Top 10 Tremolo Systems
I like to brainstorm a lot with other guitarists about gear, music, tone and other assorted subjects when one subject came up which can be summed up in one simple question: what are the top 10 tremolo systems on the market, right now? There have been many, many tremolo systems for the past decades and with modern technology, insights and metallurgy, the list of great tremolo systems seems to be nearly limitless. One remark beforehand: even though we as guitarists call this device a tremolo, it’s technically a vibrato! A ‘real’ tremolo effect is a rhythmic variation in volume and a ‘real’ vibrato is a variation in pitch. Because Leo Fender mixed up the two terms (calling his ‘vibrato’ effect on his amps a ‘tremolo’ and his whammy bar unit a tremolo), these reversed terms have become part of our lexicon. So, without further ado, here’s my Top 10 Tremolo Systems (in no particular order!).
As the classic high duty tremolo system, the Floyd Rose has been a staple in the guitarists’ lexicon since the early 1980s. Its innovative design features a mechanism to lock the strings in the saddle and nut whilst maintaining the ability to tune the strings after they’re locked down. There are many popular variants of this type of system, including the original Floyd Rose, the Ibanez Edge and models by Gotoh and Schaller.
I couldn’t decide which company makes my favorite 6-point trem so I chose both Wilkinson and Callaham. I love and respect both despite stemming from totally different design standpoints. The Callaham, for example, aims at creating a faithful replica of the tremolo unit Leo Fender designed and made for the first runs of the Fender Stratocaster in the 1950s, with the bent steel saddles, steel trem block and hardened steel arm, for example. The result is a bridge that sounds, feels and looks as close as a ‘real’ 50s bridge as possible. The Wilkinson, on the other hand, uses the same layout as the Callaham but is loaded to the brim with modern features. The saddles lock in place, the string holes are staggered so they won’t bind in the saddles, and it features a pop-in arm. If I were to make a faithful 50s or 60s replica,I’d go for the Callaham, but if the spec sheet asks for ‘modern appointments’ I’d go with the Wilkinson.
If the Gotoh 1996 is my favorite locking trem, then the Hipshot Contour 2-Point is my absolute favorite non-locking trem. The roller bearings ensure a very smooth operation while keeping the trem perfectly stable. The arm pops in, so no annoying threads that can weaken the arm or make locking the trem an unpleasant job. A steel block and steel saddles round off the package. What makes this bridge so extremely convenient is that it fits on the posts and in the route of the Fender 2-point trem, so you can simply pop out the old bridge and install this one in place.
I absolutely love the Tune-o-Matic hardtail design but sometimes one of those guitars simply needs a trem! That’s where the FRX comes in hand. The FRX is a direct replacement for any stoptail-ToM bridge combination, but with all the features you’ve come to expect from your regular Floyd Rose unit (plus a few extra benefits). You don’t have to drill, route or even nick or scratch the finish of your guitar if you want to install this trem (the optional locking nut needs two holes to be located, but the bridge itself needs nothing). It’s brand spanking new trem and unfortunately not as widespread as other systems but I can absolutely, wholeheartedly recommend this unit.
The Bigsby Tremolo was the first ‘whammy bar’ unit to be fitted on guitars. Before Bigsby, there was nothing. I have spoken fondly and with high praise about Paul Bigsby before and I continue to do so now. Agreed, the Bigsby unit isn’t as tech-savvy as other trems we know and use nowadays but for its time it was the best you had. Besides, divebombing wasn’t a ‘thing’ in the era in which the Bigsby trem saw its debut! Subtle, small shallow whobbles and slight pitch shifting was all that was needed in the mid 1950s. The Bigsby has a look to it, a vibe, that’s really really hard to pass by. A Les Paul Custom becomes a billion times cooler with a Bigsby than without one.
In a time when we were stuck with the Wonderbar, Bigsby and Floyd Rose, the Kahler 2200 and 2300 were the only other tremolo systems around that were widely availabe and could be retrofitted on virtually any and all guitar. This trem isn’t a double-locking tremolo per se, but there is a mechanism inside that prevents the string from moving in the block. Also, the wide range of metals, finishes and adjustment options were way ahead of its time. The mechanism that makes the Kahler work is the central cam: instead of pivoting on two knife edges, the entire assembly moves over a cam with roller bearings. These trems have earned their rightful place in history and I believe everyone should at least try a Kahler once.
As one of the most innovative guitarmakers of our age, Ola Strandberg pushes the boundary of the instrument with each passing year. (We did an interview with him a while back: read all about him here). His guitars are lightweight, versatile, resonant and responsive. His innovations include the ergonomic Endur Neck and his unique tremolo. He decided to use needle bearings instead of the traditional fulcrum or cam for the tremolo: this gives it unparalleled smoothness. To top off the package of this trem, he uses aircraft grade aluminium all through the unit plus the saddles and finetuners are much more integral than on any other design.
Super Vee is a relative newcomer to the field of whammy bars. Their basic design involves the use of a piece of spring steel which acts as the pivot point in stead of a fulcrum or cam. This blade offers a smooth feel in either of their two units. Their first design features a double-locking system with fine-tuners. Their second, the Bladerunner, is a non-locking version but don’t let that fool you: the Bladerunner is very stable as well! Pros like Eric Johnson have been known to adopt this trem in situations where whammy bar-abuse is prevalent. Both versions of the Super Vee can be installed with simple tools like a screwdriver and pliers and they don’t require rerouting of the existing tremolo cavity.
The Trem King is another great design to have been released in recent years. Trem King promotes their product as the ultimate combination of a hardtail and a trem: if you don’t use the trem arm, nothing happens! This unit uses a combination of springs and a retainer bar to keep the trem block in place, making the Trem King much less susceptible to tuning instability, when for example a string breaks or when you perform double-stops. Because you could say that this is a ‘hardtail,, expect an increased sustain and expanded upper harmonics when you have this unit on your guitar. This unit does require a bit of routing but there are many benefits to using this system as it blends the features of a hardtail bridge and a trem. The guitar shown above is one of Joe Perry’s personal guitars, and if he likes something, well… that speaks for itself.
The Schaller 3801 is one of my favorite trems and perhaps one of the most unique trems around. Not because it uses such an innovative technology, not because it is such a groundbreaking trem: because it’s a non-locking 2-point fulcrum trem that fits the Floyd Rose stud-spacing! I have used this trem with excellent results whenever I had to replace a Floyd Rose for a non-locking trem but when I didn’t want or couldn’t plug the old stud holes and drill new ones. Added bonus: this trem has all the fits and trimmings we’ve come to expect from Schaller. Lovely trem arm, roller saddles, big steel block, hardened steel base: what’s not to like? It will work with a recessed Floyd rout but I prefer to use it with a non-recessed body. You will need to open up the locking nut or have it totally replaced with a new, well-cut nut.
What’s your favorite vibrato bridge?