Tremolo has a somewhat confusing background. Throughout history, the term has been used interchangeably with vibrato, but they are very much not the same. Even Fender misused it; the 60s amps that featured “Vibrato” were in actuality hosts to a very fine tremolo circuit. They weren’t alone, since the original patent for a spring-loaded device for use on a stringed instrument to produce changes in pitch was patented under the name tremolo.
To clarify, tremolo is the variation of volume by electronic means. Vibrato, on the other hand, is the variation of pitch through any means — electronic, physical, or otherwise. By modulating the volume of the output, you can achieve a pulsing, textured sound that can either subtly add sparkle or create a violent helicopter effect.
In fact, tremolo was the first stand-alone effect. It was created for electric pianos, not guitar, but the concept is the same: a metal box placed between instrument and amplifier that has an effect. First came the DeArmond unit in 1941, followed later on by David Leslie with his rotating horn cabinets. Technically, a Leslie cab produces both tremolo and vibrato at the same time, but this gives you an idea of the sound. By the late 40s, amps had tremolo on board.
You can still get tremolo on your amp, but unless you’re using modeling, that usually means you get one tremolo sound and that’s it. For a little more variety, turn to pedals. There are a number of great tremolo pedal units on the market covering every type of sound wave and speed. It’s the most straightforward sort of modulation, but can add a great deal of interest to your playing.
Where do you put tremolo in your effects chain?
Traditionally, tremolo came at the very end of the amp circuit. Thus, everything that came before it was subject to the modulating volume — including reverb. These days, with so many players using pedals, some concessions need to be made. If your amp doesn’t have reverb and you’re getting it from a pedal, you have the flexibility to set it up in the vintage signal flow, with the reverb coming before the tremolo. That said, modern players are more used to having reverb at the end of everything, so you might put it before your reverb pedal or as the last thing before your amp (whether the front end or the loop return).
To simplify: probably near the end. That said, I use the EarthQuaker Devices Hummingbird, which can be driven by dirt pedals, so I actually use it as a texture element well before my modulations and delays. You’ll have to move it around to see where you like it best, but it was originally designed to go at the end of everything.
To add that signature sparkle or hard chop to your tone, check out our list of ten great options for the best tremolo pedal.
1. Diamond Pedals Tremolo Pedal
To ensure that you have access to every tremolo you might ever need, start here. This Diamond unit is extremely flexible, letting you choose your favorite waveform among shark fin, sine wave, square wave, and chop. This is achieved with a microprocessor, though this maintains an analog signal path to ensure true tone.
This unit includes controls for Speed, Depth, Volume, and Timing. The Timing knob allows you to select a tappable trem mode so you can dial the speed in exactly with the timing of the song. When you do this, the LED will flash on beat so you can see the tempo. You can also choose chaotic mode, which will randomize the speed for experimental passages.
This is the deluxe treatment for those who need it all.
2. Mooer Trelicopter Tremolo Pedal
On the opposite end of the spectrum, this tiny Mooer device provides a basic tremolo in a small, true bypass package. Excellent for introducing a touch of trem exactly when you need it, you can set this pedal up near the end of your pedal chain and leave it.
Should you want to make changes, however, you get controls for Depth, Bias, and Speed. It’s clear from the design that only speed is really meant to be adjusted on the fly, since the Depth and Bias knobs are more like trim pots. Bias introduces tonal coloring to the sound wave, which is an option you don’t get on any other pedal on this list.
Save space on your pedalboard with this straightforward unit that offers a little something extra at a very low price.
3. Boss TR-2 Tremolo
While it isn’t as sought after as its predecessor, the PN-2, this unit will provide all the tremolo most guitarists will ever need. You should only mourn the loss of the stereo outputs of the PN-2 if you actually run two amps simultaneously. For the rest of us, the rock-solid TR-2 more than does the job.
For controls, you get Rate, Wave, and Depth. The Wave knob in this case changes the shape of the sound wave on a spectrum from triangle to square. This is among the cheaper options on this list, giving you access to high quality tremolo for less than $100. A good buy for a reliable unit.
4. Walrus Audio Janus Tremolo/Fuzz
For something truly different, check out this dual purpose Walrus Audio pedal. In one box, you get independent tremolo and fuzz that can be combined into an unholy noise machine. The fuzz side alone is formidable in its own right, but pairing the two and manipulating the novel controls makes this unit stand out.
For controls, you get two joysticks that change the parameters of both sides. This lends itself to on-stage experimentation. On the Trem side, the joystick adjusts the Speed and Depth, while on the Fuzz side, it’s Tone and Depth. The switches at the top control the fuzz; Mode chooses between three fuzz clipping modes, while Bass controls the bass boost for cruddy fuzz tones.
Each side has a Level knob, while Blend mixes pedal volume with dry signal. They’re also independently switchable so you can kick them on at different times. The LED on the far left blinks in time with the tremolo rate so you can dial it in finitely with the joystick.
The tremolo in this is limited to the smooth sine wave like an amplifier trem. When you combine it with the hard clipping of the fuzz, you get something very unique.
On the other hand, if you want a full-fledged trem from Walrus, check out the Monument, which is both harmonic and tap-enabled. It’s starting to show up on a lot of boards.Str
5. EarthQuaker Devices Night Wire Harmonic Tremolo
Equally unique, though more squarely focused on tremolo, this EarthQuaker Devices unit is a harmonic tremolo, which means that the signal is split into high and low pass filters. This produces a tremolo with greater depth and wilder over all character. In amps, they would require three tubes on their own to run, which meant that they were quite rare.
This is a complicated pedal with several different modes, depending on the tones you’re looking for. The Rate switch gives you an option between Manual and Attack. In Manual mode, you can set the tremolo rate with the Rate knob. In Attack mode, the Rate knob controls the sensitivity of the speed change. As you pick harder, the tremolo speeds up.
The Frequency switch changes between three modes for adjusting the filter modulation. In LFO mode, the filters are continuously swept based on the speed set by the Frequency knob. In Manual mode, you control all parameters by the knob settings. In Attack mode, the filters are swept according to your pick, as with the Rate Attack, which is like an envelope pedal.
Otherwise, you get knobs for Level and Depth, which perform their normal expected functions. If you ever wanted harmonic tremolo, this is the pedal for you.
Of course, if all that is too complicated, EQD also makes an easier-to-comprehend tremolo in the form of the Hummingbird. This is a hard-clipping square wave trem with three speed modes and Depth, Rate, and Level controls. With the Depth turned to zero, the pedal becomes a JFET clean booster. I use this one and highly recommend it, but of course, it isn’t a harmonic tremolo.
6. Supro Tremolo Pedal
Like the Night Wire, this relatively new release from Supro includes a pretty wicked recreation of a 60s Fender harmonic tremolo. There aren’t nearly as many options for it in this, but it is a sweet sounding thing. This unit also comes with the Amplitude tremolo circuit, which emulates the original design found in Supro amps during their original run.
That Amplitude circuit worked by bias modulating the power tubes in the amplifier — something we’ll see available again at the end of this list. It’s a very distinctive sound that is quite separate from harmonic tremolo, so having both at the ready is handy.
Regardless of which you use, both are controlled via standard Depth, Gain, and Speed knobs. Speed can further be controlled via an external expression pedal, if you like. It’s a little on the pricey side considering some of the other options on this list, but it sounds really, really good.
7. Electro-Harmonix Stereo Pulsar Tremolo
Of course Electro-Harmonix have an entry in the tremolo pedal game. Theirs takes the form of their large format pedals, which means it’s a bit of a pedalboard hog. Still, unlike the other options on this list, the Stereo Pulsar gives you the option for stereo out. When you have two output sources, you can greatly increase the effect by using it in stereo.
Controls include Depth, Shape, and Rate. There’s a switch to choose the waveform between triangle and square wave. When the Depth knob is beyond one o’clock, the tremolo intermodulates. The Shape knob allows you to dial in the exact format of the pulse. The LED blinks in time on this one, as well.
To my ears, this one is a little more retro sounding than some of the others. It has good flexibility and a great price, so it’s worth a look.
8. Fulltone Supa-Trem ST-1
If you don’t need much in the way of waveform options, this Fulltone unit should provide everything you need in a tremolo pedal. This is based on an amplifier tremolo and uses an internal photo cell to achieve the effect. If you notice a clicking sound from your current tremolo, try switching to this, which eliminates that problem.
Controls include two huge knobs for Speed and Mix, which are big enough to be changed with your feet while playing. There’s a Volume knob that can act as a 14dB boost, as well as a Hard/Soft switch to change the attack of the trem. The Half Speed switch is pretty unique and instantly cuts the rate of the tremolo in half while keeping the set rate.
This unit lacks a Depth knob, but with the other options, you can pretty much approximate depth, anyway. As with some of the others, the red LED by the Half Speed switch indicates the current rate.
9. Demeter TRM-1 Tremulator
Demeter Amplification pedals are usually pretty austere items, with virtually nothing in the way of design work on the no-nonsense boxes. The Tremulator is no different.
So the story goes, Demeter began when Ry Cooder asked James Demeter for a tremolo pedal in 1982, and a company was born when he delivered this, more or less. It’s mutated somewhat over time, but this amp-style optical tremolo is more or less the same legendary effect used by Clapton, Radiohead, and others.
This is a bread-and-butter tremolo, providing only knobs for Depth and Speed. Of course, it goes well beyond anything an amp would be capable of, so the range of both knobs is quite large. A lot of high-profile players like it, so maybe you will, too.
10. JHS Honey Comb Deluxe Dual Speed Tremolo
To round out our list, this JHS pedal offers something a little bit different: two tremolos in one pedal. With the help of a couple of LEDs, you can easily navigate switching back and forth between two amp-like (specifically, Fender blackface and Vox) tremolo speeds at the push of a button.
You get universal controls for Volume and Depth, as well as Speed 1 and Speed 2. When the left LED is on, the pedal is engaged. The color of the LED on the right corresponds with the color of the speed knob above so you know which is engaged at any given time. In case you can’t make out your knob settings on a dark stage, the middle LED is also on all the time, pulsing in time with the currently-chosen speed setting. This means that if you have them set wildly different (which, let’s fact, it, why wouldn’t you?), you can tell at a glance which one will engage when you press the bypass switch again to turn it on.
You don’t get much in the way of tremolo choice here, but having two settings at the ready is a very handy thing.
11. Strymon Flint Tremolo & Reverb
An absolute monster of the tremolo pedal genre, this offering from Strymon weds three different vintage trem options to three different vintage reverb options within one enclosure. Even better, this has stereo outputs, as well as optional stereo input with the use of a TRS cable and switching an internal jumper.
Like all Strymon devices, the apparent controls are supplemented with a secondary set of functions. The tremolo side is controlled with an Intensity and a Speed knob. A switch allows you to choose between a 1961 harmonic tremolo, 1963 tube-driven tremolo, and a 1965 photocell tremolo. The secondary functions of the knobs are Tremolo Boost/Cut, which lets you boost or cut by 3dB, and Tap Subdivision, which lets you choose between sixteenth, triplet, eight, and quarter notes. The tap timing is only available when using an external trigger switch.
The reverb side of the pedal offers three different tones: 60s spring, 70s plate, and 80s digital hall rack verb. The last of these is very similar to the Alexander Sky Fi we put on our reverb-delay combo pedals post. Otherwise, you get controls for Mix and Decay, as well as a Color knob that allows you to dial it in to your amp.
Secondary controls for the reverb knobs include Reverb Boost/Cut, which mirrors the one on the tremolo side. The Decay knob turns into Effect Order, which allows you to flip which side comes first in the signal chain so you don’t have to sacrifice the flexibility that two separate units would afford you.
I see this pedal absolutely everywhere. If vintage tones are what you’re after, it’s hard to go wrong with this. The flexibility of the different tremolo styles alone nearly make it worth the money.