For a guitarist, few effects can make a performance more memorable. Without tremolo, the following ten songs would hardly be the same.
“Crimson and Clover” — Tommy James and the Shondells (1968)
Tommy James conceived the title for this 1968 classic even before he attempted to write the song. The recording was completed in about five hours, with James himself handling most of the instrumentation. The tremolo speed was set to coincide with the song’s rhythm. As the session neared completion, James and his bandmates got the idea to apply the effect to a section of the vocals as well.
“Crush with Eyeliner” – R.E.M. (1995)
This tremolo-spiced rocker was the third single spawned by R.E.M.’s guitar-drenched Monster album. Michael Stipe told Musician magazine the song was inspired by the New York Dolls, who, in his words, “knew how to exaggerate a song, to make it sound really sleazy and over the top." The song also freed Stipe from five-month’s case of writer’s block that had hounded him following the death of his friend, actor River Phoenix. Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore provided background vocals.
“Born on the Bayou” – Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)
John Fogerty used a Gibson semi-acoustic with humbuckers to record this swamp-rock classic, which reached Number Two on the Billboard singles chart. The guitar intro was over-driven with tremolo on a slow setting. For many years, CCR opened their shows with "Born on the Bayou," during which time it was known as the band's signature song. The Who performed it occasionally during their 1989 tour.
“Gimme Shelter” – The Rolling Stones (1969)
The tremolo effect on this Stones classic gives Keith Richards’ guitar a haunting, eerie shimmer. Richards actually handled all the guitar parts on the song, having worked out the intro while Mick Jagger was busy with his acting role in the film, Performance. Merry Clayton’s backing vocals remain the most prominent contribution to a Rolling Stones song by a female artist.
“Rebel Rouser” – Duane Eddy (1958)
Songwriter-producer Lee Hazlewood was instrumental in helping Eddy refine his distinctive guitar sound. In lieu of an echo chamber, Hazlewood purchased a 2,000-gallon water storage tank which was used to create the necessary reverb to accentuate Eddy’s trademark “twang.” By then Eddy had already come up with the technique of playing lead on the bass strings in order to formulate his distinctive style.
“Howlin’ for You” – The Black Keys (2011)
This song is a highlight from The Black Keys' Brothers album, the first full-length LP to be recorded at Alabama’s legendary Muscle Shoals Studio in 30 years. The vintage approach used for the album proved magical. “Things were happening that were very transcendent,” producer Mark Neill told Sound On Sound. “We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. Dan [Auerbach] and Pat [Carney] were kind of looking at each other saying, ‘That doesn’t even sound like us.’ Seriously.”
“How Soon is Now” – The Smiths (1984)
Speaking to Uncut magazine, guitarist Johnny Marr described this Smiths classic as “possibly [the band’s] most enduring record … most people’s favorite, I think.” Marr has said it took an incredibly long time to create the oscillating guitar effect, which he achieved by recording a rhythm track using an Epiphone Casino, then playing the track back through four amps placed face-to-face. Sire Records co-founder Seymour Stein has called the recording the “Stairway to Heaven” of the ‘80s.
“Between the Eyes” – Love Battery (1992)
This debut single from Seattle’s Love Battery earned the band kudos as a great “noise pop” or “grunge-a-delic” group. Lead singer Ron Nine talked about the track with the Seattle weekly, The Stranger. “We were messing with that riff and I had the idea to try the tremolo,” he said. “I had this old amp, and I think the tremolo had been modified because I'd never heard one that went that slow. I put it on the slowest setting, and we jammed with that big eh-eh-eh-eh-eh sound.”
“Baby, Scratch My Back” – Slim Harpo (1966)
This R&B classic was the only Slim Harpo single to top the soul charts, where it occupied the Number One slot for two weeks. The Band’s Levon Helm and Booker T. & the M.G.'s are among the many artists who went on to do cover versions. Harpo described the song as "an attempt at rock & roll for me," and its appearance on Billboard's Top 20 pop chart prompted the dance-oriented follow-ups, "Tip on In" and "Tee-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu.”
“Bones” – Radiohead (1995)
This track was one of the high points on The Bends, a pivotal album that saw Radiohead transitioning toward ambitious soundscapes and soaring rock anthems. In the wake of the album’s release, the group toured as opening act for R.E.M., playing gigs that helped spread their popularity with mass audiences. Many artists, including Garbage, R.E.M. and k.d. lang, subsequently began citing Radiohead as their favorite band.