Posted by: worshipguitarguy | November 10, 2006

Understanding Effects: Tremolo

568741_surf.jpgTremolo Demo MP3

‘ll say it… Tremolo is one of the coolest and most underused effects in worship music. 

I love trem.  What began as an effect used by a bunch of Fender playing surf music rockers in the 1960’s is timeless and still very cool.   

So what is Tremolo?  Well, think of it this way… it’s like hitting a note and then turning your volume up and down very quickly.  It was an effect originally built into early Vox and Fender amps and became well known in the hands of players like Dick Dale.  Throw in a Strat and some reverb, and you’d feel like you belonged on the California coast with Gidget and the Beach Boys.   (A great example is the classic “Secret Agent Man” by Johnny Rivers) 

Tremolo has several characteristics which shape how it sounds. 

The first, depth controls how extreme the volume change is.  A slight amount of depth is like turning a volume knob very subtly back and forth a slight bit.  Alot of depth would be like turning your volume all the way up and down, (basically going back and forth between no volume and full volume.)

The second, rate controls the speed at which the volume change takes place.  On most vintage gear and pedals, the rate is controlled by a dial, which makes it tough to sync the rate with the beat of a song.  Newer computer and rack based solutions let you tap in the tempo of a song so the rate will match.  Right now the Line 6 Tone Core Tap Trem is the only compact effect pedal that lets you tap in the rate.  (Correction:  Tom Shafer mentioned below that the Cusack Tap-a-Whirl also has tap tempo on it.)

The third aspect, waveform shape, sounds complicated but it’s not that bad.  The two types of common waveforms for trem are sine and square waveforms.  To understand the waveforms, think of a lightswitch. A square waveform is like a regular lightswitch, it’s either on or off.  Likewise a square tremolo waveform means the volume is either on or off, there’s no transition between the two extremes.  A sine waveform is more like a dimmer switch, it smoothly transitions between full up and full down.  So a sine trem sound will blend between full volume and no volume.  (Note some trem units let you blend between a full square or smooth sine waveform.)

Ok, now for using trem.  In itself, using trem all the time can get rather distracting…  I love using trem as a variation in a song.  So say for instance, you play the first verse with delay, well to change up the second verse, you could use trem.  (Mercy Me has done this on a few of their songs.)  Trem works well when mixed with reverb.    (I’ve also seen a bunch of keyboard players use trem, especially with a Fender Rhodes style sound.  It gives music a real 70’s feel.)

——-

A Little Piece of Guitar Trivia:
Leo Fender is known for a ton of great guitar innovations, but he’s also known for one of it’s biggest gaffes.  Back in the late 1950’s, he introduced the Strat with something called a tremolo bar, which varied the pitch of the guitar strings.  Around the same time, he placed “Vibrato Units” in his amps… his naming became very confusing because he reversed the meaning of the two terms from commonly accepted music definitions. (i.e. he called tremolo vibrato, and vibrato tremolo.)  In time, the “Vibrato Unit” become known by it’s correct definition, but the “tremolo bar” is still the name talked about when discussing the bar on the floating bridge of a Strat. 

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Responses

  1. It may be a bit outside the median price range for this blog, but I highly recommend the Cusack Tap-a-Whirl analog tremolo (with tap tempo). At $250, it’s a bit steep but it will probably be my next purchase, just for the braking function alone…shades of Radiohead.

  2. Thanks Tom for the heads up!

  3. http://www.lightfootlabs.com/

    http://www.empresseffects.com/

    Two more tap tremolos

  4. and the line6 tap trem is a terrible pedal… it sounds like crap…

  5. Actually the Line6 tap trem is commonly found on many pro-artist’s rigs. Line6 makes some great gear, which leads me to believe your pedal was setup incorrectly.

    Quick Trivia…. Leo Fender’s tremelo circuit consisted of a small lightbulb and a photoelectic sensor. The light bulb would flash and the sensor would then know when to increase/decrease the volume. The flash rate could be adjusted to tweak the effect. Leo Fender really was an inovator…

  6. it was a stratocaster with a whammy bar!!!!

  7. Ahh west, you must be a child of 80’s rock and Eddie Van Halen!!! 😉

  8. the Line6 tap trem is found on many pro artists board because until recently, it was the only option outside of rack based effects…

    It’s crap…if you haven’t used it, don’t justify it by saying pros have used it. Pros use a Boss DS-1 which isn’t the best distortion out there…

  9. line6 does make some good stuff (not the best though), but it is consensus out there that the tap trem is terrible and shouldn’t be a line6 product…

    why would I be mentioning high end botique effects if I supposedly don’t know how to setup a pedal/board? Obviously that doesn’t make sense.

  10. Hey jinsaotome,

    I have a Tap Trem on my board and I do use it. On my amps I have tube based trems, and I will say that the Tap trem does not have the smoothness or warmth that my Vox tube trem has, but the biggest reason I do have it is it’s much easier to set it up in a live environment, especially in places where I play where we may have little or no practice and prep time before we jump into playing. With an isolated amp, there’s no way I can adjust the trem live on my Vox.

    Again, does the Tap Trem match the Vox, no… but with tweaking I can definitely get a good trem out of it. But I’d definitely love to have one of those cooler boutique trems if someone’s willing to donate one… 😉

  11. Hi Guys,

    the best trem pedal I’ve ever used is the Fulltone Supertrem. Amazing warmth, but pricey. Second best trem….Dano Tuna Melt! $25 and amazing tone from such a little guy.

    thanks for all these posts and info – really helpful stuff

    Steve

  12. How would you use this in a song like “Did you feel the Mountains”? What other effects would you need to add?

  13. A really cool article, thanks for this man

  14. Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Cheers
    Christian, watch south park online


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