The History of Tremolo

Dan Formosa    December 7, 2012

Bo Diddley was a huge fan of tremolo. His use of a DeArmond tremolo can be clearly heard on many of his earliest recordings, which started appearing in the 1950s. He carried them with him through the 2000s. Bo’s use of tremolo in the 1950s, however, wasn’t the first time a tremolo effect was used for guitar. In this article, I’ll be discussing the earliest use of tremolo, on a guitar, by “artificial” means – tube circuits or mechanical devices used in those early days.

Tremolo and vibrato confusion

First, to clarify, tremolo is a variation in volume – what you would hear naturally on a violin, for example, as a violinist oscillates the bow back and fourth. Vibrato is quite different. That’s an variation of pitch. On a violin, vibrato is what you hear as the violinist’s “fretting” hand rocks back and forth quickly while holding down the string on a note. (Since violins don’t have frets like a guitar, it’s actually a violinist’s search for perfect pitch. However, watch B.B. King’s fretting hand rock back and forth quickly to manually achieve vibrato effect on guitar).

The terms tremolo and vibrato are often confused by guitarists, a result of Leo Fender’s 1950′s use of “tremolo bar” when naming what is actually a vibrato bar. But while Leo sometimes gets the credit (or blame) for confusing the terms, he also is not the first to do so. Patents for various instrument-based devices filed with the US Patent and Trademark office, that confuse the terms tremolo and vibrato, date back to the late 1800s. Many of these early patents describing tremolo and vibrato devices are intended for violin, viola or cello. Leo Fender’s patent attorneys, when filing his patent in 1954, may have simply based their terminology on these past examples.

Tremolo circuits in amplifiers

Laurens Hammond, as in Hammond Organ, based in Chicago, patented tremolo circuits for “electrical musical instruments” in the late 1930s.

The first guitar amps with tremolo

Danelectro, Premier and Gibson amplifiers were the earliest commercial circuits for guitar that featured tremolo. Gibson’s earliest was the GA-50T, introduced in 1948. (The Fender Tremolux amp, the first Fender to include tremolo, appeared much later – 1955.)

Tremolo circuits in guitar amplifiers began appearing in 1946. Nathan Daniel, the founder of Danelectro, a New Jersey based manufacturer of amplifiers and guitars, patented a tube circuit producing tremolo in 1946. That 1946 patent date means he must have been experimenting with the circuit sometime earlier. But that wasn’t the first tube-based tremolo unit in existence. Organ amplifier circuits with tremolo date back to the 1920s.

Nathan Daniel (Danelectro) applied for his tube tremolo circuit patent in 1947. That patent was granted in 1950. Since 1934 he had been making amplifiers for New York City based Epiphone. He established Danelectro in 1947, the year after he applied for the tremolo patent. Tremolo was available in Danelectro’s “Special” amp, dating (I believe) to the very early 1950s.

The accordion connection?

In the 1940s and 1950s guitar amplifiers were also marketed for accordions. Hard to believe today, but across the US accordion music was insanely popular. Amplifiers made in the 1950s, and into the 1960s, from Gibson and other manufacturers, had input jacks identified for both guitar and accordion. (Accordions, by the way, are another instrument with which tremolo comes naturally – by slowly “pulsing” hand pressure on the bellows, or by oscillating your squeezing hand quickly on the bellows. These methods of tremolo, of course, can sound noticeably different from the consistent, evenly paced tremolo you would get from a tube-based circuit or the mechanical DeArmond tremolo units.)

Tremolo effects units

A Music Trade Review article from July 1941 discusses two Story & Clark Storytone electric pianos “equipped with DeArmond tremolo device and the Hammond Solovox.” So DeArmond tremolo units date back to at least 1941, and possibly earlier. (I have the article and photos of a Storytone piano with a DeArmond tremolo unit attached – I’ll post pictures soon.)

People at DeArmond however were not the only ones thinking about tremolo back then. A patent by A. L. Appel was filed in 1946 (and granted in 1949).

Both units were mechanical, invented long after tube-based tremolo circuits, but predating (of course) solid-state circuits and components. The DeArmond units work by sending the guitar signal through a small sealed canister, filled halfway with a mysterious “hydro-fluid.” (It wasn’t mercury, as most people assume – it was, in fact, a water-based electrolytic solution, identical to Windex.) As the canister is shaken by the unit’s internal motor, the fluid splashes agains a pin inside the canister that sends the guitar signal to ground. As a result, tremolo produced by a DeArmond unit sounds uniquely “fluid.”

The A. L. Appel patent describes a quite different mechanism. His design consists of a rotary mechanism that moves an electric contact along a series of resistors of varying values arranged in a circle. I personally have never seen one, and have no idea if that mechanism was ever produced commercially. (Not sure, but this device seems like it would have had some mechanical issues, bringing into question its dependability.)

The earliest recorded examples of guitars using tremolo

I’ve been on the hunt (and continue to search) for the earliest recorded example of guitar tremolo. You would think, based on the the DeArmond tremolo unit’s introduction around 1939 or so, that the first recordings would had surfaced around that time. It’s safe to assume however that an inventor like Nathan Daniels, or a company like DeArmond or Gibson, wouldn’t start manufacturing tremolo units or circuits in guitar amplifiers in 1947 or 1948 unless there was some indication of demand. The sequence would most likely be 1) known guitarists, somewhere, experimenting with tremolo, 2) the idea catches on, and 3) commercially available amplifiers and units start to appear. The other plausible scenario would be that accordion players got the idea of tremolo before guitarists – and since the amplifiers were marketed to both accordion players and guitarists, as well as electric pianos and organs, guitarists simply found themselves using tremolo-equipped amps.

Perhaps because I am much more familiar with guitars than I am with accordions, I’m going with the former theory – that early on, some guitarists were experimenting with tremolo using already-existing tremolo-equipped amplifier circuits that were created for organs.

In a search for examples of early guitar recordings, Les Paul, the master of guitar experimentation, would certainly come to mind. In his recording of Sweet Hawaiian Moonlight, in fact, a subtle-but-definitely-there tremolo can be heard. But that was 1946.

Roosevelt Sykes, somewhere between 1941 and 1944, used tremolo in his recordings of “Love Has Something To Say,” “Are you Unhappy?” and “Poor Boy Blues” (piano on the latter).

Anything earlier? If you know of any very early guitar tremolo recordings. PLEASE let me know.

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