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Thursday, June 14, 2012

How Springs Changed Rock-n-Roll Volume 2

Rarely does anyone outside of spring manufacturers and those involved with the industry stop to think about just how much springs have contributed to the innovation of so many modern devices and industries. A possible reason for this oversight may be the sheer simplicity of the mechanism, but springs, none the less, deserve a great deal of credit for the job they do along with spring manufacturers and those who have incorporated these devices into their inventions since the Bronze Age.While there are a wide variety of spring applications that come immediately to mind, from the shocks of a car to the function of a mechanical pencil, there are many more that are taken granted. While in the past article "How Springs Changed Rock-n-Roll" the subject of spring reverb was discussed, today we'll "dive-bomb" into the spring innovation that helped developed the guitar tremolo device. If you've ever enjoyed a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo, you've experienced the role springs have played in rock-n-roll music. 

You don't have to be a musician to understand the concept of tremolo. Ever heard an opera singer's voice and notice how they rarely stay on one single pitch for any length of time, but instead flutter the pitch between the higher and lower ends of any given note? Have you ever watched an orchestral string player's hands on the neck of their violin, viola, cello, or double-bass as they shake furiously anytime they hold any note out for any given period of time? This wobbling of the sound of a pitch, known as tremolo, is a means of making the note more palatable to the ear and provides a more musical experience for the listener. To experience the sound of an orchestral instrument or singer without the proper use of tremolo, listen to a first-year string player or amateur night at  your local karaoke bar. After un-gluing your hands from your ears, you will learn to appreciate the proper use of tremolo. 

With this basic understanding of tremolo, we move on to the guitar. One of the most popular stringed instruments in many different cultures, more innovation has taken place to modify the sound of the guitar than most any other instrument. It has been incorporated into every style of music; from being attributed to helping develop rock-n-roll, to Spanish music, jazz music, and classical music. Though the guitar is capable of many different sounds, one of its original limitations was creating proper tremolo. Unlike its orchestra brothers and sisters that are played with smooth necks that allow the player to have complete control over the pitch of the note depending on where they apply the string into the neck, guitars have a series of thin strips of metal called frets that act as raised portions along the neck to assign a specific pitch to a certain area of the neck depending on the tuning of the string. Guitar strings do not make direct contact with the wood of the neck in order to produce a note, but rather the carefully placed frets along the "fretboard" of the neck determine exactly where string contact will occur; thus changing the length of the vibration and sound of the note. The string makes contact with whichever fret the player applies pressure directly behind. 

While frets on a guitar neck are extremely beneficial in helping the player produce a more accurate pitch (which can be more difficult to obtain when the player is playing multiple strings simultaneously) this limits the player's ability to play with tremolo. With the locations for an accurate pitch already set into the fretboard of the guitar, there is little a guitar player can do in order to produce a slight raise or dip the pitch in order to apply certain level musicality and style to their playing. While classical string players have the advantage of being able to fluctuate the pitch of the note down and up with the movement of their fingers on the string against the neck, guitar players can only increase the pitch slightly by manually pulling the tension of the strings tighter as they play in a technique known as "bending." Even with bending, there is no way to manually "bend" the note lower without manipulating the tuning of the string. As guitar design and innovation advanced along the 1920s and '30s , a tremolo solution for the guitar was right around the corner. 

As the acoustics of the guitar no longer played as much of an active role of electric guitars, other new features could be easily added.Deriving inspiration from the string tension-bending technology of lap steel guitars, many different devices were developed to allow the player to adjust the tension of the strings using a handle attached to the bridge or tail piece. These devices employed a spring or series of springs to attempt to maintain the tuning of the guitar after the tension-bending device was used. Though many saw some success, early tremolo devices in hollow-body guitars were not able to provide spring-tension to keep the bridge in place and the use of the tremolo bar or handle would frequently knock guitar out of tune. 

Over time with additional innovations in guitar electronics technology, solid-body guitars were able to produce  warm tones similar to that of their hollow-body predecessors with less feedback and increased rigidity. Along with a rigid design came room to grow in the area of mechanical tremolo devices. One of the most famous early tremolo designs was one developed by electric guitar pioneer Leo Fender who was also known for contributing to the development of the electric bass guitar. Without having to depend on the acoustics of the body to create a quality guitar tone, the solid body of the Fender Stratocaster guitar contained a device that utilized a series of springs that allowed the player to tighten or loosen the tension of the strings at a moment's notice using a detached handle known as a "whammy bar" that was screwed into place with a threaded end. This device did an exceptional job of keeping the strings in tune.

Since the development of the Fender tremolo system, the rest has been history. Similar spring-loaded tremolo systems have been employed in most other brands and models of solid-body electric guitars as well as hollow-body guitars. Many very famous rock-n-roll songs would not be the same if not for the spring-loaded technology of mechanical tremolo systems for electric guitars. From tremolo-heavy surfer rock hits of 1960s artists like The Ventures and Dick Dale to rock solos from Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Pink Floyd's David Gilmore, without springs that allow the players to augment the string-tension and pitch of their guitars to achieve proper tremolo, rock-n-roll would sound much differently. 

For more on springs and what they can do for you, EBSCO Spring Company is proud to provide Oklahoma and the world with the finest quality spring products and exception customer service.

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