Vibrato and tremolo guitar effects are often confused by everyone including musicians and companies that make electric guitars. This has led to the common misuse of the word vibrato when referring to tremolo and vice versa.
As a matter of fact, the tremolo arm on your guitar is actually a vibrato arm. Although both tremolo and vibrato arms produce a similar rhythm and sense of movement, they accomplish this in different ways.
When did the mix up begin?
The confusion surrounding vibrato and tremolo began in the 1800s. Back then, there were obviously no electric guitars. The confusion surrounded patents that were trying to describe the tremolo and vibrato effects in the cello, violin, and viola.
However, things got really complicated in the 1950s when guitar makers started mislabeling the two effects. Suddenly, there were amps with vibrato circuitry and guitars with tremolo arms. That’s the opposite of what they should be named.
Now that you know where the mix up started from, let’s look at each effect on its own. This way, we’ll be able to understand the differences.
What is Vibrato?
The term vibrato is derived from the past participle of the Italian word vibrare, which means to vibrate. It is a musical effect that consists of a regular, pulsating variation in pitch.
Vibrato is normally characterized by the speed in which the pitch varies and the amount of pitch variation. These are simply referred to as the rate of vibrato and the extent of vibrato.
Vibrato is achieved using a plug-in, a stomp box, a whammy bar or fingers. Great guitarists use finger vibrato as part of their key signature. A good example of an artist who executes this perfectly is Eric Clapton. Finger vibrato is done by slightly moving the hand from a finger pressed on a note or from the wrist. This vibrato effect creates a perception of warmth and soul in one’s playing.
What is Tremolo?
Tremolo can be defined as the amplitude variation of sound through electronic means. It produces an effect called the underwater effect.
Tremolo can be achieved using several means. In an electric guitar, tremolo is produced using a circuit in an effects device or in an amp.
Depth control is used to identify the degree of the highs and lows in tremolo. The technologies used in Amps to produce the tremolo effect include light dependent resistors, frequency oscillators, and bias modulation.
Simply put, tremolo is more like a having a volume put turned up and down with extraordinary efficiency. Once you identify and get used to tremolo, the sound is simply unforgettable.
Differences between Vibrato and Tremolo – The Technical Part
Now that we’ve to take a look at vibrato and tremolo individually, it’ll be easier to notice their differences between the two. It’s actually surprising that there’s any confusion at all since they are completely different and have distinct properties.
For vibrato, it is the periodic variation in frequency (pitch) of a musical note while tremolo is a fast repetition of one note to make it appear longer. In most cases, the not repeated in tremolo is a semiquaver. Tremolo makes possible for instruments that don’t have the ability to produce long sustained notes to do so. A guitar is a good example of such an instrument.
How does the Vibrato effect work?
The easiest way to explain how vibrato effect works are by envisioning the whammy bar on your guitar as a pedal. The whammy bar forces the bridge of the guitar to put more strain or less strain on the strings. This is what changes the pitch of the strings and makes them move from one direction to another.
Take note of the word pitch since it is the main point of focus. A vibrato pedal creates the same whammy effect by changing the signal pitch. This principle has several advantages.
For starters, you won’t be required to adjust the tempo as often as you would with a tremolo pedal. Secondly, the vibrato effect sounds more natural since many guitar players practice a lot of pitch shifting.
Analog and digital vibrato pedals are the two main types available in the market. Some of the most iconic vibrato pedals are the analog ones. This can be attributed to the fact that analog units are considered to be the more advantageous.
The analog pitch has a certain warmth to it and a clinical precision that digital pedals can’t seem to nail. However, digital pedals have their own pros. They contain additional features which greatly expand the range of possibilities.
How does the Tremolo effect work?
Earlier on, we mentioned that vibratos work by shifting the pitch of the signal. Well, tremolo pedals achieve a similar effect but they use a different way. They modulate the volume of the signal instead of modulating the volume of the pitch. This is what creates the difference.
When you change the volume of the signal, the same pitch is sustained. The tone of the guitar does not vary. Depending on the waveform you choose, the resulting sound from the tremolo pedal will have a choppy or wavy effect.
Most people find tremolo too artificial compared to vibrato. This notion is mostly true and becomes apparent when you test the two effects in succession on the same chain signal.
The reason tremolo sounds artificial stems from the volume modulation. An effect produced this way is much more obvious. For instance, when playing a tremolo layer in a band, a tremolo altered signal effortlessly cuts through the mix.
This sounds like a good thing, which it is most of the time, but it also leads to another problem. You have too much the speed of the tremolo effect with the tempo of the song. This is something you should pay attention to with vibratos too but it is a bigger problem with tremolos.
Why should you understand the difference between Vibrato and Tremolo?
Understanding the difference between these two effects is important especially when building a tone you want. They may seem similar but they are still quite different. Hopefully, after reading this piece, you’ll be able to comfortably differentiate between the two. Now you can comfortably and authoritatively identify one from the other even in a studio.