Where Would The Stratocaster Be Without Its Vibrato/Tremolo?

Bob Leggitt | Sunday, 29 May 2016 |

The Fender Stratocaster’s vibrato system is remarkable. Not just because it’s graced, and even defined, some of the most important recordings in rock ‘n’ roll history. The classic Strat vibrato, dubbed the Synchronized Tremolo by Fender, was not the first-choice system for Fender’s mid ‘50s three-pickup marvel. In fact, the system was a last gasp replacement for a previous vibrato which had, in tests, proved itself a failure. With his back against the wall, Leo Fender conceptualised the legendary Stratocaster vibrato almost, seemingly, off the top of his head. Never let it be said that the guy struggled under pressure!

The final vibrato, once implemented, was spectacularly effective. Excellent sustain, beautiful balance when the unit was set to float, supremely adjustable, a wonderfully responsive feel, and a musically-sensitive action that could send shivers down a listener’s spine. But how important was this amazing piece of engineering to the guitar’s overall success? Without its vibrato system, would the Stratocaster have become the most popular and copied electric guitar on Earth?…


The first indications of the Strat vibrato’s importance were evident in the period even before the guitar was introduced. Fender spent months trying to perfect the Strat’s original vibrato. A sign in itself that vibrato was seen as an essential part of the guitar. And when the Strat’s first vibrato system failed, Fender could have introduced the Stratocaster purely as a ‘hard-tail’ instrument. They didn’t. It had to have a vibrato.

According to Fender sales exec Dale Hyatt, after the Strat’s release, dealers were not convinced by the vibrato idea. But the musicians were way ahead. They realised, like Fender themselves, that this was a powerful special effect. In a pre-stompbox era, Fender’s Synchronized Tremolo was surely the most evocative effect available for electric guitar.


Use of the Strat’s vibrato became the next indicator of its importance. It wasn’t just that key musicians were using the Strat’s ‘trem’. There was a knock-on impetus. Hank Marvin, synonymous with a style built around the Stratocaster’s vibrato system, has confirmed that the feature was part of the reason he wanted that guitar in the first place. And in turn, Hank’s influential style pushed other guitarists towards the Strat.

The thing was, the Strat vibrato operated so musically and controllably, that there just wasn’t another guitar to imitate it in the pre-copy years. Especially in combination with tape echo, the Synchromised Tremolo had taken electric guitar sounds into a new dimension. One surely has to concede that the vibrato would have been the deal-breaker in many Strat sales of the early 1960s.


The Stratocaster was eclipsed to an extent in the mid 1960s. But this, again, kind of nods to the vibrato’s significance in the guitar’s success. In the mid ‘60s, new means of treating guitar signals were fast emerging. The rise of fuzz and distortion, in particular, changed the way electric guitars were being played. Vibrato didn’t integrate well with some of the new effects, and especially since vibrato had been so heavily used in the early ‘60s, its appeal was naturally waning due to over-familiarity. It’s circumstantial, but as the desire for vibrato died away, so, it seems, did the desire for the Strat.


Of course, a certain Mr Hendrix would soon bring a whole new dawn to the Fender Strat. But why did Hendrix choose Strats as his number one guitars? Why did he not go for Telecasters? Well, look at the range of electric guitars Hendrix owned, and you’ll see a very common feature: vibrato tailpieces. Indeed, Hendrix even added a vibrato to his Fender Duo Sonic. The feature clearly meant a lot to him, and it’s easy to see why. Vibrato, and in particular the Stratocaster vibrato, served as a rich source of ‘party piece’ tricks for Jimi Hendrix. He redefined the unit’s use. Many would say he started the trend that eventually brought about the reworking of Strat-type ‘trems’ for heavier operation. A trend which, in itself, added to the Strat’s desirability in ‘80s rock and propelled the guitar yet further skyward.

So would Jimi Hendrix have selected the Strat as his number one had it not provided him with a 'trem'? And more widely, would the Fender Stratocaster really have reached the top of the rock ‘n’ roll ladder without its special pitch control feature? It’s difficult to say, because the guitar does have a lot of other talents and attractions. Its gorgeous looks, for example. Its comfort contouring, its perfect weight, it’s pickup arrangement, facilitating some of the instrument’s most characteristic sounds… The list goes on, but ultimately, one has to look at the Stratocaster’s foremost successes, and the chain of influence.


The chain of influence is a sort of domino effect. One guitarist uses a Strat in an influential way, so another uses it too. And whilst not every guitarist who's famously used a Strat has been a vibrato fan, those who influenced them to pick up a Strat may have been. Most of the people who've popularised the Stratocaster, it can be argued, either employed vibrato themselves, or were influenced to use a Strat by at least one guitarist who did. Without the vibrato, there are obvious breaking points in the chain of influence.

But there’s little evidence for comfort contouring featuring in the chain of influence. And we can see that during the Strat’s lull periods, guitarists didn’t really care about issues like weight or pickup arrangement. Even the Strat’s attractive looks didn’t save it back in the mid ‘60s when the influencers were moving towards late ‘50s Les Paul Standards and other Gibson classics. The moments and events that sparked the Strat’s domination were so often interlinked with its Synchronized Tremolo.


And flying a final flag for the Stratocaster vibrato? Well, there were always two basic models of Fender Strat. One has a vibrato system; the other is a ‘hard tail’ version. Despite an acknowledged sustain increase in the ‘hard tail’ Strat, the model has never taken off in the big commercial game. When we buy our Strats, almost all of us want the vibrato system.

Indeed, even if we’re not going to use the vibrato, we may still require it. I believe, as I know many others do, that the Strat’s vibrato adds something special to the basic sound. A personality that ‘hard tail’ Strats just don’t possess. We may, additionally, like to take the arm out of the ‘trem’ unit, and simply rest our palm on the floating bridge for a subtle, eminently human, pitch fluctuation, which works superbly with delay echo. But whatever we appreciate about the Fender Strat’s Synchronized Tremolo, it’s a major component in the guitar’s appeal.

And so, the flash of genius that saw Leo Fender bestowing that final Synchronized Tremolo upon the Stratocaster, may well have secured the instrument’s place as the world’s most popular guitar.

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