddy’s fuzzy Bigsby-powered chords in Movin’ n’ Groovin’ and try to resist being immersed in the sweet molasses of nostalgia and early tremolo recordings’ groove. Being nostalgic about it or not, the credit should be given when it’s due and you can certainly say that Bigsby’s name will be carried on the sound waves of its tremolos in days to come.
Tremolo with Strat and Swagger
Despite the fact that Bigsby’s model was the first mass-produced tremolo bar in history, the majority of modern-day whammy bars still owe at least a drink to Leo Fender, and not for the described misnomer mess he created. Call it a vibrato or tremolo bar, much of musical history was compressed and infused into a guitar component named Fender Synchronized Tremolo, which was supposedly developed in parallel with equally iconic guitar designs such as the vintage Stratocaster. This legendary instrument was to be the home of the first truly modern tremolo bar back in 1954.
Building upon Bigsby’s limited capacity for effective pitch change, Fender offered the design which would give credence to the tired saying about beauty in simplicity. Still, as players earned their chops by their proficiency with the instrument, beauty itself had to take the back seat behind the technical intricacies of the design.
First of all, Fender’s tremolo was not called “synchronized” in order to provide it with a flashy marketing name, as it offered the integration of the bridge and tremolo itself. Once assembled, the entire piece would be placed on the guitar belly-mounted down with 6 wood screws. A bevel on the bottom located near the screw holes was the key to creating a fulcrum point. This allowed the tremolo assembly to rock back and forth with the tremolo arm. Springs located in a cavity behind the guitar mounted to a string block to help counterbalance the tension of the strings.
A simple cost-efficient design that has been around for almost 70 years and Fender has no indication of stopping production. Arguably one of the most produced and replicated tremolo systems the guitar world has ever seen.
The innate qualities of this design offered Fender a great head start in the heating tremolo arms race. At the time when two Cold War superpowers competed to send humans to space, a parallel covert sonic war was taking place between Bigsby and Fender tremolo models. For now, Fender’s tremolo scored over its predecessor on several points. First of all, its model could be either flush mounted to the top of the instrument, or placed with a gap beneath it, allowing for easier handling of the pitch quality. In addition, it featured saddles that allowed for individual adjustments in terms of intonation, as well as height. Finally, as Fender offered “synchronized” movement of both the tailpiece and the bridge, this provided the players with much-desired stability in the intonation and tuning departments.
Yet, not everything ran as smoothly with this model as well. Although this tremolo was designed to take a lot of punishment by both virtuoso and inept hands, the prolonged use or downright abuse of the bar still produced huge issues with tuning, due to the friction at the nut. This sent the Stratocaster model’s sales down the drain for almost a decade after its introduction. Fender could take some comfort in the fact that its other guitar models were selling like hotcakes, prompting it to make one more step in the direction of perfecting its tremolo design.
In essence, in order to stay afloat, Fender had to change the design philosophy of its new floating tremolo system which went hand in hand with the equally floating bridge. Bear in mind that no matter how much the modern-day players consider their Stratocasters a bona fide cultural artifact, back in the 1960s it was more of an underdog compared to other models, even among the Fender-produced ones. The tremolo counterattack started with the launch of the high-end Jazzmaster (1958) and Jaguar models (1962). The primary segment which received the much-needed overhaul was the tuning, which surely profited from the bells and whistles Fender offered with these models.
First of all, Jazzmaster wanted you to rock out with a six-saddle bridge and a new tremolo which featured a locking slider that did a fine job in helping prevent the instrument from going out of tune. Synchronized tremolo design was replaced by a more complex but slightly less accessible mechanism. Its springs could be accessed by taking off the plate from the back of the instrument, with the entire assembly being placed on a triangle-shaped plate on its front, just opposite of the bridge. A short coil spring was responsible for providing compression balance to the tension created by the springs and it was adjustable by means of the screw found in the middle of the plate.
The Jaguar model virtually pounced on the popularity of the Jazzmaster and its floating tremolo design, and Fender promised that both of these models would be a heaven-sent gift to the players, only if they stick to the original manuals which prescribed their proper use. Yet, guitarists of the age were hardly the bunch to be kept in place by any regulations or rules- and preferred handling their instruments as they saw fit, even at the expense of Fender’s promise that floating tremolos would hold their tunes better compared to earlier models.
The effect achieved by this supposedly advanced tremolo design was in full reverse compared to Fender’s expectations. Floating tremolo/bridge models simply tried too hard to please, leading to cumbersome engineering and less than wholesome prices. Jazzmaster and Jaguar models were even withdrawn from the market in the early 1970s, as a testament to the popularity of people’s favorite in the form of Stratocaster.
The Fender Stratocaster experienced a surge in popularity as a simpler and more affordable option celebrated by emerging champions of guitar playing such as Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck who were literally bending all the rules with this tremolo. Just listen to how Jeff Beck has absolutely mastered the art of pitch manipulation with Fenders Synchronized Tremolo.
Changing Dynamics in the Swinging 60s
Yet, before another quantum leap in the world of tremolo bars, Fender felt that it had to offer the final piece in its trio of fighters who were sent out to beat the competition. Feeling that the namesakes for synchronized and floating tremolos did not sound convincing enough, Fender designed the Dynamic Vibrato system and pasted it on its 1965 Mustang model. This tremolo was supposed to further refine the floating system designed introduced on Jaguars and Jazzmasters. At first, it created confusion in its superficial resemblance to the floating tremolo, which overshadowed the fact that it actually came with a brand new operation mechanism.
Yet, the entire system wanted to keep the best of both worlds of earlier models: it featured a floating bridge with an added twist of it being integrated with the vibrato unit instead of being installed separately. The bridge came packaged with a deep-string groove which resolved various issues faced by earlier floating tremolo models such as Jazzmasters and Jaguars. The mechanism is mounted from the top, with the strings kept in line with a tailpiece bar attached to the tremolo arm. Yet, the mounting plate, its holes and woodwork design were different from its predecessors. The string tension was provided by two springs placed beneath the base plate.
All in all, the series was discontinued in 1985, both as a relic of a bygone age and a treasured artifact among players. The main competitor in the decade in which tremolo was finally established as a key ingredient in creating the recognizable sound of the Swinging 60s was to become Gibson as another household name in the guitar business.
In a way, Gibson conjured time-traveling magic to send its minion to the tremolo battle, as its solution borrowed from an earlier big hitter – Bigsby. Back in the 1950s, its Vibra-Rest was even known as the Bigsby option, but increased competition from other tremolo providers led Gibson to design its own tremolo system and offer it under the (correct) name of Vibrola on its Les Paul SGs and ES-355 models in 1961.
It was known as the sideways Vibrola because its foldable tremolo managed to move in alignment with the instrument’s body. At the same time, the mechanism which allowed for pitch modification was integrated with a tray running from the bridge to the endpin. A stylish cover hid the handle which was connected to the apparatus in charge of sideways movement of springs. These spring reacted to the movement of the tremolo arm and shifted the piece to which they are attached to.
The design was described as simple but effective while drawing comparisons with Bigsby with which it shared its placement of assembly on the instrument’s belly. This made it particularly attractive for the mounting on both archtop and acoustic guitars, betraying the company’s earlier history with these types of instruments.
Yet, the lever could offer only short upwards and downwards movement in relation to the strings, making its mechanism of action a curiosity in the competition-saturated 1960s. Still, the sales did not go particularly well, prompting Gibson to offer the slightly improved Maestro Vibrola in order to stay relevant in this decade.
Contrary to what one could expect from an improved tremolo design, Gibson’s new solution went after the additional simplification of design, particularly in comparison with its competitors in the form of (primarily) Fender and Bigsby. At first sight, the system’s base resembled a piece of a slightly curved metal plate attached to the guitar with screws. Another component was a piece of metal that hosts both the tremolo arm and strings.
This apparatus is placed on top of curved base plate made of spring steel creating tension with the strings combined with the pushing of the tremolo arm. Internal technicalities aside, Gibson also focused on cosmetic alterations to its system, giving it more of an art deco-inspired design as well as so-called Lyre and ebony block versions in its later incarnations.
Despite the relative efficiency of a rather simple design, Gibson’s tremolos failed to impress a sufficient number of players, which stemmed from at least two important trends at work back then. One surely had to with the competition, but the second one was actually more related to the elusive currents driving the demands of pop and rock aficionados and the predilection of players themselves, to explore more adventurous sound with their tools of the trade. Gibson tremolo was simply ill-equipped to respond to the demands of faster and heavier guitar acrobatics, which Fender’s guitars could handle much better. Paired with high prices of both its standard and limited edition models, Gibson’s additions to the guitar history were slowly relegated to the ranks of collectors and one-of-the-kind players such as Eric Clapton.
While both Fender and Gibson offered their solutions to some of the problems which plagued players in the 1960s, their tremolo workshop elves soon had to contend with a revolutionary competitor that threatened to blow everyone out of water.
The Effects of a Tremolo
Before Floyd D. Rose designed his revolutionary tremolo system under the title of the Floyd Rose Locking Tremolo back in 1977, its existing predecessors provided by Fender, Gibson or even Bigsby could ride the wave of an ever-increasing adoption of this unassuming piece of equipment by both big and small names in the world of popular music. Genres of rockabilly and surf rock created much of their signature ethereal sound with the help of the venerable tremolo. The versatility of the whammy bar was recognized as a much-welcomed addition to an increasingly complex structure that was the electric guitar’s sound, and as soon as the manufacturer launched a new model, both established and novice players found equally novel ways to abuse their tremolos in search of the conquest of new musical territories.
This went hand in hand with the evolution of other pieces of guitar equipment, such as effect pedals, as well as recording technologies that were finally able to capture all the intricacies of the shimmering and memorable texture with which the tremolo bar infused numerous songs. Its magic has touched musical pieces whose places in the musical history transcended the boundaries of both the instrument and genre itself.
At the same time, the 1970s saw the emergence of genres such as prog rock, proto, and heavy metal and, ultimately, punk, which all required heavier handling of the tremolo, and the players wanted the tremolo to cause as few problems as possible in the process.
Welcome to the Machine – The Rise Of Floyd.
There was an underlying problem that became more prominent as players adopted more aggressive and technical styles, and that was the tremolo’s tendency to go out of tune as a response to forceful handling. While its use for changing the pitch in country, surf rock, and rockabilly songs was a relatively safe affair, guitarists who opted for a more flamboyant approach to churning out harmonics and chords faced the issue quite often. Not everybody could handle this with panache like Hendrix who could compensate for tremolo-caused detuning problems by using sheer strength paired with creative application of the skills he had at his disposal.
1977 was the historical and musical environment in which Floyd Rose sat down at the drawing table to design a tremolo that could offer technical robustness in the face of increasingly aggressive and restless treatment of this piece at the hands (literally) of guitar players. It was on a cold evening, after an exhausting rehearsal session in his icy storage unit, that Floyd spotted a peculiar thing on his guitar. With the tremolo arm depressed, the windings on the E string would slide over the nut. So he marked the string at the nut and then dove tremolo arm, to see if indeed, this would cause the string to be displaced. Even the smallest nudge on the arm would displace the string from its starting position causing tuning problems. Floyd put a dab of Krazy Glue on the nut and string to control this displacement and to his surprise, it worked! This confirmed his theory that some sort of locking mechanism at the nut could solve a host of tuning problems. So off to work he went.
He was also lucky to be working as a jewelry maker at the time, so he had all the necessary tools to turn his ideas into fruition. Using a lapidary rig, he managed to create a thin brass nut with three U-shaped clamps, helping the strings stay fixed. He drilled two holes in the neck of his 1963 Fender Stratocaster, just beneath the nut. It was a huge risk to try something like that on a vintage guitar especially because the neck on that guitar was from a 57 Strat!
The experiment paid off, and the locking system was solid – as long as you didn’t squeeze the tremolo arm too hard. Soon after, his parents lent him $600 to have the second version built in a shop, and that is what Floyd calls the first real Floyd Rose Tremolo Locking System. But there was a problem – the materials used weren’t strong enough.
So, he set out to create the third version with hardened steel, making it more durable. He also included a locking bridge. Floyds friend Linn Ellsworth of Boogie Bodies was making guitars for Eddie Van Halen at this time. Rose showed Eddie one of his early prototypes and he was quickly sold on the unit. Eddie also had a design contribution that is still to this day is implemented. When Floyd asked how much range should the fine tuners should have he said enough to go up or down and change the pitch of each string a full step. This allowed Eddie to dial into a drop D tuning on the fly. Eddie also claims that is was his idea for using thumbscrews for the fine tuners instead of regular screws like the ones in the prototype. According to Floyd however, the thumbscrews were always part of the initial design but the parts didn’t arrived on time so used regular screws instead as a placeholder.
Nevertheless, with Eddie on board, this allowed the Floyd Rose Tremolo Locking System to skyrocket in popularity, to patent-protect the invention, and start mass production with Kramer. 6 prototypes were made by Floyd himself sometime around 1979-1980 and given to other well-known guitarists of that time such as Brad Gillis (Night Ranger) and Neal Schon (Journey) to name a few. The first guitarist to experiment with FTR-1 is believed to be Seattle based artist and an infamous Jimi Hendrix impersonator Randy Hansen. In 1981, the FRT-1 tremolo went into full production, manufactured by Japanese guitar company Fernades.
There have been many improvements and reiterations of the Floyd Rose tremolo however the principle and trademark look has remained the same throughout the years. This bulletproof design has stood the test of time and is easily one of the most licensed, produced, and replicated tremolo (vibrato) systems of all time.
Tricks are for kids.
At the same time, the pitch could be easily changed with the help of Floyd Rose’s floating mechanism which ensured that the bridge remains a “floating” element in the tension interplay between the springs and strings. Finally, with the strings under the lock and key at two key zones on the instrument, guitarists could abuse the tremolo without remorse, allowing for the proliferation of the famous associated techniques such as dive bomb, reverse dive bomb, elephant noise, slide, scoop and doop and many others.
Some of the players practically patented the use of Floyd Rose for creating their signature sound, like one of its early adopters Eddie Van Halen did in his solo in Eruption. Yet, the most eager users and abusers of the new tremolo were metal guitarists of all colors, making it a key piece in their shredding tapestry. One of metal guitarists, the late Dimebag Darrel even lent his name to his tremolo-heavy playing technique in form of the Dime Squeal which became an essential element in the musical mosaic pieced together by his original band Pantera. Simply put, the Floyd Rose tremolo came as a gift from heaven (or, even more appropriately, hell) for heavy rock and metal guitarists, sticking to their sonic textures and image just as naturally as their penchant for dark imagery, theatrics and umlauts.
In January 1991, Kramer’s exclusive distribution agreement with Rose ended when Fender announced they would be the new exclusive distributor of Floyd Rose products. In 2005, distribution of the Floyd Rose Original reverted to Floyd Rose and is now exclusively manufactured and distributed through AP International, owned by former Kramer employee Andy Papaccio. Floyd Rose continues to innovate new systems including the FRX surface mount tremolo for Les Paul or tune o matic style guitars and the popular Rail Tail which is a direct swap retrofit for 6 point Stratocaster style guitars.
Fenders Big Flub
2 years before Floyd Rose and Kramer would cozy up, Floyd sent a handwritten letter and audiotape to Fender in 1977 explaining his idea. “So you can hear for yourself that the guitar stays in perfect tune no matter how harshly tremolo bar is used.” Fender’s response: “At present, we have no use for this idea.” Needless to say, Fender ultimately passed on the idea. Oops! It makes you wonder what would have happened if they jumped on board. My thought is that it worked out for the best. They could have shelved the product after a few years, as many big corporations do, leaving Mr. Rose high and dry or tied up in some nasty legal battle.
The Awkward Breakup
It would be hard to have a blog about tremolos without including German pioneer and inventor Dieter Gölsdorf. It’s worth mentioning that the Rockinger Tru Tune Tremolo invented by Dieter Gölsdorf played a pivotal role around this time as well.
Kramer guitars were fitted with the Tru Tune system before the Floyd Rose tremolos. In early Kramer literature and product tags, the Rockinger tremolo was referred to as the “Edward Van Halen Tremolo” although EVH always expressed his frustration with the tremolo and suggested improvements that the folks at Rockinger didn’t take too well. In the meantime, EVH had been working with Floyd Rose and eventually, the Floyd Rose tremolo system took over as the preferer tremolo for the Kramer brand. The Rockinger was available through 1982.)
Dieter would go on to invent many other systems including the LesTrem. 1986 he founded Duesenberg Guitars. It is Dieter Gölsdorf’s very own interpretation of the Art Deco style, which gives the instruments their distinctive appearance.
Gary Kahler was probably Floyd Rose’s biggest competition when it comes to designing a tremolo. During the 1970s, he owned a guitar hardware store named Brass Factory, where he built brass iterations of the Fender tremolo, and even built a few bridges with Fender.
A decade later, Kahler renamed his company to American Precision Metalworks, after which he built and presented the Kahler tremolo. The original flat-mount and stud mount models were invented and patented by Dave Storey and licensed to Gary Kahler. Gary Kahler shifted his business model to making Golf clubs in the 1990s (mostly due to lower popularity of tremolo use) but went back to bridge manufacturing as of April 2005. During the ’80s however, the Kahler tremolo enjoyed tremendous success. Almost all major guitar manufacturers where offering models within their line.
It was obviously inspired by Floyd, as it came with a locking nut and fine tuners on the bridge assembly which cheekily resembled what Floyd had done. That was enough for the court to rule that he was guilty of patent infringement.
What was original though, is the cam-based system, where the strings would be attached to a single cylindrical cam inside the bridge housing. Also, you didn’t need to snip the ball ends off the strings if you used Kahlers.
Floyd Rose and Kahler became something of a Samsung and Apple of their time, being in huge competition and with many popular names backing one or the other. However, after Floyd won the patent lawsuit, it tipped the scales to his favor. Fast forward to 2005, Kahler started building bridges with Floyd Rose license and has, to this day, built more than a million tremolos.
The rest is history, one may be tempted to say at the end of any story, yet, with tremolos, the history is hardly the stuff of dusty books, but rather something which is created as soon as a guitar player reaches out for this iconic guitar component. Even if we agree to the use of the term history, its narrative more resembles a piece of fiction or a story, with its numerous protagonists, inventors, and players, who have all added their contribution to shaping the development of popular music as a whole.
There have been so many other devices and innovators over the decades I haven’t touched on that have helped pave this sonic highway. Some great, some not so great. Perhaps that’s best left for another time.
The tale of tremolo (or vibrato if you prefer) is a fascinating chapter in the pop & rock saga, in which a piece of technology, human skill, and sonic art come together in an undulating vortex of sound and innovation. With so many different tremolo design variations and options out there, one can only ask, is there room for another better mousetrap? To the inventor, creator, or sonic artist trying to solve a problem they might not even have, the answer is always yes!