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about Fender and names

Page history last edited by Andrew Alder 1 week, 5 days ago Saved with comment

One of our waffliest waffle pages. We hope you find it helpful.


Leo Fender seems to have taken some delight in stirring up trouble, and in confusing people who perhaps weren't quite as clever as he was, which is just as well because he was very good at both.


As  a result, as well as his fabulous legacy of innovation and development of musical instruments and the companies that produce them, he left a far more dubious legacy in the field of terminology. And it's doubtful that he got it wrong. He quite deliberately made it wrong, and is (probably) still laughing, and as an acknowledged genius this is possibly his right.



Tremolo and Vibrato


This was probably Leo's best joke.


To almost any musician, tremolo generally means a periodic variation in volume of a note. That is, in the amplitude of the waveform. There are other meanings too associated with particular instruments, which may involve any sort of "trembling", but if the context doesn't relate to a particular instrument that's the normal meaning.


To almost any musician, vibrato means a periodic variation in the pitch of a note. That is, in the frequency of the waveform. This term is quite specific.


It's not as clearcut as you might like, as most ways of producing either produce some of both, but that's the convention in English, and it's very well established.




To almost any electric guitarist, tremolo means what the tremolo arm does, which is a variation in the pitch of the notes. This is all Leo's fault; He produced at least four different designs of what we now call a tremolo arm, but the first of these, the Fender Synchronized Tremolo, became the most popular and the basis of most other designs. Previous designs, notably by Bigsby and Rickenbacker, had been called Vibrato or Vibrola units or tailpieces, and Bigsby and Gibson respectively continued and still continue to use these names, but somehow the Fender term tremolo stuck as the generic term... even after Fender themselves to some extent reverted to the standard musical usage.


Fender trems


Leo's designs included:


  • The Fender Synchronized Tremolo, popularly known as the strat trem, introduced on the Fender Stratocaster in 1954 and the basis of the Floyd Rose and many other later designs.
  • The Fender Floating Tremolo, introduced on the Fender Jazzmaster in 1958 and later also used on the Fender Bass VI (1961) and Jaguar (1962). It used separate bridge and tailpiece units, unlike the strat trem in which they were integrated. This distinctive bridge unit was called the Fender Floating Bridge.
  • The Fender Dynamic Vibrato, known as the 'stang trem, introduced on the Fender Mustang in 1964. The 'stang trem used a slightly simplified version of the Fender Floating Bridge but a completely different tailpiece, whose mechanism overlaps the bridge but is still distinct from it. The bridges of the various floating bridge designs (Jazzmaster, Bass VI, Jaguar and Mustang) can all be interchanged with only slight modifications, but the body routings for the Dynamic Vibrato tailpiece are completely different to those for the Floating Tremolo.
  • The Fender Vibrato Tailpiece, also called the Fender Steel Vibrato in Fender literature and commonly known as the bronco trem (at least, by those who know of it at all). This is (or was) a much simplified strat trem which was used only on the Fender Bronco, introduced in 1967 by which time Leo had already left the company. The bronco trem was discontinued (with the Bronco) in 1981.



Strat trem, Floating Tremolo, 'stang trem, bronco trem

(NB not to scale... that is, the bridges are all about the same width, although the photos may make them look different) 

Note the bridge cover fitted here to the 'stang trem but not to the floating trem. A similar cover was fitted to many (perhaps all) Fender guitars manufactured with the Floating Bridge, but many owners discarded them.



Fender trem body routings (again not to scale)

Strat trem front, strat strem back, Floating Tremolo, 'stang trem, bronco trem

In each case the pickup routings and neck are off camera to the top of the image

The strat trem design is unique in that the routing goes right through the body, with the springs installed from the back; This is true both of the original and its derivatives such as the Floyd Rose and the Fender Two-point Synchronised Tremolo, but the fine details of the routing may differ

Note the positions of the Floating Bridge (the two quite visible dots) relative to the spring cavity in the Floating Tremolo and 'stang trem routings

All but the bronco trem routing are readily available as standard routings on third-party guitar bodies, which is why in the photos above all but the bronco routing photos are of unused bodies, while the bronco image is of a stripped-down guitar (and the hardware is similarly available, or unavailable... while in the case of all Gibson trems it's just unavailable, see below)


As of 2009 the bronco trem was the only one of these four designs not in production by Fender (although another two of them were discontinued for a time only to return when the second-hand prices went through the roof). The other three, and two other basic designs, all have their fans:


  • The strat trem is the basis of the current premium Fender design, the Fender Two-point Synchronized Tremolo, and is still also available in its original form from Fender. It has become the basis of most other competing trem units too, notably the Floyd Rose. Never out of production since its introduction, it's a versatile and proven design, used successfully for both mellow and extreme effects. So, while some of us think it does everything passably well and nothing really brilliantly, for most working musos it (or one of its variants) is the obvious choice. 
  • The Fender Floating Tremolo is exceptionally stable once properly set up, and has a distinctive mellow sound loved by surf bands, particularly when combined with the Jaguar pickups. Complex, expensive to build and laborious to set up, it has spawned few if any imitators, and was briefly out of production 1981-1983.  
  • The 'stang trem is particularly suited to extreme sounds, such as dive-bombs. A few imitations over the years, but none have really caught on. Out of production 1983-1989.
  • Fender currently also offers licensed Bigsby units, as do many other makers, notably Gibson. Again, it's a distinctive sound. It predates any of the Leo Fender designs, and unlike them it's also suitable for acoustic and semi-acoustic guitars and through-necks.
  • Most recently, there have appeared cam-driven designs such as the Stetsbar and Kahler. Both of these use similar technology to the pedal steel guitar, but in a far more compact form, and provide more precise control than any of the older designs. The Stetsbar also finally offers a third-party alternative to the Bigsby for those who want an above-belly unit, either for acoustic guitars or for people who just don't want to carve large holes in the guitar body. It's interesting to reflect that Paul Bigsby, designer of the Bigsby tailpiece, also had a major role in developing the pedal steel guitar. So Fender and Bigsby between them were either directly or indirectly responsible for the vast majority of the trem arm designs offered so far.


Despite its relative rarity the bronco trem doesn't even have much collectible value. Both it and the 'stang were intended to be student economy models; The 'stang caught on, the bronco didn't. And there are many other rarer designs, most notably several designs by Gibson produced under their Vibrola name, which was also used for licensed Bigsby units. (But the Gibson designs are generally only available on Gibson guitars, see below.)


Other trems


All Gibson Vibrola units mount above the guitar belly. That's a fundamental difference, and reflects a cultural and historical difference between Gibson and Fender.


Orville Gibson was a luthier who founded Gibson to make mandolins using violin-making methods, and they moved from there to pioneering arch-top (carved top) guitars using the same techniques. Most of their electric guitars (including the solid body ones) are based on these arch-tops. It would be sacrilege for them to cut a hole in the belly of the guitar unless it was really essential, and they don't. So, many of their guitars come with trem as an extra cost option, but all of their trem designs can be mounted on acoustic guitars (using the long form, see below). They're built for it.


Leo Fender was a wireless technician who founded Fender to make electric instruments and amplifiers, and four years later released the first successful mass-produced solid-body electric guitar. It would be sacrilege for them to compromise function just to avoid a little woodwork, and they don't. So, many of their guitars come with trem as standard, if you don't want it (as Jack Bruce evidently didn't, see below) that's your problem, but none of their trem designs can be mounted on acoustic guitars. They're not built for it.


(And Paul Bigsby was a machinist, and the machine shop foreman at Crocker Motorcycles.)


And in another sense, Fender do give you the option. The actual arm is removable in all of Leo Fender's designs, in fact the guitar won't even fit into its case with the arm fitted. With Gibson units, on the other hand, the arm is permanently attached, but folds away against the guitar when in the case. So if you don't want the Fender trem, just leave the arm off. But many agree with Jack Bruce, see below, better still to "block" it, that is remove the unwanted mechanism completely and get better sustain and tuning stability.


We should also say something about the other physical limitation on trem installation: Length. The strat trem (and I guess to a lesser degree the slightly longer bronco trem) can be fitted to almost any solid-body guitar (with a fair bit of fairly skilled woodwork required), but floating bridge designs such as the 'stang trem can't be fitted to a Flying V for example, just because there's not enough room between the bridge and the edge of the body to fit the tailpiece. Gibson, who pioneered extreme shapes such as the Flying V and Explorer, produced most (perhaps all) of their Vibrola designs in long and short forms. The long form replaces a trapeze style tailpiece, transmitting the string tension to the side of the guitar. The short form replaces a belly-mounted tailpiece, transmitting the string tension to the guitar belly. There are for example long and short forms of both the Maestro Vibrola and the licensed Bigsby unit. 



Gibson Vibrola units

Early "side to side" tremolo, Maestro long ("Lyre"), Maestro short, Bigsby short, Bigsby long


Gibson have proved most reluctant to sell guitar parts except to repair Gibson instruments, so their designs aren't a lot of help to owners of other guitars. So while we say above they can be mounted on acoustic guitars, but perhaps we should say they could be, if they were available.


Fender used to have much the same policy, but good second-hand units and/or good (VERY good, defy you to tell some of them from the originals) third-party copies of their three popular designs were readily available, while the Gibson units have few if any imitators, and aren't nearly as frequently or cheaply available second-hand, perhaps owing to much lower sales volumes in the first place. And then in 2019, Fender accepted the commercial reality of this and licensed their Strat trem (and some other hardware) so you can now buy a "genuine" Strat trem online (and I get no kickbacks for telling you this).  Perhaps the Jazzmaster/Jaguar and 'stang trems will follow?


And there are always the third-party designs, notably the Bigsby and now the Stetsbar as noted above.


Don't underestimate the Maestro. Jimmi Hendrix is often held up as the ultimate strat trem exponent, but he made the Maestro on his Gibson Flying V sound pretty good too. 


The above-belly trems also offer another option that only professional guitar builders and those amateurs who have already made the mistake would even dream... through-neck bodies. The 'strat trem is OK although it does complicate the woodwork a little, but the Floating Tremolo routing in particular cuts right into the neck where it's under string tension, leaving the glued-on body wings to take the tension. Not good, survivable with care and reinforcing, maybe, but then still defeats the whole purpose of the through-neck. Far better to face reality and just use a bolt-on neck a la Fender or a glued on neck a la Gibson. Or if you're a rock superstar and must have a through-neck body and a classic trem, maybe buy the cheapest Maestro-equipped Gibson you can find and strip off the Vibrola. Just an idea. Or maybe even then send it back to Gibson and lie: "Some hoon vandalised this beautiful Gibson, I bought it in a pawn shop with the Vibrola missing but the mounting holes are all there, so can you fix it for me?" Maybe not... bet someone has already tried it.


Whammy bar etc 


Understandably enough, many musicologists and even many guitarists don't like the term tremolo arm and call it a whammy bar instead. And that's OK. But then others go further and try to tell everyone else that if we call it a tremolo arm, then we're destroying civilisation as we know it. OK, maybe that's a bit over the top. They do have a point. But it's not all their way. At some stage linguists will regard the meaning of tremolo to have changed, like it or not, and there's a good deal of evidence that we reached that stage some time ago in the context of guitar hardware. If the purists now want to change it back, that's a completely different issue to using a term wrongly, and a lot harder to justify.


The Fender terminology has spread from English to several related languages; In both Spanish and German, the word for tremolo arm is tremolo (with an accent in Spanish). The French have resisted; In French it's un vibrato.


Tremolo or vibrato? Arguably, neither. The trem (as I like to call it as I always have) is these days (and probably since Hendrix at least) far more significant as a string-bend device than as a (true) vibrato unit. And in hardware discussions the short form ''trem" has particularly come to be the normal English term for the whammy bar. That's what Google seems to indicate on latest searches.


So much for tremolo arms! But Fender had more mischief....


Vibrato units


In 1955, Fender introduced the first of its ampifiers with built-in effects rather than just tone controls. Called the Fender Tremolux, it had a built-in tremolo unit. That's tremolo as in variation of amplitude, not pitch, following standard musical terminology. So far so good.


Then in 1956, the original Fender Vibralux amplifier was introduced. It had a very similar tremolo unit, but it was labelled vibrato. This was probably salesmanship, as the legendary Magnatone amplifiers had appeared in the meantime and offered built-in Vibrato using relatively complex (hence expensive) and (later) patented circuits which produced something far more like "true" (pitch shift) vibrato.  See https://web.archive.org/web/20051223022317/http://www.vibroworld.com/magnatone/vibrato.html for more on this.


And all subsequent Fender amplifiers, and nearly all subsequent amplifiers by other makers, have continued this convention: The tremolo units built in to guitar amplifiers are labelled vibrato. So electric guitarists everywhere now call this electronic tremolo effect vibrato. This is all the more remarkable because all guitarists call the variations in pitch produced by rhythmic movement of the fretboard hand finger vibrato.


Fender Vibrolux effects channel control panel

The "vibrato" unit is controlled by the SPEED and INTENSITY controls



Baritone guitars


OK, this hapenned long after Leo left Fender, after he left this earthly life even. But it shows how his spirit lives on.


A baritone guitar is tuned B' - b. No problems there, it's about midway between the tenor, E - e', and bass, E' - e, so baritone is the name for it.


And Fender themselves produced a baritone in the Jaguar series, the Fender Jaguar Baritone Special HH. It has a scale of 27", as opposed to the 24" of the otherwise similar Fender Jaguar Special HH, which is tuned conventionally E - e'. Both these HH models were introduced in January 2005 and have humbucking pickups rather than the distinctive "toothed" Jaguar single pole units (hence the name HH), conventional electrics rather than the distinctive upper and lower Jaguar circuits, a standard black finish rather than the Jaguar sunburst (some other colour options came later), and no tremolo arm, but they do have the Jaguar body and the E - e' model has the standard Jaguar neck. The Baritone Special is tuned B' - b. So far so good.


Fender have also produced three basses in the Jaguar line:


  • The six string Fender Bass VI, which has a 30" scale, a Fender Floating Tremolo, and three of the distinctive Jaguar "toothed" single pole pickups, controlled by a single circuit similar to the lower circuit of the Jaguar. Introduced in 1961, its styling is based on the Jazzmaster body which would be used as well for the Jaguar, but it's not the same shape, it's a specialised bass shape unique to the Bass VI. There were some early variations to the electrics but three pickups and four slider switches became the standard Bass VI setup.
  • The six string Fender Jaguar Bass VI Custom, which has the same standard string set as the Fender Bass VI but an even shorter 28.5" scale, and the distinctive two-pickup Jaguar body, standard Jaguar two-circuit electrics and Jaguar pickups, but no tremolo arm. So except for the lack of trem, it's an even closer relative of the original Jaguar. Introduced in 2004 or 2006 depending on how you figure it, see below.
  • The four string Fender Jaguar Bass, introduced in 2005 and featuring two J style pickups similar to the Fender Jazz Bass, but with a Jaguar body and electrics (other than the pickups) and a 30" scale. The Jaguar Bass electrics look identical to the passive two-circuit Jaguar electrics and in passive mode work identically too, but there is also a preamp which is turned on by means of a hidden pull-on switch which standard Jaguar electrics don't have, and which then gives a completely different set of control options including bass and treble pots.


Is the Bass VI really a Jaguar?


Despite the name, it seems to be. While the Bass VI body shape isn't identical to the Jaguar/Jazzmaster body, it's similar to it in exactly the same way that the Fender Mustang Bass (1964) is to the Fender Mustang, or the Fender Bronco Bass to the Fender Bronco, or the Fender Telecaster Bass (1967) to the Fender Telecaster. So in this sense the Bass VI is either a Jaguar or a Jazzmaster. If it followed the pattern of the Mustang etc. we'd say it was a Jazzmaster, but there are other considerations.


The story of the electrics isn't simple, but ends up strongly supporting the Jaguar connection. The 1961 Bass VI had three strat pickups, but instead of the conventional pickup change switch, these were selected by three on/off slider switches, giving seven options in all (eight if you count all off), including all those provided by a five-position pickup change switch. Other manufacturers had done this before, but for Fender this was a first.


"Toothed" pickups and the strangle switch were both introduced on the first Jaguar in 1962, and were used on all Jaguars until the 2005 release of the two humbucker equipped Jaguar HH  models (and followed by the 2006 release of the J-pickup equipped Jaguar Bass , and no end in sight). And with the possible exception of the Bass VI, only Jaguars had them.


The original Jaguar also adopted the three slider switch panel of the Bass VI. This helped to keep the parts inventory down, but had two drawbacks:

  • With only two pickups to control, it gave no more sound options than a conventional three-position pickup change switch (again with an additional all off option).
  • It also left one of the three switches spare. This spare switch was used as a bass cutoff or ''strangle'' switch.


Then in 1963 Fender adopted the toothed pickups on the Bass VI, and added a fourth slider switch for strangle. This remained the setup for its remaining twelve years of continuous production. Since then the various reissues have used various setups, some authentic, some not. So it makes sense to say that the Bass VI has modified Jaguar electrics, and equally that the Jaguar has modified Bass VI electrics incorporating Jazzmaster features, or that the Jaguar has modified Jazzmaster electrics incorporating Bass VI features. All three statements are true. But the Bass VI and Jazzmaster electrics have never had anything much in common.


And then there's the matter of scale length. There's no instrument (as of 2019) explicitly called the Jazzmaster Bass, but the Jazz Bass (1960) has a 34" bass scale, which matches the Jazzmaster 25.5" scale as being towards the normal max for its standard tuning, just as the Bass VI's 30" matches the 24" Jaguar scale as being around the normal minimum. 


In summary, Jaguar, Jazzmaster and Bass VI (and no others) all shared the Floating Tremolo, and the Jaguar shared the Jazzmaster body, on which the Bass VI body is based. Jaguar and Bass VI shared the short scale length (appropriate to their tuning). Jaguar and Bass VI (and no others) also shared the toothed pickups (the Bass VI not for the first two years, but they weren't ever Jazzmaster style pickups), and the pickup change slider switch panel and strangle switch (but again, the Bass VI had no strangle for the first two years). Jaguar and Jazzmaster (and no others) shared the upper thumbwheel rhythm circuit with its slider switch to override all the other controls and give a basic single pickup sound.


(Well, anything can happen in the fullness of time. There were none in the Fender catalog in the heyday of the Bass VI, 1961-1975. Some more recent "Jaguar" models don't have the toothed pickups and/or the switch panel and/or the rhythm circuit. Whether this should be declared a cultural crime against humanity is arguable. I suppose it's not as bad as a strat with humbuckers and a Bigsby.)


So the Bass VI is looking very much like a Jaguar, and not at all like a Jazzmaster except for the trem and body shape. We can go further. In both trem and body shape the Jaguar and Jazzmaster are even more similar to each other than either is to the Bass VI, so neither trem nor body shape is relevant in deciding whether the Bass VI is a Jazzmaster or a Jaguar.


The overall verdict is I think that the Bass VI is the first Jaguar bass (and the only one built in the 20th century). This is particularly true from 1963, but even the 1961 version is in all but name the first Jaguar model. It has that same extravagant feel and short scale. It's just that the Jaguar name didn't yet exist at the time of the release of the original Bass VI, while with the Telecaster, Bronco etc the E-e' guitar came first, followed by the corresponding bass. And in the same way, the Jazz Bass followed the Jazzmaster, and is in a sense its bass version, and is even sort of called that.


The Bass VI was most famously played by Jack Bruce in Cream, but he had removed the tremolo arm, and only really used the Fender in recording the first album, Fresh Cream. He went on to play a short scale Gibson for most of the tours and later albums. Originally a cellist, then an upright bass player, after Cream and even for the Cream reunions he went back to long scale length and fretless, and you can see most of this on YouTube. But he'd probably have loved the Bass VI Custom had it been around at the time he was touring with Cream, to the point that it looks suspiciously like that might have been at least part of the motivaton behind the Bass VI Custom's whole design.   


So the Jaguar Bass and Jaguar Bass VI Custom both look like reissues of mid-20th century instruments, but aren't that at all. Neither existed until the 21st century. They're not even in the tradition, in that they both have Jaguar bodies, identical in shape to the six-string E - e' guitars of  the Jaguar series. In the mid 20th century, the practice was that bass guitars had specially designed bass bodies copying the general styling of the corresponding six-string E - e' guitar, but elongated to match the longer and often slightly narrower neck of the bass. As so often, the nostalgia that these explicitly named Jaguar basses represent is for something that didn't actually happen, or at least not in quite the way presented. (And as will the Jazzmaster Bass when Fender's marketing department decides that the time is right. I'd guess it will have active/passive electrics, as does the Jaguar Bass.)   


Both sixes are tuned E' - e, so they're both six-string bass guitars. Still no problem, unless you count the quibbles about nostalgia.


Is the Jaguar Baritone Custom really a bass?


But then there's also the Fender Jaguar Baritone Custom, introduced in 2004. You'd expect it to be tuned B'-b like the Jaguar Baritone Special, right? Wrong! It's E'-e too. Jaguar Baritone Custom is just the original and still most common name for what I've been calling the Jaguar Bass VI Custom. It's the exact same model except the headstock decal, it comes with the same string set (also shared with the slightly longer scale Bass VI), don't even think about tuning them up to B'-b.


(Some Indie bands have tuned the Baritone Custom up to B'-b, but they've done it with much lighter strings, either string sets meant for standard E-e' six-string guitars but available in longer lengths and tuned quite slack, or Baritone Special sets tuned just a little tighter to match the slightly longer scale length. And to do this they've had to replace the head nut, otherwise the the strings would buzz and the guitar might even be untunable. Why they did all this rather than just buy a Baritone Special HH and change the pickups, a far easier job with a likely better end product no matter how well the Baritone Custom mods were done, you'd need to ask them. Third party original spec Jaguar pickups are readily available. Fitting them to a Barri Special HH would be pure justice.)


Fender renamed the Baritone Custom to Bass VI Custom in 2006 (some sales literature adds Jaguar, some leaves it out), then discontinued it that same year, so it had about two years' production as the Baritone Custom and less than a year as the Bass VI Custom. And it's obviously a Jaguar, by whatever name, which adds even more credence to the claim that the original Bass VI is a Jaguar too. 


Perhaps the Baritone Custom was originally called baritone to distinguish it from the identically tuned but 30" scale Fender Bass VI, or perhaps to distinguish it from the more recent five-string bass, which generally adds the fifth string below the four of the original Fender Precision Bass, rather than above them. Neither makes much sense. Everywhere else, bass versus baritone describes tuning, not scale length, although scale length does reflect tuning to some degree. (Well, not quite everywhere. The Danelectro Baritone, released in 1956, was a six-string bass too, tuned E' - e again despite the name. But Fender didn't follow that naming when they released the Fender Bass VI  in 1961.)  Every other Fender six string bass is similarly tuned, and is called a bass.


There are deeper six-string tunings, but not much. The deepest common tuning is B' ' - E' - A' - D - G - c, and that perhaps should be called a contrabass. In effect it adds one string above and one below the Precision Bass, while the Bass VI adds two strings above it. Nobody adds two strings below it. It just wouldn't be audio.


So the so-called Baritone Custom was always really just a short-scale six-string bass guitar, not a baritone at all, and Fender acknowledged as much by briefly renaming it to Bass VI Custom in 2006.


PS I own and love one. But I almost missed out on it, and Fender almost missed the sale, as the Fender catalogue of the time didn't even state what the standard tuning was. We looked and looked. We 'phoned Fender Australia. They said they had imported only two of them but one of them was in the warehouse and available, no they couldn't look but they'd send it out and we could see for ourselves.


It arrived, beautifully tuned and set up for E'-e, so I guess at least someone in the warehouse knew the tuning, and of course subsequent events proved them right.


And I bought it. It's an MIJ Fender but exceeded even the high expectations I had following fond memories of the Jaguar a friend owned back in the mid-70s. But I wonder how many potential Bass VI customers would go to that much trouble to find out what the tuning was? Particularly as the name explicitly suggested B'-b tuning, and Fender Australia didn't even know (or maybe even care) what the tuning was? My guess is that if Fender had called it a bass from the start it would have sold a whole lot better. We'll never really know. 


And then they couldn't even sell me a case to fit it, so it now lives in a Jazz Bass case. Pathetic, no?


Fender Jaguar Baritone Custom headstock with original (and highly misleading) decals (at right, if you're using a small screen they may be under the sidebar, but they say "Baritone Custom" over there in smallish letters and you can probably get to them by using the scroll bar at the bottom of the page).

It's in fact a short scale bass VI, tuned E'-e, not a baritone, which would be tuned B'-b.


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