Raising The Bar by Lenny KayeSaturday, March 13, 2010
Recently I ran a picture of Lenny Kaye in this blog which accompanied an In One Ear column by Les Wisman from Vancouver Magazine. It is here. Kaye saw it. He was most pleased. I asked him if he would write a guest blog on his take on the whammy bar. Today he delivered.
Raising The Bar
By Lenny Kaye
I call it a sway bar, but it is also referred to as a whammy, a whang, and – most descriptively – a vibrato bar. It’s the lever you see protruding from a guitar’s bridge, and when grasped and pulled up or down, has the ability to shift the pitch of a note, a chord, or even all six strings in one swift motion. It can be used tastefully, as in a slight wobble, or radically, replicating the vertigo of a dive-bomber.
Usually, except when the guitar has a Floyd Rose string-lock upon it, it exacts its price on the player: the dreaded out-of-tuning. But usually the effect, emphasizing a trailing arpeggio with a bit of squiggle, or tickling a note as it sails into oblivion, is worth it. Or at least I think so, or should I say sowowowowo….
I love the sway bar, seldom play an electric instrument without one fitted, and have often been tempted to bounce upon it as one might a trampoline. The undisputed master of the technique – apart from such godlike creatures as Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck, both of whom used it to play entire melodies – is John Cippolina of the Quicksilver Messenger Service. In such recordings as “Babe You’re Gonna Leave Me,” “Codine,” “Pride Of Man” and the epic journey that is “Who Do You Love Me,” he wrenched and moaned his solos so that they seemed spoken in a foreign lingual, shivering and wobbling each phrase that he poured out of his custom Gibson SG.
It was Paul Bigsby who first put a springlike vibrato tailpiece on a guitar in the early fifties, followed by Leo Fender with his synchronized tremolo arm on the Stratocaster (though of course, this is misnamed, since tremolo is volume alteration, something a mere grab of a handle cannot do).
Wherever and whencever it comes, it adds a degree of expression to the guitar that falls easily to hand. My hand, especially.
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