Whammy bars, or more properly called vibrato systems, are one of the oldest methods of manipulating the sound from the electric guitar itself. Through the years, many have come and gone, and a handful of designs have endured. Perhaps the ones that fell by the wayside were too bulky, or they couldn’t get the right rock stars to sing their praises. In some cases, they solved some problems while introducing a few more. This article is about some that we have either forgot about, or need to know more about. You will find no original Floyd Roses, Kahlers, or Bigsbys in this group. Those designs have lasted for years, and most guitarists are familiar with those. Here, you get the weird, the wacky, and the forgotten mechanical methods to change the pitch of all of the strings at once.
The Sideways Gibson Vibrola
In the second decade of solid body Gibsons, and in the prehistoric era of guitar modification, you couldn’t just take a Fender vibrato bridge and bolt it onto an SG. The body is much too thin to accommodate the block and springs, and it wasn’t built to be used on a shorter-scale instrument from a different company. The folks at Gibson wanted the same novel string slacking action that those surf dudes enjoyed for the past few years, and they were sure that within a few months, they would be leaning their mahogany SGs against their hot rods, and not their Strats and Jazzmasters. With this system, Gibson figured the natural hand motion when strumming could be used to activate the vibrato. The entire mechanism was concealed underneath a metal plate, so you didn’t see the inner workings, like in the picture above. The entire system was subtle at best, and didn’t provide the natural motion guitarists were used to on their Fenders. It could also squeak loudly, and didn’t particularly stay in tune.
If you were around in the 1980’s, you might remember the Washburn ads, which apologized to Floyd Rose and Kahler for designing a ‘better’ vibrato system. The Wonderbar solved the biggest problem for those wanting to install an aftermarket vibrato system: the need to rout out a significant portion of the body. The Wonderbar mounted on the top of the body, and required no routing. It used springs, but they were inside the mechanism, making the body of the whole system pretty tall and awkward to play with. However, it was designed so it could easily be switched to left-handed operation, and most of the string contact points were rollers. It also used a clamping system behind the nut, to get around Floyd Rose’s patents of a locking nut. This, like Kahler’s system, is not ideal as friction at the nut can cause tuning instability.
The Stetsbar is a currently manufactured vibrato solution for those not wanting to modify their guitars. Like the Vibrola and the Wonderbar above, the entire mechanism sits on the face of the guitar, turning even semi-hollowbodies into whammy machines. The Stetsbar makes it easy to play those fluttery 80’s whammy tricks on your Les Paul without routing any new holes. The design uses existing holes on your guitar for mounting. I have tried one a few times, and while it doesn’t look as elegant as some systems, it is really the only current way to add a mechanical vibrato without additional holes in your guitar. You can always revert back to your guitar’s non-whammy state and no one will know.
Another currently available system, the Super-Vee BladeRunner is what I chose for my Warmoth Strat clone. This system drops right into a vintage or modern Strat vibrato mount, and will work with 2-post or 6-screw systems. While it is closely related to Fender’s design, The BladeRunner is really a better mousetrap. It differs from the classic Strat vibrato in that it doesn’t use the screws or posts to pivot on. The screws on the front part of this bridge get screwed down much tighter, and instead of knife edges, the entire bridge pivots on a thin piece of spring steel, guaranteeing that friction won’t be an issue. It has a smooth, gliding action in both directions. This bridge fixes the problem I sometimes have with whammy bars: they either are too loose or too tight. The BladeRunner has a nylon set screw that makes sure the bar is where you want it.
Floyd Rose SpeedLoader
I know I said that I wasn’t going to mention the Floyd Rose, but hey, this is different! The SpeedLoader was another attempt to cure the frustrations of the original Floyd Rose system. With the SpeedLoader, there was no more cutting of the ball ends of strings. There were no more locking nuts. The fine tuners on the unit itself were the tuners. The strings didn’t have to wind around anything, and it took just a minute to change all 6 strings. The catch here was that you needed to use special strings, and these strings had to have special SpeedLoader ‘bullets’ on each end. A big drawback to this system (besides the special strings) is that you couldn’t really install it- you had to buy a guitar built for this system, which coincidentally was made by Floyd Rose. It didn’t need a headstock, but Floyd put one on, anyway. One look and you might realize why it didn’t take off.
In the 1980’s, Ned Steinberger came up with a system that should have been more popular than it was. The TransTrem was the first and the only vibrato system that can bend entire chords in tune. When a conventional vibrato system is used, the strings bend at different rates. Ned designed a system that can bend each string up and down at different, preset rates, which gave predictable results when pulling up or diving down. Hitting a chord a half- or hole-step flatter than you need and pulling up on the bar sounds like a deranged pedal steel, and a wonderful effect for those who explore it. TransTrems could also transpose keys by locking into place. Need to be a whole step lower? Dump the bar, and lock it into place. Need a capo on the 2nd fret? Pull the bar and lock it. The strings stay in tune. This system relied on double-ball, precise-length (calibrated) strings to bend the strings properly, and it was only available on the headless composite Steinberger guitars. Later versions appeared on all wood Steinberger guitars, and due to the strict tolerances needed for accurate transposition, could not be installed aftermarket on any other instruments.
Do need to have a whammy bar on your guitar? What is your favorite vibrato system?