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 a vibrato 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 with Machine 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’s Where 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.

    floyd
    A Floyd Rose Tremolo Bar
  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.

    transtrem
    The Steinberger TransTrem system.
  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!

35 thoughts on “The Golden Age of the Whammy Bar: 1969 – 1989

  1. wrong! 1997 is huge for whammy treatment! listen to Reeves Gabrels on Looking for satelites with Parker tremolo on Bowie’s Earthling!!!

      • He used both although his trem use is subtle. If you have ever seen him live, he almost always has his hand on it. It’s part of what makes his style and to me, he is the master of the tremolo bar. Let’s face it, Jeff can make the guitar talk, cry and everything in between. He is also a very cool guy as I have met him. Once was backstage at a Return to Forever concert years ago. I called him Mr. Beck and he replied,”Oh man, you make me feel old calling me that.” It was out of respect. Very easy to talk to. Another time was at at hotel he was staying at. A true gentleman and a master of the guitar.

      • +1, Seymour Duncan says “I’m honored that the “Tele-Gib” that I made for Jeff became a part of the “Blow By Blow” album and that he has described it as a “great guitar, that is really the best of both worlds.” He recorded “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” and songs like “Freeway Jam” with it. ” The tele-gib is a kind of a hybrid of a tele and an LP and does not have the bar.

  2. I just checked out that track….sounds to me like it’s a combination of a whammy bar and a Digitech Whammy pedal. Whoa. That’s like Whammy-ception; dimensions within dimensions of whammy goodness. Thanks for the suggestion! Do you know for sure if it’s the Whammy pedal on there? Something else? Anybody know? Calling Reeves Gabreles…come in….over…..

    • Hi Aaron, if you talk about satellites, I think it’s more a combination of vibrato with the huge sustainiac effect, you can see that on youtube 😉

      • Oh…right. A could definitely understand a Sustainiac being part of what I was hearing on Satellites. I thought I detected that signature Whammy Pedal sound in there too, but I could be totally wrong. Sounds like I have some YouTubing to do this weekend.

  3. Reeves Gabrels is a fantastic guitar player from Tin Machine through Bowie and solo work to The Cure now. It’s worth the time to discover. check the Tin Machine’s Under the god solo for whammy bar abuse too!

  4. Another great whammy player is Vernon Reid. His 2006 other true self album is stupendous!
    And the whammy abuse on Depeche Mode’s Enjoy the silence reprise is really fantastic and funny too!

  5. Nice call on “Wicked Game.” That riff is permanently ingrained in my musical brain. Such a beautiful use of trem, just as you say–not gratuitous, but in service of the music. And a great Strat-thru-Fender-amp tone to boot.

  6. You can see Jeff Beck playing Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers with Strat more recently but I believe he recorded it with tele-gib which does not have a whammy bar.

    • The pic on the cover showed him playing a LP. I have seen him play it live several times and he always used a Strat and like most of his work, his hand rarely comes off the bar.

  7. Good article but you failed to mention Uli Jon Roth’s groundbreaking playing with Scorpions. Check out “Dark Lady” from the “In Trance” album, insane whammy goodness. Also how about a certain Mr Blackmore?

  8. I’m astonished that Uli Roth is missing from this list! If I had to pick a track I’d have to say Speedy’s Coming deserves to be up there for notable whammy use. Especially the live version on Tokyo Tapes which is mind boggling simply because somehow a Strat with a 6 screw trem stays in tune throughout all that…

  9. Definite props to Uli Roth, Alan Holdsworth, Ritchie Blackmore, David Gilmore, etc. If you were limited to a ten song list, which of the songs on the top 10 list above would you get rid of to make room for them? Also, which specific songs from these artists would you include?

    Uli Roth = Speedy’s Coming is a great suggestion!

  10. I would whole heartedly agree with placing Stray Cats on this list. Setzer made his bigsby sing, and reignited the rock-a-billy genre for a new generation of rockers worldwide…

  11. Uhhhhh….lets see, best whammy tunes not mentioned here…. a) In My Dreams – Dokken, b) I Remember You – Skid Row, c) Tonight She Comes – The Cars, d) Time – Pink Floyd, e) Over The Mountain – Ozzy, f) Third Stone From The Sun – Jimi, g) Deep Purple – Spanish Archer, h) Like A Stone – Audioslave….just to name a few

      • Yeah, Jimi more or less invented most of the modern whammy tricks we take for granted today. I actually went back and watched the video for “In My Dreams” this afternoon and George susprisingly used very little trem on that song…wondering now why I thought it was more?? Oh well. “Limelight” was a very choice call BTW. Alex also has a trem freakout attack in the solo from “Kid Gloves”

  12. Thought I’d just like to mention Robin Trower. He seems forgotten now. If you aren’t hip to Bridge of Sighs and the rest of his opus, check him out. He’s a hell of a guitarist. One of the very best who ever plugged in an electric guitar. A Strat cat with an angels touch on the vibrato bar. Still tours around Great Britain. Worth crossing the pond for a show while he’s still alive.

  13. David Gilmour on The Final Cut offers some very tasteful examples. Great finese. I thought he always applied it in a complementary way, not gratuitous.

  14. Jeff Beck most certainly did not record Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers with a guitar with a whammy bar. If you listen to the recording there is nothing at all to suggest he did, let alone “use the bar not just to embellish the melody, but to play it.” To insist otherwise undermines the information provided in the rest of your article.

    • I’ll admit I missed the mark with Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers. I’m not the hugest Jeff Back fan, and I’ve only ever seen him play it with a Strat. I wasn’t aware that he recorded with a different axe, and I’m grateful my error has been corrected here by players who know more about Jeff Beck’s “axology” than I do. However, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Which other songs on the list do you think don’t deserve to be there? Why? What would you replace them with?

      Beck certainly belongs on the list. What other Beck song would you use to replace Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers?

  15. “As the 80’s came to a close, it […] 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.” That must’ve been a slip, I guess, you surely meant to comment on David Torn’s playing on David Sylvian’s “The Boy With The Gun” (1987) rather than James Wilsey’s on Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”! 😉

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