Music & Entertainment

Guitar 101: What’s Tremolo vs. Vibrato for Guitar Players?

Written by MasterClass

May 16, 2019 • 4 min read

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Any guitar fan knows the classic tones of vibrato and tremolo. Think about the warbly tones of Jimi Hendrix’s most experimental recordings, the wild pitch sway of a My Bloody Valentine guitar riff, or the jagged pulse of The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” But which is tremolo, and which is vibrato?

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What Is the Difference Between Tremolo and Vibrato?

Tremolo and vibrato mean two different things, but musicians often confuse them. And so do instrument manufacturers, for that matter. Here is the difference:

  • Both vibrato and tremolo are modulation effects. This means they alter the frequencies being produced.
  • Vibrato is a pitch-based modulation. This means that a vibrato effect alters the actual pitches of the notes you play. This alteration is usually pretty subtle, but it can vary depending on the effect and the player’s preferences.
  • Tremolo is a volume-based modulation. A tremolo effect rapidly raises and lowers the volume of your audio signal, which creates a sensation of motion.

So Jimi Hendrix’s solo on “Machine Gun”? That’s vibrato. Johnny Marr’s chunky rhythm guitar on “How Soon Is Now?” That’s tremolo.

How to Create Vibrato With Your Fingers

Vibrato involves subtle alterations in the pitch you are playing. The purest way to create this effect is with your fingers. How many times have you seen a lead guitar player hold a single note and move his fretting finger ever so slightly to let the note “sing”? That subtle movement on the fretboard creates a vibrato effect. Hendrix, B.B. King, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, were all masters of this.

Guitarists borrow this fingerboard-based vibrato technique from their string instrument forebears. If you watch the fingers of classical violinists, violists, cellists, and bassists, you will see constant motion in their left hand as they sustain single notes. They, too, are using a vibrato technique.

What Are Vibrato Amps and What Effects Do They Produce?

Beginning in the 1960s, instrument manufacturers began adding vibrato effects to guitar amplifiers. The most famous of these was the Fender Twin, which debuted in 1952 and added a vibrato channel in 1961.

The Fender Vibrasonic (released in 1959) was another vibrato-focused amp, but it was priced higher than the Twin and, perhaps consequently, never sold as well. Other well-known vibrato amps include the Magnatone Panoramic Stereo Amp and the Victoria Amps Reverberato. These amps include dials to adjust the intensity and speed of the vibrato.

However, amp-based vibrato often creates the illusion of pitch modulation, and is in fact closer to tremolo. There are a number of stompbox pedals that create more authentic pitch modulation. These include:

  • Dunlop M68 Uni-Vibe (based on Hendrix’s vibrato unit)
  • Boss VB-2W Vibrato
  • TC Electronic TAILSPIN Vibrato
  • EarthQuaker Devices Aqueduct Vibrato Pedal
  • JHS Emperor V2 Chorus / Vibrato Pedal

Many of the best vibrato pedals also work as chorus pedals, because chorus is also a modulation effect. In fact, many guitarists consider the best amp-based vibrato to come from the Roland Jazz Chorus amp—which uses the same circuitry to generate both chorus and vibrato.

What Are Whammy Bars? A Vibrato System for Guitar

Many electric guitars have a built-in vibrato system: the whammy bar. A whammy bar is either built into the bridge plate of a guitar or housed separately in what’s called a “tremolo block” (more on this term below).

  • These devices are most commonly associated with Fender instruments like the Stratocaster and the Jazzmaster.
  • They’re also common in heavy metal guitars by brands like Ibanez, Jackson, Dean, ESP, B.C. Rich, and Kramer—which typically utilize the Floyd Rose locking system to keep in tune.
  • Bigsby also makes a popular whammy bar that sits atop the guitar’s front face. You sometimes see Bigsby systems on Les Paul, Telecaster, and Gretsch guitars.

Why Is a Whammy Bar Called a Tremolo Arm System?

Here’s where it gets confusing: the formal name for a whammy bar is a “tremolo arm system,” and this term incorrectly uses the word “tremolo.” Remember that tremolo is a volume-based modulation. But whammy bars change the pitch of the guitar: when you push on them, the pitch goes down, when you lift on them (as with a floating tremolo), the pitch goes up.

This is why so many people are confused about the difference between vibrato and tremolo. A “tremolo arm” (aka a whammy bar) is a vibrato effect. It does not change volume; it change pitch. Remember this the next time you see the “Bigsby Tremolo System” or “Floyd Rose Locking Tremolo” being advertised.

What Are the Best Tremolo Amps?

When it comes to amplifiers, far more models offer built-in tremolo than built-in vibrato. (And, as noted, many amps with a “vibrato” effect are producing something closer to tremolo.) Some of the most popular tremolo amps include:

  • Fender Princeton
  • Fender Deluxe
  • Fender Super Champ
  • Vox AC30
  • Marshall Super Tremolo (sometimes this amp’s tremolo circuit is reappropriated for more distortion)
  • Carr Rambler

And how did Johnny Marr get that famous choppy sound in “How Soon Is Now?” He did it by stacking multiple Fender Twin Reverb amps and using their—wait for it—vibrato effect. That’s right: he used the so-called vibrato to create a tremolo sound.

What Are the Best Tremolo Pedals?

As with vibrato, many players get their tremolo sound from stompbox pedals. Some of the best regarded models include:

  • Boss TR-2 Tremolo
  • JHS Tidewater Mini Tremolo
  • Strymon Flint (combo tremolo and reverb)
  • Walrus Audio Monument Harmonic Tap Tremolo (you can tap in a tremolo rhythm with your foot)

You rarely find tremolo and vibrato effects for acoustic guitar. In fact, you rarely encounter any acoustic guitar effects. But players always have the option of adding vibrato to these instruments the good old-fashioned way: with their fingers.

Find more guitar pedals and effects in Tom Morello’s MasterClass.