There are many terms in every discipline and the guitar is no different. Some people use terminology interchangeably, while others state there are subtle differences between words.
One example is the difference between distortion and overdrive which actually are separate on account of a few small details. But what about the whammy and tremolo bar? Is there a difference between these two things?
Generally speaking, there is no difference between a whammy and a tremolo bar, other than that a “tremolo bar” is sometimes used in reference to the Floyd Rose. The difference in terminology comes from Leo Fender who used “tremolo” to describe his rendition of the vibrato system on the Stratocaster.
The two words are often used interchangeably, and how or when they’re used depends on the person. For instance, I grew up with the idea that the whammy bar referred to the Fender Stratocaster-style bridge, whereas the Floyd Rose was the tremolo system. Let’s talk a bit more about this in the next section.
Whammy Vs Tremolo Bar – The Differences And More
As I said to you a moment ago, there isn’t much of a difference between whammy and tremolo bars; it’s mostly just a function of semantics and preference.
For example, some people might refer to a vibrato system as the “trem,” the “tremolo arm,” or the vibrato. Technically, the most accurate term for the “whammy bar” or “tremolo bar” is “vibrato.”
However, from what I’ve seen, most people would not call a Floyd Rose locking tremolo system “vibrato.” There are a few other things I’d like to mention.
For one, there is a difference between a whammy pedal and a whammy bar. You’ll know this already if you’ve read my guide comparing the two, but ultimately one does something entirely different than the other.
Clearly, DigiTech, the creators of the Whammy pedal, felt that the term “whammy” accurately described their pedal that imitates a Floyd Rose locking tremolo system.
On the other hand, if they were to call it a “tremolo pedal,” that would’ve caused way too much confusion, but I digress.
The next thing is that whether you call it a whammy bar or a tremolo bar probably depends on where you live. As I said to you a moment ago, some people may call it a tremolo “arm” while others may call it a “bar.”
It really depends on where you’re at and what terminology people use to describe things. In some cases, people may even use the terminology differently depending on what kind of bridge you have.
For example, there is the Fender Tremolo bridge that can be used as a basic vibrato, there is the Bigsby system, the aforementioned Floyd Rose, and many other bridge types with pitch alteration capability.
But I don’t want to turn this article into a piece on bridges there because there are many and that would get a little too off-topic. If you’re interested in the types of bridges, I would recommend this article instead.
What we’ll do in the next section is discuss where and when you’d hear the terms “whammy” and “tremolo” in relation to the two most common styles of vibrato systems that you’ll see on guitars today.
The Tremolo Bridge from Fender
My Fender Strat copy, my Squier Stratocaster, and my PRS SE Custom 24 all use a style of the bridge that’s either identical to the one shown above or at least similar.
In my experience, it’s more common to call these systems “whammy bars” or “vibratos” rather than tremolo systems. Where you’ll see the term “tremolo system” used more often is in relation to the Floyd Rose.
The Floyd Rose Tremolo Locking System
The Floyd Rose is a floating bridge that is a lot more versatile than what you would see with the Fender Tremolo bridge.
Because it literally floats, you can pull up on it and increase the pitch exponentially, or you can drop the pitch considerably by depressing it. This is also called a divebomb.
It’s usually called either a Floyd Rose a tremolo system, or a floating trem.
As I explained in my tremolo pedal guide, some people confuse tremolo and vibrato with each other on account of the fact Leo Fender once used the term “tremolo” to describe the bridge type that others were calling a “vibrato.”
What’s the Difference Between Tremolo and Vibrato?
Generally speaking, tremolo refers to an abrupt change in volume whereas vibrato is a change in pitch.
It’s important not to confuse these two because ultimately they are different. For one, a tremolo actually refers to a change in volume, ie, the volume of a signal cutting in and out.
You’ve definitely heard this effect before in songs like The Smith’s “How Soon Is Now,” “Like A Stone” from Audioslave, and “Gimme Shelter” from The Rolling Stones.
So if we wanted to be exact, it’s almost like using the term “tremolo” is almost entirely incorrect, because we’re not actually implementing a tremolo effect whenever we use a Floyd Rose or vibrato system.
We’re actually using vibrato when we do this because we’re changing the pitch and not the volume of the sound. That all said, this is the way the terminology and language have developed over time.
You could be a stickler for proper terms and use history to back up your point, but most people (with some exceptions) don’t care about what you call it.
More importantly, they’ve accepted “tremolo” as a synonym for “vibrato,” in cases where you’re talking about a bridge and not a pedal or a post-production/mixing effect.
Other Articles You May Be Interested In
- How to Fix A Whammy Bar That’s Too Stiff [SIMPLE]
- Are Whammy Bars Supposed To Be Loose? [ANSWERED]
- What’s the Tremolo Setting for “Gimme Shelter?” [EASY]
- How To Use A Digitech Whammy Pedal [The Ultimate Guide]
- How to Use A Vibrato Pedal [An Illustrated Tutorial]
Important Things to Note About Whammy and Tremolo Systems
1) There Are Many Other Styles of Guitar Bridges
The 2 styles of guitar bridges I mentioned above are just two of many. You can also find what are called vibrola bridges which were the original vibratos that could be found on Epiphone guitars.
Another style of bridge is the Bigsby bridge which is more common today compared to the vibrola which is almost completely obsolete. There are some others too that you could probably find online with some basic searching.