Tremolo vs Vibrato Pedal – What’s the Difference?

Tremolo and vibrato often get mixed up but they are quite different. While both do produce a fluttering sound, tremolo is a change in volume while vibrato is a change in pitch.

Tremolo was a very popular effect in the 1950s and 1960s thanks in part because it was included on many amps. If you like surf music you’ll have heard tremolo mixed with plenty of reverb.

a tremolo and vibrato pedal side by side

Let’s look a little closer.

Is Tremolo the Same as Vibrato?

These two effects are often lumped together, but they are actually quite different. Tremolo pedals create a stutter effect by rapidly turning the volume up and down.

Vibrato pedals, on the other hand, create a warbling effect by slightly altering the pitch of the note. So, which one should you use? It all depends on the sound you’re going for.

When it comes to tremolo and vibrato pedals, there is some confusion.

What Caused the Confusion?

Much of the confusion started way back when Leo Fender named the whammy bar on the Stratocaster a Synchronized Tremolo arm when it, in fact, causes a vibrato effect because it alters the pitch of the strings. To further confound the naming problem, they referred to the tremolo effect on guitar amps such as the Deluxe Reverb as vibrato. 

Because of this interchanging of the names it’s led to guitar players having to verify what others mean when they are talking about tremolo or vibrato as there is a good chance they getting the terms mixed up.

How Does a Tremolo Pedal Work?

Tremolo is fundamentally the simplest modulation effect either moving the volume of the guitar signal up and down or switching it on and off.

Generally, this is handled by just two controls:

  • Rate – The speed that the volume cut happens
  • Depth – The amount the volume is reduced

Some pedals will have a third control to handle the waveform taking it from a smooth up and down to a more sudden on and off.

How Does a Vibrato Pedal Work?

A vibrato pedal takes the guitar signal and modulates the pitch up and down. It is similar to a chorus but without the delay or dry (unprocessed) signal. Vibrato is 100% wet with the entire signal being processed.

Controls are pretty much the same as a tremolo pedal:

  • Rate / Speed – Alters the speed of the modulation
  • Depth – The amount the pitch is changed
  • Rise – present on some pedals this controls the time it takes to get to the desired depth

Famous Songs Using Tremolo

  • How Soon is Now? – The Smiths
  • Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones
  • Crimson And Clover – Tommy James & The Shondells
  • What’s the Frequency Kenneth? – R.E.M.
  • Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) – Song by Nancy Sinatra
  • Boulevard of Broken Dreams – Green Day
  • Guitar Town – Steve Earle

Famous Songs Using Vibrato

  • Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – The Beatles
  • Piledriver Waltz – Arctic Monkeys
  • Scratch My Back – The Fabulous Thunderbirds
  • Yuko & Hiro – Blur

Conclusion

So, no they aren’t the same but it should be a little clearer the difference between vibrato and tremolo and how they got a little mixed up historically, particularly in the guitarist community.