Whammy bars, also called vibrato arms or tremolo arms, are small metal levers installed on the bridge of guitars. They are used for various techniques and allow you to make sounds on your guitar that you would otherwise not be able to make. Most guitarists simply use whammy bars as a vibrato tool or a way to bend the strings, but you can do many creative things with this tool.
This article will walk you through how to use a whammy bar, go over various whammy bar techniques, and describe how it works.
How do whammy bars work?
A whammy bar is a lever that allows you to put pressure on the bridge. When you press down or pull up on your whammy bar, the tension in the strings changes. This change in tension then raises or lowers the pitch of all the strings at once. There are several different types of whammy bars/tremolo arms that all function in slightly different ways.
Different types of whammy bars
Here are the different types of whammy bars and how they differ.
Bigsby was one of the first popular tremolo bridge designs. Unlike standard whammy bars that simply screw into the bridge, Bigsby tremolo arms are part of the bridge and permanently attached. You won’t get as much shift in pitch or tremolo as newer and flashier whammy bars do, but Bigsbys are incredibly reliable and do not knock the strings out of tune as often.
Synchronized Fender tremolo
This was the first Fender whammy bar and was incorporated into the Stratocaster. The Fender synchronized tremolo is one of the most popular types of whammy bars used today as it is very stable and simple to use.
Fender floating tremolo
The Fender floating tremolo is where things get a bit more interesting. Instead of the whammy bar and bridge being locked in place, the bridge is floating, allowing for the pitch to be lowered and raised. This type of tremolo arm is commonly used on Fender Jazzmasters, Mustangs, and Jaguars. However, it can be retrofitted to be installed on any guitar. One major issue with these tremolos is that they tend to knock the strings out of tune much more often.
Floyd Rose bridge
Floyd Rose changed the whammy bar game. The bridge is installed with a nut and bridge lock and a floating bridge that allows guitarists to raise and lower the pitch with more range than any other type of tremolo system. Heavy metal and progressive guitarists favor Floyd Rose bridges because they allow for more extreme variations and techniques, such as dive bombs and shrieks.
How to use a whammy bar
Whammy bars are extremely versatile tools on a guitar that allow you to use many different techniques. Here are a few of the most common whammy bar techniques.
Vibrato is the most common and easiest effect you can use a whammy bar for. To use vibrato on a whammy bar, simply play a note or strum a chord and gently tap down in a consistent rhythm. The pitch with swell creates a vibrato or tremolo effect.
Another technique you can do with a whammy bar is bending. Of course, you can bend without a whammy bar as well, but whammy bars make it easy and add a unique touch.
To bend a note with a whammy bar, play a note and then push down to lower the pitch (or pull up to raise the pitch) until you reach the target note.
Dive bombs are a much more difficult tremolo technique that can really only be done on a Floyd Rose or another locking tremolo system. Otherwise, you’ll knock your strings out of tune. Jimi Hendrix was one of the first guitarists to use a dive bomb, but it was popularized in the 80s by Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, and other pioneers. To dive bomb with a whammy bar, you should play an open string, or fretted note, push the tremolo down as far as possible to completely lower the pitch, and pull the tremolo back to the neutral position.
The effect is the pitch diving down to a much lower pitch and rising back up with the arm.
The shriek or “squeal” is a variation on a dive bomb that adds a harmonic. This technique was pioneered by one of the greatest metal guitarists of all time, “Dimebag” Darryl. Here are the steps to shrieking with a whammy bar:
- Dive bomb on an open string.
- While the whammy bar is pressed down, hold harmonic note.
- Release the whammy bar, allowing the harmonic to shriek.
How do you install a whammy bar?
Installing a whammy on your guitar can be easy or difficult, depending on what kind of guitar you have and the type of whammy bar you plan to install. Most guitars will have a bridge capable of having a whammy bar installed, while others will need a new bridge in order to support a whammy bar.
Can a whammy bar damage your guitar?
Whammy bars will not damage your guitar if they are correctly installed. However, unless you have a Floyd Rose tremolo system, the whammy will likely cause your strings to go out of tune from time to time.