Mental Floss

Thingamajig Thursday: the whammy bar

David K. Israel

Welcome to the second installment of Thingamajig Thursday. Today I'm naming that funky metal arm you sometimes see dangling from the body of a guitar.

There are a few different names for that thingamajig: tremolo or vibrato arm are two that old-school guitarists sometimes use, but I prefer the more vernacular, "whammy bar."

Even if you've never seen one, chances are you've heard one before. By jiggling the bar, a guitarist can create a vibrato effect, dipping under or above the original frequency ever so slightly, depending on the velocity of said jiggle.

Though no one seems to know who coined the name, "whammy bar," they first started appearing on guitars in the early "˜50s and many people credit luthier Paul Bigsby with designing the first one. (Sorry: "luthier" is just a highfalutin name for someone who builds stringed instruments "“ literally a "lute maker.")

One of Elvis Presley's guitarists, Scotty Moore, was one of the first to make use of the whammy bar. Since then, every big rock'n'roller has used one at some point or other, especially in the "˜80s when guitar virtuosi started using them to "dive bomb" from way up the scale, to way down low in a blazing sweep.

For some classic whammy bar performances, check out these YouTube clips: Jimmy Page, live, on Led Zeppelin's last tour, struggling through "In the Evening"...

and a fun masterclass with guitar legend Joe Satriani.