Bach wrote music with the reverberations of specific cathedrals in mind. Gustav Holst had to slowly close a door on his choir to achieve a fade-out effect in “Planets” (an effect that recording engineers get today by turning a knob). Horn players used toilet plungers to get that Charlie Brown teacher sound. However great your instrument is, there’s a musician’s instinct to somehow hack it and make it do new, unusual things.
The guitar is no different. Wrenching new sounds out of it hasn’t always been so easy. Lee Hazelwood had to buy and set up a 2,000-gallon water storage tank to get the perfect reverb for Duane Eddy’s signature sound. Link Wray attacked his amp’s speakers with knitting needles to get the crunch on “Rumble” (a sound so weird and new and dangerous that some radio stations wouldn’t play the instrumental). And some of our most revolutionary sounds came about by mere chance – amplifiers that fell out of pickup trucks and faulty circuits in the mixing board led to revelatory new sounds.
The arrival of the stompbox changed this. Within a few cubic inches, guitar pedals take the kind of guesswork and happenstance that guitarists of the past worked/hoped for and made them work consistently, thanks to expertly designed circuits. A classic stompbox – a Shin-ei Univibe, say, or the Roger Mayer Octavia – means you can hold in your hand the revolutionary sounds that kicked off new eras in music or helped spark new genres. A new one (there are many, many new ones) gives you the possibility of taking off into sonic territories unknown.
“Tremolo” and “vibrato” are often used interchangeably, but really are two different things… Vibrato is the slight variation in pitch (making things all expressive and whatnot). Tremolo, on the other, is the repeated increase and decrease in volume, so quick it takes on a shimmery effect.
For all that, the stompbox is underrated. Barrels of ink are spilled on certain guitarists. Sometimes their guitars get the spotlight. For all this, though, scant attention is paid to guitar pedals. But try to think of Metallica without Kirk Hammett’s wah, or U2 without the Edge’s delay. Or any rock ‘n’ roll without distortion. That is why we are here to celebrate the stompbox!
And our first featured stompbox is (drumroll, please)… the DeArmond Tremolo Control, created by pickup pioneer Harry DeArmond in 1941. It was intended for early pianos, though some guitarists outfitted it for their instruments. By 1948, DeArmond developed a guitar-friendly version, and it’s now recognized as the first stand-alone guitar effect. Before we get into the details, a quick taxonomy is in order. “Tremolo” and “vibrato” are often used interchangeably, but really are two different things. It doesn’t help the confusion that the whammy bar is often called a “tremolo arm” (people who do this: please stop doing this). Vibrato is the slight variation in pitch (making things all expressive and whatnot). Tremolo, on the other, is the repeated increase and decrease in volume, so quick it takes on a shimmery effect. Think, say the vocals on “Crimson and Clover.” It’s a cool sound that you’ve heard on R.E.M.’s “Crush with Eyeliner,” CCR’s “Born on the Bayou,” and The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” (which, without tremolo, would be nearly unrecognizable).
As for how it works, the DeArmond Tremolo is kind of an odd duck. Inside is a small canister containing an electrolytic fluid (I have yet to come across anything definitive as to what the actual fluid was originally – if anyone out there knows, please enlighten. Windex is apparently the refilling fluid of choice among contemporary users). When it’s in the “on” mode, the vial shakes so that the fluid splashes back and forth, changing up the electrical signal and, in turn, varying the volume. Knobs let you control the splashing/volume-variations.
Soon after DeArmond’s device, many more tremolo units followed, and amplifier makers incorporated it into their products. Tremolo remains popular among guitarists, but contemporary users of the DeArmond Tremolo Control are somewhat limited because it’s, well, old and a lot of people tossed their units when the original fluid dried out. Early users include Big Bill Broonzy (using it here with Roosevelt Sykes) and Bo Diddley. It was Diddley who told ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons about it. A late convert to the device, Gibbons sometimes uses two at a time – he says the inability to synch up the frequencies is part its charm.
Thanks to Rivington Guitars for letting us photograph the DeArmond Tremolo!