At The Bench - Vibrato and The Art Of Staying In Tune

If you are familiar with my Facebook page at all, then you'll know that Chris Kroenlien of K-Line Guitars and I take any opportunity we can to dig at each other about Bigsby vibratos! I, of course, am Team Bigsby, and K-line is Team anything other than! Chris feels that there are far better designed vibratos than Bigsbys from a build standpoint, and he is probably right, though I'll never tell him that! I personally just love the feel of a Bigsby, from a players standpoint, and have always installed them on my personal guitars. 


 I recently received a call  from a customer asking my advice on a retro fit vibrato for his ES 335 copy. He had a major concern about tuning, which turned into a long conversation about what actually causes tuning issues with vibratos in general, and not just Bigsbys, so I thought I would spend some time talking about various vibratos and the issues that can come along with them.


You may notice that I haven't used the term tremolo. Lets get this out of the way first and foremost. We all acknowledge most any device on a guitar that raises and lowers the pitch as a tremolo, thanks to Leo and the marketing department at Fender. I assume since Bigsby was already on the scene with their flagship "Vibrato" that Fender wanted to set themselves apart by calling their pitch changing device the "Synchronized Tremolo." We have followed suit ever since calling it the tremolo or trem, but tremolo it is not. The fine folks at MagnatoneUSA have both, tremolo and vibrato effects on some of their amplifiers and label them as "FM and AM" for Frequency Modulation and Amplitude Modulation. Vibrato is frequency modulation, or actual change in the pitch, which is what we use on a guitar. Tremolo is amplitude modulation or the change of signal volume. I guess you could say that any guitar with a volume knob has tremolo, but devices that change pitch are technically vibratos. 

A brief history: Guitar Vibrato has been around probably as long as the trapeze tailpiece or actually, now that I think of it, the guitar itself. Any player with the inclination to manipulate their instrument by pushing on the tailpiece or, dare I say,  bend the neck by pushing on the headstock, has enjoyed the instant taste of subtle vibrato, though I don't recommend the latter. In terms of mechanical vibrato devices, one of the earliest designs would probably be the Kauffman Vibrola. Leo's old partner, Doc Kaufmfman came out with his vibrato in 1935 and offered it through both Epiphone and later Rickenbacker. An early version of his vibrato actually used a series of pulleys, rheostats, and a motor housed inside Rickenbacker's Electro Spanish guitar to produce a constant vibrato effect similar to a steel player. The instrument  also had air holes in the back to help keep it cool!

In 1952, Paul Bigsby introduced his Bigsby Vibrato, which was originally designed for finger-style guitar mogul, Merle Travis. In his early years, Bigsby raced motorcycles and worked as an engineer for Crocker Motorcycles. Using his experience as a mechanic and machinist, he later turned his interests to music, designing console pedal steels and electric guitars for players like Speedy West, Grady Martin, and Hank Garland. Bigsby's vibrato was basically the same as what you see on guitars today, but originally used a Harley Davidson valve spring to return the strings to pitch. 

Leo was right on the heels of Paul with his "Synchronized Tremolo" unit. Introduced in 1954, Fender's vibrato is a departure from previous designs by being suspended in a cavity behind the pickups, utilizing a fulcrum with the front edge mounting screws and the springs in the rear route of the body, so now you had an instrument that was much less in weight due to the cavities and a vibrato that allowed for the tension to be adjusted based on how many springs you installed and how tight or loose it was adjusted. Also, there is much more throw or distance with Fender's design, so you could literally drop the strings completely loose and return them back to pitch! 

This brings us to the double locking tremolo introduced by Floyd Rose in 1979. Rose was a musician and maker of custom jewelry. After experiencing tuning issues with his vintage stratocaster he began the process of customizing hardware to lock the strings in place and help keep his guitar in tune. This series of modifications led him to develop what we now know as the Floyd Rose Locking Trem, made most famous by Eddie Van Halen. The Kramer guitar company soon made an agreement with Rose to produce the locking units, due to the immediate high demand of his ground breaking design. 

Obviously, there are many variations of the guitar vibrato that I haven't mentioned, but these are some of the most notable ones, in my opinion. Now that we know a bit about the history, lets discuss the elephant in the room... tuning issues! The key to keeping your guitar in tune is understanding that if you raise or lower the pitch of a string, it has to return to zero, or back to the exact original spot that it was before in order for your instrument to be in tune. Tuners are usually not the issue, as we discussed in the last blog post on set ups. Most tuning issues are caused by poorly cut nut slots which cause the string to hang up or stick. I have found that by keeping the nut slots cut for the proper size of the string and lubricated will allow the string to move freely back and forth, always returning to zero. If the nut is cut properly, and tuning issues persist, then it may be time to look at the vibrato itself and how it is working. I usually run through a general checklist when dealing with tuning issues and vibratos: 1) Is the nut cut correctly or is it binding? 2) Is there a possibility that the string is not installed correctly or the tuner itself slipping? 3) Are the strings new and in good working order?  4) In the case of a bolt on neck, are the mounting screws for the neck tight? 5) Is the bridge moving and not returning to zero? (a common issue with Bigsbys and Tune-o-matic bridges.) 6) Is the vibrato not returning to zero for some reason? I have found that issues with Strat style guitars can arise due to the mounting screws not being drilled square to the body. Also, the screws and bridge around the screws can become worn over time and cause the bridge to "hang up" when the vibrato is used. Most tuning issues can be solved with a good set up by a pro tech, but sometimes an upgrade in hardware is needed. The bottom line is, the more you use a vibrato, especially in extreme cases of doing "dive bombs", the more likely there is an opportunity for the strings to not return to zero. 


1 comment

  • Bert Watts

    Uh…..perhaps a Bigsby video clip is in order? Lol.

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