Music & Entertainment

How to Create Tremolo in Music: Definition, Notation, and Difference Between Tremolo and Vibrato

Written by MasterClass

Sep 10, 2019 • 4 min read

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One of the great effects in music is that of tremolo—the sensation that a note is pulsating, warbling, and somehow still active despite sustaining the same pitch. Whether you are a violinist playing in a chamber ensemble or a guitarist playing with a rock band, the tremolo technique can bring exciting possibilities to your playing.

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What Is Tremolo?

Tremolo is the musical effect produced by the rapid modulation of volume. Whether created by a violin’s bow or by the electronics of an amplifier, tremolo creates the sensation of motion. As a single note rapidly warbles from loud to soft and back to loud, it produces a dynamic effect that isn’t possible when a note sustains at a fixed volume.

How Is Tremolo Produced With a Bow?

A classical string player will encounter tremolo on a regular basis, whether their instrument is violin, viola, cello, or double bass.

  • Usually played at the tip of the bow, tremolo is an effect produced by moving the bow very quickly in small strokes from the wrist.
  • It’s so fast that the notes aren’t measured, and it’s shown in the music as a note that has three slashes through its stem (or over the note if it’s a whole note).
  • Keep the tremolo going for the length of a note’s value: a whole note would get four beats of tremolo.

When you rapidly bow a note, you produce a tremolo effect because each bowed attack amplifies the note’s volume, however briefly. The brief moments where you aren’t attacking the string produce slightly lower volumes. As these volumes oscillate back and forth, a tremolo effect is achieved.

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How Is Tremolo Notated?

Tremolo is notated with three slash marks on the stem of a note, or located directly over the note.

Tremolo musical notation

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 alter the note that an instrumentalist strikes or bows, but they do so in different ways.
  • 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 makes a volume-based alteration to the note. 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.

2 Ways to Create Tremolo on an Electric Guitar

Electric guitarists can create tremolo in two ways:

  1. By rapidly picking or plucking a single note, which is the equivalent of a violinist rapidly bowing a single note.
  2. By using an electronic effect created by an amplifier or stompbox pedal. This effect will electronically alter the volume of your note and create a rapid series of peaks and valleys for the note’s dynamic amplitude. These peaks and valleys typically follow one of three shapes: a sine wave, a sawtooth wave, or a square wave.

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What Are the Best Tremolo Amps?

A wide range of electric guitar amplifiers offer a built-in tremolo effect. 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?

Many players get their tremolo sound not from an amp, but 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)

Why Is a Whammy Bar Called a Tremolo Arm System?

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Some electric guitars, like a Fender Stratocaster or an Ibanez S670QM, contain “whammy bars” on their bridge. 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 changes pitch.

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