Tremolo vs Vibrato (Clearing Up The Confusion)

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  • Utterly confused between vibrato vs tremolo?
  • We break down the similarities and differences.
  • Find out where the confusion originated!

The Difference Between Tremolo & Vibrato

Tremolo and vibrato are two distinct modulation effects. Tremolo is a modulation of amplitude whereas vibrato is a modulation of pitch.

It is unclear where exactly the source of confusion between these two effects began, but we will examine a few likely culprits in this article in addition to explaining the similarities and differences between vibrato and tremolo.

We will also explore what these effects look and sound like as techniques on physical instruments like guitar and violin.

Back To The Beginning

Vibrato and tremolo are not only processing effects: they are also expressive techniques that instrumentalists have used for hundreds of years. For this reason, it might be helpful to explore what vibrato and tremolo look and sound like outside of effects pedals, on physical instruments, as these expressive techniques are the namesake and the inspiration for the effects packaged in stompboxes and guitar amplifiers.

Tremolo

As noted at the beginning of the article, tremolo is a modulation of the amplitude, or volume, of a tone. The way a violinist produces tremolo is with a rapid alternating motion of the bow up and down using the right hand.

Tremolo is a bowing technique on the violin.

A guitarist similarly picks up and down rapidly using the picking hand to generate a tremolo.

Tremolo is a picking technique on the guitar.

In both of these cases it is an important distinction that with tremolo as an expressive technique, the musician generates the effect by re-articulating with either the bow or the pick. In the case of an effects processor, the tremolo effect is the result of modulating the amplitude of a signal without re-articulation.

Vibrato

Vibrato has a similar, if not even greater, historical longevity as an expressive device in music.

Vibrato, as a pitch-related modulation effect, is a function of the violinist’s left hand, and the hand the guitarist places on the neck and fretboard of the guitar. In the same way that tremolo is generated with a rapid alternating motion of the pick or bow hand, the violinist generates a vibrato effect by wobbling either a finger (for finger vibrato) or the entire left hand from the wrist (for a hand vibrato).

This front and back motion makes for very small changes in pitch that serve as the basis for vibrato.

The violinist generates a vibrato technique using a wobble of the left hand.

Guitarists have to deal with the fact that their instrument has frets and is less flexible when it comes to the precise pitch of each note. However, they can nonetheless generate vibrato by bending the string very slightly back and forth in a motion perpendicular to the direction of the string.

The guitarist generates vibrato by bending the string back and forth using the fretting hand.

For a particularly stunning example of both vibrato and tremolo, check out the first couple of minutes of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, in which the cellos and then the violas begin the piece with a beautiful legato passage, ornamented heavily with vibrato, while the violins play a tremolo accompaniment. Later, the roles reverse as the cellos and violas take up the tremolo and the violins play the melody introduced earlier by the lower strings. Notice how the short, fast movements switch hands as the roles reverse.

So what is the point of discussing these effects as expressive techniques if we’re primarily concerned with the tremolo and vibrato effects found in stompboxes and amp heads? These concrete examples should make it possible for us to sort effects into two piles and discern between mislabeled effects much more easily.

Essentially, if it is something a violinist would do with their bow hand, it cannot be vibrato, and conversely if it is something a guitarist would do with their fretting hand, it cannot be tremolo.

The Source Of Confusion

While it may seem pretty clear that tremolo is a modulation of amplitude and vibrato is a modulation of pitch, and these musical entities are apples and oranges, there is a long history of confusing the two. This may originate with the sixteenth-century invention of the tremulant, a mechanical device that modulates the amount of air reaching the pipes of a pipe organ and thus creating both a tremolo and a vibrato effect simultaneously.

Effects Pedals

In contemporary music, the similarity of these sounds as generated through effects processors is likely a more common source of confusion. Though tremolo and vibrato guitar pedals each modulate a different aspect of the musical signal to which they are applied, the fact remains that each effect features a rapid, rhythmically regular modulation.

As a result, they both generate a rhythmically active and unstable tone. These sounds are certainly not completely interchangeable, but there are musical contexts in which either might work equally as well.

In simply comparing two effects pedals made by BOSS, one for tremolo and the other for vibrato, it is pretty clear that manufacturers conceive of the variables that go into tweaking these sounds in the same way: frequency and depth are the main controls in both pedals.

Frequency in this case has nothing to do with pitch but is related to the speed of the modulation. Depth, in the case of vibrato, refers to the extent of the pitch change, and in the case of tremolo, refers to the range of amplitude, and thus the intensity of the effect.

Manufacturers use similar potentiometer configurations on amplifiers with built-in effects, like the Fender Vibro King for vibrato or the Peavey Delta Blues for tremolo.

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The Tremolo Arm

The tremolo arm, also known as the whammy bar, is more fittingly referred to as the vibrato arm, as it has nothing to do with tremolo.

The trem arm is a hand lever that attaches to the bridge of a guitar and is used by guitarists to decrease tension on the strings by rocking the bridge to a position closer to the nut. In decreasing the tension on the strings, whammy bars flatten the pitch of the strings, thus making possible a sort of uni-directional vibrato.

That said, the term tremolo arm is a complete misnomer, and does musicians no favors in terms of clearing up any confusion surrounding these effects.

Know Your Effects

Though there is always power in having an ear for musical elements, there is also something to be said for flexibility. Now that you know the difference between tremolo and vibrato, you will start to hear when they have been mislabeled without hesitation.

Part of our art form is understanding that it has a tendency to defy labels. At any rate, knowing the sound you want and being able to find it regardless of the label is a skill any musician will find useful.

(If you want to dive deeper into effects, make sure you read 5 Creative Sound Design Tips To Make You Rethink Effects)