The whammy bar could be the key to unlocking your voice on the guitar – learn 5 ways to make it work for you

Jeff Beck performs at DTE Energy Music Theater on July 31, 2018 in Clarkston, Michigan.
(Image credit: Scott Legato/Getty Images)

GUITAR SHOWCASE 2023: The whammy bar, or the vibrato arm, comes in many different guises, each with its own unique way of altering the pitch of your guitar strings. The Vibrola system designed by Doc Kauffman and introduced back in the 1920s, suffered from poor tuning.

Paul Bigsby developed his well-known vibrato as a more stable unit to replace the troublesome Vibrola. In the 1950s, Leo Fender came up with the industry standard floating design, before Floyd Rose and Kahler, with their double-locking systems, came to the attention of guitarists who liked to abuse their whammy bars while keeping their guitars in tune. 

Over the years, many more designs have come into use, from companies such as Gotoh, Wilkinson, Ibanez, PRS and Vega-Trem. The whammy bar has been fully embraced by guitarists, with techniques developing as music styles and technology also advanced. Many iconic solos or instrumentals have the whammy sound at their core. 

The opening riff on Duane Eddy’s Peter Gunn shows how it can be used with the fretting hand pressing on it to dip the open E note. Hank Marvin took the idea further by using the arm extensively during his time with Cliff Richard and The Shadows, the instrumental Apache being a great example. 

David Gilmour often used the arm to produce vibrato rather than employing his fretting fingers, while Jimi Hendrix raised the game even further by introducing dive bombs and other advanced techniques, which were then adopted and developed by the likes of Van Halen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Dimebag Darrell. Of course, Jeff Beck was the master, using his Strat’s bar to create lines with scoops and doops to alter the pitch of regular notes and harmonics. 

It can be quite tricky to use the whammy bar at first, especially when trying to accurately intonate changes in pitch. You will also need to ensure that your guitar is set up properly to aid with tuning stability. Locking systems can help with this but can make changing strings and tuning more cumbersome (and some players simply don’t like how they make the guitar feel).

A common approach to using the bar is with the picking-hand’s second, third and fourth fingers pulling up, and either the fingers or palm of the hand depressing it to lower the pitch. This highlights a prime advantage of the arm – the very fact that it can lower the pitch of strings – whereas string bending only allows it to be raised. This ability makes the device excellent for many types of musical expression, such as creating lines akin to a slide guitarist.

Our examples and study piece will guide you through various ways to use the vibrato. For maximum success, make sure that your timing and intonation are spot on. The audio tracks will be a good source of help to get the pitching and phrasing right.

Example 1. Eddie Cochran

This example uses the fretting hand to depress the bar rhythmically as on Summertime Blues. Listen to the audio and make sure that you don’t depress the bar too far. Duane Eddy used a similar idea on his hit instrumental, Peter Gunn.

Example 2. Hank Marvin

In this example, the whammy bar is used to manipulate the pitch of notes and add vibrato. The example starts off with the bar dipped before the E note is picked and the bar returned to pitch. This is followed by some semitone doops and vibrato.

Example 3. David Gilmour / Eddie Van Halen

In this example the tremolo bar is mainly used to add vibrato for an expressive David Gilmour-style effect, before a Van Halen-style doop makes an entrance at the end – the idea here is to quickly depress and release the bar.

Example 4. Steve Vai

This is a rhythmical application of the vibrato bar as used by Steve Vai. Steve uses fretting-hand taps while his picking hand depresses the bar on the offbeat, which creates an ear catching ‘bouncy’ effect. 

Example 5. Van Halen / Jeff Beck

A third-string dive-bomb begins this example, followed by harmonics with their pitch being lowered and raised . The key here is to mute any unused strings and make sure that your intonation is accurate – when Jeff and Eddie use the idea it sounds random, but it’s deftly executed and accurate.

Study solo – putting all the whammy bar approaches together

[Bars 1-8] We start with an Eddie Cochran style fretting-hand vibrato technique where the aim is to dip the bar consistently to maintain even pitch and rhythm. This is followed by an E7 chord in [bars 9-10] where the bar lowers the pitch before the Hank Marvin-style main theme features throughout [bars 11-26]. 

Although the melody is quite simple, there are a lot of whammy bar dips and vibrato, so aim for tuneful consistency here. In [bars 27-28] we find another dipped chord – experiment with the depth and rate with which you depress the bar. In [bars 29 -34] we introduce another melody, which employs the whammy bar at the end of each bar to drop the final note by a semitone.  

In [bars 35 - 36] we encounter a rhythmical approach to using the vibrato arm, where it’s dipped using an eighth-note rhythm. Listen to the track for guidance on the timing. 

[Bars 37-40] feature an ascending melodic line, where each note features a semitone whammy bar dip using a 16th-note rhythm, before the piece ends with a tremolo-picked glissando before the final dipped Am chord. Spraaang!

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Simon Barnard

Simon is a graduate of the UK's Academy of Contemporary Music and The Guitar Institute, and holds a Masters degree in music. He teaches, examines and plays everything from rock to jazz.