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The Tremoloa: History's Weirdest Slide Guitar

(Image credit: Shane Speal)

This monstrosity is the Hawaiian Tremoloa, a strange fretless slide guitar thing produced by the Oscar Schmidt Company in the mid-20th century.

Oscar Schmidt is well known for its other zither-like instruments such as autoharps. Guitarists know them as the creators of Stella and Harmony guitars. This mutant is neither an autoharp nor a guitar. It's its own beast!

Patent courtesy of Patent Posters

The Tremoloa was created and patented in 1932 by H.G. Finney to cash in on the Hawaiian music craze that swept the U.S. It features a warbling slide contraption, supposedly to enable every novice to become the next Sol Hoopii. Unfortunately, these things are almost impossible to play. To give you an idea of the unwieldiness of the Tremeloa, here are two people wrestling with a simple melody:

It takes two hands operating separately to play the Tremoloa. A single melody string under fairly low tension is played with a rolling weight connected to a thumb pick. Music note locations are marked on the large note label under the string. That position controls the pitch of the string when plucked.

The heavy weight of the slide arm actually bounces on the string and raises and lowers its tension a little, causing a ghostly vibrato. In addition, as the weight moves from one played note to the next, the weight stays in contact with the string, and creates a glissando that is reminiscent of the sound of a Hawaiian steel guitar.

In addition to playing the slide with their right thumbs, Tremoloa players had to strum grouped chords with their left hand…not an easy task!

The majority of these instruments were sold door-to-door by dubious salesmen in rural America from 1932 to the mid-1950s. Unsuspecting would-be musicians were promised that this was the instrument the entire family could play. Tremoloas sported soundhole stickers with a whopping $35 price tag printed on them. However, the salesmen would reassure the unsuspecting victim that he could do better on the price. In fact, many Tremoloas were sold on payment plans to the women of the house while the man was in the fields. And, not surprisingly, Oscar Schmidt received loads of returned units sent back by irate husbands declaring "swindle!"

Thousands and thousands were sold, yet very few people ever mastered them. You can find Tremoloas on eBay for as little as the $35 sticker price. Yes, they’re tough to play, but they make cool conversation pieces. And if you ever need that one special instrument to track freakish slide sounds on your next album, this might be the ticket.

Until next time, keep getting weirder, folks!

Shane Speal is "King of the Cigar Box Guitar" and the creator of the modern cigar box guitar movement. Hear the music, see the instruments and read about his Cigar Box Guitar Museum at Speal's latest album, Holler! is on C. B. Gitty Records.