A Whammy bar, or as it sometimes known, a tremolo bar simply alters the tension on the strings all at once.
Some guitars with whammy bars have what is called a floating tremolo, which means the strings can be loosened, lowering the pitch, by pushing the bar towards the guitar body, or the strings can be tightened, therefore raising the pitch by pulling the bar away from the body of the guitar.
Because the tension of each string is different, and the effect of the changing tension differs, depending on the frequency of the note, the variation in the pitches of each string is dramatically different, so the guitar does not stay in tune as the bar is moved.
The drawback of a whammy bar installed on your guitar is that when you break a string, the entire guitar goes out of tune because the tuning is a balance between the string tension and the whammy bar springs on the underside of the guitar.
When one string breaks, the spring tension pulls harder on the remaining strings sending them out of tune as well.
What’s the difference between a whammy bar and a tremolo bar?
Let’s start by getting the terminology straight: tremolo/vibrato/whammy bar/arm, and tremolo/vibrato system/tremolo bridge all refer to pretty much the same things.
Technically, the effect is a change in vibrato, because manipulating the bar changes pitch. Tremolo, on the other hand, refers to a change in volume.
But the two terms have come to be used almost interchangeably. Whammy is just the nickname for the locked tremolos.
Usually people use the term Whammy when it’s a “tremolo” that can be dive-bombed, abused, frilled, etc.
The proper term for the “whammy bar” is “vibrato arm“. A “tremolo system” refers to all components of the tremolo unit, which can include the tailpiece, the bridge, the nut and the tremolo bar.
And it helps to know that the terms “tremolo bar”, “vibrato bar” and “whammy bar” are all used interchangeably—as are the terms “bar” and “arm”.
Why is it called a whammy bar?
The term “whammy” is an onomatopoeic slang term that has come into use since the 1950s. It is most often associated with bridges that can perform extreme pitch bends.
The first whammy bar came from the Fender Stratocaster design, and were followed later by the Floyd Rose and Kahler designs.
There are two main types of whammy bars, the detachable ones (Floyd Rose and Fender style) and whammy bars that require a tailpiece (Bigsby).
A Whammy bar is a lever attached to the bridge or tailpiece of an electric guitar that can be depressed to increase the tension of the strings and produce such effects as vibrato, portamento, and dive bomb.
Who invented the whammy bar?
Whammy bars, are often referred to as tremolo or vibrato bridges.
If we’re getting down to details, are pretty commonly found on popular electric guitars throughout the world.
They go back to the 1930s when Doc Kauffman created and patented the very first mechanical vibrato unit.
After building this device, originally known as the “Vibrola,” on a few Epiphone Archtop guitars during the late ‘30s, the design took off. Every guitar company wanted in on the action.
Merle Travis, a favorite country guitarist of the time, was sick of his guitar going out of tune thanks to his unreliable, spring-loaded Vibrola.
He commissioned his friend, Paul Bigsby, to fix it. Paul ended up going overboard with his “fix” and ended up creating the first true vibrato system, the Bigsby.
The Bigsby Vibrato has a rocker bridge as the main component. Instead of the strings going through holes, they wrap around a metal bar that is attached to the tremolo arm.
A guitarist can push the arm down and loosen the strings to get the drop in pitch.
Before the Bigsby vibrato/tremolo bridge came out, the idea of the whammy bar hadn’t quite reached the general public.
Today, the Bigsby is probably one of the most unique whammy bars around. It has a smooth, easy-to-use feel, and is often seen on vintage, archtop guitars.
In terms of staying in tune, it’s not the best, and its pitch bend is not as dramatic as others. Basically, if you’re looking for a smoother, more subtle whammy bar, the Bigsby is one of the best.
The next advancement in the world of tremolos came from Leo Fender, the head designer, and inventor of Fender guitars. The Fender synch tremolo first appeared on the Fender Stratocaster, released in 1954.
The idea was to create a tremolo with a greater pitch range, as well as a tremolo that was capable of bending up.
When Leo Fender came up with his tremolo design, he decided to make the first ones with floating bridges before sticking with the more stable synchronized tremolo.
The reason it was named the synch or “synchronized” tremolo was because the saddle and strings were meant to move in unison like one significant movement.
This helped to eliminate string friction with the saddle, and in turn, helped the strings to move back to their original tuning and tension when the bar was laid to rest.
In terms of design, the tailpiece is made out of a singular piece of metal that sits flush in the body of the guitar, with holes in the top to allow the strings to go through.
The actual arm moves through the bridge and into the tailpiece, making it far more stable than the Bigsby.
Most modern tremolos used this design as inspiration to innovate with. It is easily one of the most influential whammy bars in history.
In 1979, Floyd D. Rose developed the very first locking tremolo, known today as the Floyd Rose Tremolo.
Many people believe that Eddie Van Halen was the man who pushed the Floyd Rose Tremolo to stardom, as he was one of the most prominent Shredder-style guitarists of the time.
Still to this day, if you are a rock or metal guitarists, a locking tremolo is a must.
The actual design of the locking tremolo shows a ton of influence from the Fender Synch tremolo, though the big difference is that the strings are locked in place for stability in tuning and intonation.
The way it works is you tune your guitar as desired, and then lock the nut and bridge with the included Allen key.
This meant that you could tune down to a drop D or C and still remain in tune while dive-bombing those low notes.
Because the Floyd Rose locking tremolo is a floating system, the pitch can be raised or lowered without much work.
This is because there is an open space behind the tremolo where the springs “float” between the tremolo and body.