The Golden Age of the Whammy Bar: 1969 – 1989

The English language is an interesting thing. It’s full of contradicting terms, colloquialisms, and misnomers that confuse and mislead. The name “tremolo bar”, for example. The word “tremolo” refers to a fluctuation in volume, but a tremolo bar alters pitch. It should therefore technically be called avibrato bar, and yet it remains almost universally known as a tremolo bar.

Another interesting part of language is the subtle distinction between words that mean essentially the same thing, like the words story, anecdote, fable, allegory, and tale. Other terms for the tremolo bar include trem, trem arm, dive bar, twang bar, wiggle stick, or whammy bar, and each one invokes a slightly different meaning.

Let’s take the term “whammy bar”, for example. In my mind, it is not describing a type of tremolo bar, but a particular way of using one. It is a little like the difference between a violin and a fiddle: two different approaches to the same instrument. A whammy bar is any tremolo bar used in a bold, bombastic, maybe even reckless way. It’s a tremolo bar with swagger.

In its early years the tremolo bar was used mostly for subtle effect, but by the 1960’s it had become part of the signature sound of rockabilly and surf music. Its earliest use as a true whammy bar occurred near the end of the 60’s, and in the twenty years that followed, inventors and guitarists played a game of cat and mouse. As quickly as tinkerers improved the function of the whammy bar, players found new ways to use it, abuse it, and push it beyond its limits. In honor of those two glorious decades, I present, in chronological order, the ten best whammy songs from the Golden Age of the Whammy Bar: 1969 – 1989.

  1. The Star Spangled Banner – In 1969 Jimi Hendrix’s performance of The Star Spangled Banner on the stage at Woodstock announced to the world that the tremolo bar could be more than a subtle effect applied to a piece of music. Instead, the trem could be used as a tool of sonic creation in its own right, not just to generate notes, but noises and sound effects unattainable any other way. He’d done this before on 1967’s Third Stone From the Sun, but that example was a little more textural. His performance of the Star Spangled Banner put the whammy undeniably front and center. And just in case anyone missed his point, Jimi drove it home again in 1970 withMachine Gun.
  1. Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers – Jeff Beck is a master of whammy bar manipulation, as evidenced by this 1975 piece. Jeff uses the bar not just to embellish the melody, but to play it.  For another achingly beautiful example of Jeff’s superlative technique, check out the melody of 1989’sWhere Were You?.
  1. Eruption – Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo masterpiece, released on Van Halen’s debut album in 1978, set the guitar playing world on its collective ear. Though Eddie used a standard 6-screw tremolo for the massive dive-bombs on this signature piece, he went on to almost single-handedly launch a new kind of hot-rodded playing centered around locking tremolos like the Floyd Rose® (which he adopted a short time later). These tremolos locked the strings in position at both the saddle and the nut, greatly increasing tuning stability…and in turn the player’s ability to use the whammy in wilder ways than ever before.
  1. Limelight – Alex Lifeson’s characteristically angular soloing style is augmented in this 1981 Rush track by massive whammy use. Graceful arcs of sound soar and plummet, rising steadily towards a screaming high note that warbles high above the sonic landscape for almost 16 measures.
  1. Don’t Tell Me You Love Me – Brad Gillis of Night Ranger is another 80’s guitarist well known for making the locking whammy bar a signature part of his style. Though much of his guitar work features noteworthy whammy bar usage, the first half of the guitar solo from this 1982 tune might be one of the most unique. It highlights a technique in which the bar of a Floyd Rose® tremolo unit is flicked to create a springy, warbling effect.
  1. Twang Bar King – Adrian Belew, already well known as a prominent purveyor of whammy bar prowess, decided to fully embrace the role with this raucous 1983 track. There isn’t a single lead guitar line in this tune that isn’t whammy warped or tremolo twisted in some way. It features dive-bombs, exaggerated vibratos, and other antics by the bucket-full.
  1. The Attitude Song – This 1984 Steve Vai gem features a host of musical oddities…not the least of which is his varied and masterful whammy bar manipulation. The song is a delicious layer-cake of harmonized guitar parts, speed-defying licks, and assorted quirky noises, all performed over an up-tempo, odd-time-signature groove. Steve’s whammy bar antics sit atop and between the layers like sweet frosting.
  1. Get Up – In 1986 Eddie Van Halen raised the bar again, this time using Ned Steinberger’s TransTrem® system, which had been developed in 1984. The TransTrem® maintained the relative pitch of the strings throughout its range, making it possible for the first time to bend full chords in tune. The song’s up-tempo main riff is so inextricably linked with the TransTrem’s® unique capabilities that it is impossible to play it correctly without one.
  1. Ice 9 – There are plenty of whammy bar songs on Joe Satriani’s 1987 breakout album Surfing With the Alien, but Ice 9 might be the most noteworthy. In this song Joe flaunts an ingenious whammy bar trick he calls “lizard down the throat”. The effect is achieved by simultaneously diving the bar and sliding a fretted note up the neck. The result is a somewhat stationary pitch with an oddly gargled, purring sound.
  1. Wicked Game – As the 80’s came to a close, it seemed almost everything that could be done, had been done. Whammy bar players had learned to warp, warble, wiggle, wriggle, whine, and whinnie. Then James Wilsey opened this 1989 Chris Isaak tune with an understated, song-serving, and ultimately perfect lick that reminded players everywhere that whammy bar playing need not be drenched in distortion to be effective. It was the ultimate anti-whammy-bar whammy bar lick.

The Golden Age of the Whammy Bar was over. In the nearly three decades that have elapsed since 1989, neither whammy bar technology nor whammy bar playing have evolved as radically as they did during the Golden Age. There have been great whammy bar licks since then, to be sure. We’ve also seen a handful of new tremolo designs. None of them have been as game-changing as what we saw and heard between 1969 and 1989.

Disagree? Know of any other great whammy bar songs from the Golden Age of the Whammy Bar (or from any other time period)? Tell us about it!

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