THE WHAMMY BAR 20 top techniques
Richard Barrett takes a look at one of the most revolutionary inventions for the electric guitar, with 20 style-based examples, an awesome, fully-transcribed demo piece - plus two backing tracks!
Wobbles, dives, gargles and more the whammy adds new dimensions to your playing. Richard Barrett takes you on a rollercoaster ride!
The whammy (vibrato) bar is surely one of the most significant inventions in electric guitar, along with the electromagnetic pickup and the fuzz pedal. The selection of various Bigsby, Vibrola and Fender units available in the early days were originally intended to give chords a subtle shimmer and add vocal-like vibrato to single-note lines. Not surprisingly, guitarists embraced this new invention wholeheartedly - look no further than Hank Marvin’s evocative note embellishment, or Duane Eddy’s ‘doing-diddy-doing-diddy’ low-string dips. And of course the love affair continues to this day. However, as Jimmy Page once astutely noted, we guitarists also like to experiment with the things our equipment is
not designed to do, such as ‘gargling’ notes by flicking the tip of the bar (works best on more modern two-point systems); pulling the arm up for steel-like bends, creating faux ‘slide’ licks, and of course the infamous dive-bomb.
So... along with overdriving valve amps, bending strings and encouraging feedback, it was perhaps inevitable that someone would push the whammy bar to (and beyond) its limit at some point too. One such example would be Jimi Hendrix’s version of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. As you might expect, it was a bit much to ask of a vintage Fender style system to stay in tune, though Jimi obviously felt the mind-blowing other-worldly effects he obtained were worth the trouble! And what’s a quarter-tone between friends anyway?
Allan Holdsworth created a new flamboyant style, scooping in and out of phrases like a saxophonist, as far back as the early 70s. Later in that decade, Eddie Van Halen also used a vintage style unit to great effect on his band’s groundbreaking first album, keeping tuning problems mostly at bay with a lubricated brass nut and a bit of care (and inventing the ‘Superstrat’ with humbucking pickup in the process).
From this point - and for the decade afterwards - the battle to create more and more outlandish effects while minimising irksome tuning issues resulted in the creation of locking units, such as the Kahler and Floyd Rose. Even Gibson got in on the act, making a number of models -including several Les Pauls - with locking units.
For a while, you were nobody unless your solos (and many rhythm parts) were liberally peppered with whammy bar abuse - even David Gilmour fitted his famed Black Strat with a Kahler, as did Alex Lifeson of Rush with his ubiquitous Gibson 355 and later Les Paul model. Even though some of these guitars have now been returned to a more factory-like spec, the fact remains that the whammy bar, having come screaming to the fore during the 80s, has subsequently settled into a slightly more ‘niche’, but nevertheless significant role in guitar-playing culture.
In celebration of that, these examples take the majority of their inspiration from later rock-style players, like Van Halen, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, though Jeff Beck’s delightful whammy manipulation features too, along with more traditional ideas in the style of Hank Marvin and Brian Setzer. Whether you call it a whammy, vibrato - even tremolo arm (largely considered incorrect these days) there should be something here to ‘float’ (geddit?) your particular musical boat.
AS JIMMY PAGE ONCE NOTED, WE GUITARISTS LIKE TO EXPERIMENT WITH THE THINGS OUR EQUIPMENT IS NOT DESIGNED TO DO