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When some people think of a whammy bar, they imagine deep pitch bends and Jimi Hendrix-esque squeals, but there is also a lot of room for more subtle use, including putting an ethereal shimmer under your rhythm and lead parts.
But can bassists benefit from that sound? Can a bass have a whammy bar?
Bass guitars have more string tension than standard guitars, which makes installing a tremolo system complicated, but it is possible, and several companies make aftermarket tremolo systems for basses. A few bass guitars have been made with a tremolo system from the factory, but most of those were short-scale, six-string basses.
Let’s look at why you might want a tremolo on a bass and why it might not be such a great idea, as well as some bass guitars that came with a tremolo from the factory.
What Does A Whammy Bar Do?
Before we get too far, it’s worth looking at what a whammy bar — or tremolo system, or vibrato system — does.
The name can be quite confusing. Leo Fender called the system of springs and fulcrums attached to the bridge of the Stratocaster a tremolo, even though it changed the pitch of the note, not the volume, which is the usual meaning of tremolo.
Rapid small changes to pitch are usually called vibrato. That’s reflected in another famous system, the Bigsby, which calls itself a vibrato system.
The name whammy bar might originate from an early 1960s hit by Lonnie Mack titled “Wham!”
Mack used a vibrato system on that song, which you can hear in the video below.
While the specifics of the mechanism vary from maker to maker, pretty much all whammy bars, whether they’re called a vibrato, tremolo, or something else, work on the same basic principle.
The strings are attached through a bar or a block, and that is connected to some kind of spring. Using the attached arm makes the block or bar move, changing the length of the strings, and causing a change in pitch.
If you know much about how guitars, including basses, work, then you might already see why tremolo systems are not easy to design and build for bass guitars.
Can You Put A Tremolo On A Bass Guitar?
The biggest issue you face when trying to put a tremolo on a bass guitar is the massive amount of tension the strings put on the neck and the bridge.
A low E string on a guitar with a thickness of 0.053″ puts a tension of about 25 pounds on the neck for a guitar with a 25.5 inch scale. By comparison, a low E string on a bass with a thickness of 0.110″ has a tension of about 46 pounds on the neck for a bass with a 34 inch scale.
That means in order to move the bridge, you need a much stiffer string for a bass than for a standard guitar. In general, bass bridges are also larger and heavier than guitar bridges, which is more weight to offset.
Like most tremolo systems, the ones designed for bass also require removing material from the instrument to install the mechanism. Because the bridges are larger, this also means removing more material, something that might keep some players from taking the plunge.
But even with all of those potential difficulties, there are a few options out there when it comes to aftermarket bass tremolo systems.
One comes from Kahler, a company known for its tremolos. Like most aftermarket tremolo systems, installation involves routing a pocket into the body, but unlike others, the Kahler models can be installed with routing into the top only, as opposed to the top and back required for some other kinds of tremolos.
Another company that makes a bass tremolo system is Hipshot. That system is a variation on the classic Fender style of vibrato, with two posts acting as a pivot point instead of the knife edge in the original design.
The design makes the system very familiar to anyone who has ever played a guitar with a Fender style tremolo, but there is a drawback, at least when it comes to installation.
That’s because systems that have the classic Fender style design require routing to be done on both the front and back of the body. That means you need to be extremely careful when installing it on an existing guitar.
The front and back pockets need to be precisely aligned for the installation to go right, and you also need to account for the difference in thickness created by the finish when making measurements.
At least one bass tremolo system is designed to fight the biggest issue most tremolos face: friction. The BB1 tremolo by Jens Ritter Instruments uses miniature ball bearings as the pivot.
This offers much, much less friction than a standard tremolo, which uses some kind of pivot point to move the bridge.
The drawback is that the mechanism is much more complicated, and therefore more expensive to produce.
Do Any Bass Guitars Have A Whammy Bar?
A few famous bass players have used instruments with a whammy bar, most notably Les Claypool of Primus. Claypool’s bass uses a Kahler tremolo system that he had installed, though, as opposed to coming from the factory with a tremolo.
There is one bass that has always come with a tremolo system, though, the Fender Bass VI. Launched in 1961 and used on iconic songs from 1962’s “Besame Mucho” by Jet Harris to the Cure’s “Pictures Of You” from 1989, the instrument featured the same vibrato system as on the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar, whose shape it also shares.
The Bass VI has a 30 inch scale and came with strings designed to work at an octave below a standard guitar while allowing six strings to fit on a neck not much wider than a standard guitar. The idea was to make an instrument more familiar to guitarists.
Other makers made similar instruments, including Danelectro, but those generally did not have a vibrato system. The Fender’s combination of the scale and the vibrato give it an iconic, twangy sound that helped to define instrumental rock genres like surf rock, in addition to its role in other parts of popular music.
Some custom makers also offer a tremolo option, much like the Jens Ritter Instruments system I mentioned above, but apart from that and the Bass VI, relatively few basses have come equipped with a whammy bar from the factory.
Why Don’t More Basses Have A Whammy Bar?
I touched on one reason for their relative scarcity earlier: the large amount of tension that the strings put on the neck and bridge. Designing a system that can resist that tension and still return to pitch reliably is a challenge.
Returning to pitch touches on another reason that tremolo systems aren’t more popular on basses. Using a tremolo without a locking system can cause tuning stability issues, even with relatively modest bends.
The larger amount of tension from thicker strings can make the tuning stability problems even worse, because unless the system is properly balanced, the strings will be lifting the bridge or the springs will pull it down, causing the tuning to shift. And that’s before it’s being used much — any attempt to go for big pitch bends will likely cause tuning to go completely out.
While there are a number of options out there for tremolo systems designed for bass guitars, relatively few such guitars are made.
Part of that likely has to do with the complexity and expense that go into creating and installing a tremolo system in a bass. Such an installation is only for those with a lot of experience, but is also time consuming and difficult enough that it is expensive to have a professional luthier handle it.
The other limiting factor is likely problems with tuning stability. After all, the work the bass does includes both rhythm and setting the root of the chord, so issues with slipping out of tuning could be a serious issue.
With all that said, though, if you’re interested in a bass with a whammy bar, they are out there — you just need to know where to look.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.