From dive bombs to gentle wave-like surf guitar bends, the electric sounds created by a vibrato arm attached to a six-string’s body are well-etched into music history — from early pioneers of the device like Ike Turner, whose stinging twang bar antics in 1959’s “Prancing” still have the delirious power to make Miss Lizzy dizzy, to the elegant manipulations of modernists like Johnny A, whose interpretation of “Wichita Lineman” defines the device’s most gorgeous, soulful modern-era work.
Gibson guitars typically come with three types of vibrato arms, either retrofit or factory mounted. They bear the names Bigsby, Maestro and Gibson, reflecting their patent holders. The primary difference between these and most other vibrato arm types is that they are mounted atop, rather than through, a guitar’s body. The obvious advantage of that is they can be retrofit without routing the body.
The Bigsby, Maestro and Gibson vibrato arms come in both long and short versions. The short models replace stop tailpieces and the long versions are designed to replace trapeze tailpieces, so either model can be applied without changing the look or structure of any model too radically.
Let’s take a closer look at all three of these whammies:
• Bigsby: Although the first vibrato arm was designed by Doc Kauffman in 1935 and used on lap steels, the arm invented by Paul Bigsby, a brilliant creative force during the early round neck electric guitar era, was the first to become the industry standard. Bigsby was using the device in guitars he built for Merle Travis and others by 1952 — by some accounts prototypes appeared on stage in the late 1940s. The Bigsby unit replaces a guitar’s bridge and uses a spring-loaded arm that turns a cylindrical bar located within the core of the tailpiece, varying the string tension and therefore the pitch. Bigbsy loved hot rods and motorcycles as much as he loved guitars, so it’s no surprise that his first Bigsby vibrato arms used valve springs from Harley-Davidsons. At the time these were the only springs he was aware of that were resistant enough to return to correct pitch.
The great early champion of the Gibson Flying V Lonnie Mack had a Bigsby retrofit on his 1958 original run instrument, and put the device on bold display in his 1963 hit instrumental “Wham!” Today Johnny A employs the Bigsby on his signature model Gibsons.
• Maestro: These are seen most often on Gibson SG models and were issued as a factory option in the early 1960s. They are essentially based on a roller bridge and their design doesn’t allow the same broad sweep available with a Bigsby. A rotating sleeve held in a turned position by tension is the key to their design, but Maestros also have a tendency to drift more than Bigsby or post-1962 Gibson Vibrola units, making them more suitable for players aiming for a particular vintage look than for heavy live performance action. Current models have been engineered to address this issue.
• Gibson Vibrola: This device was the successor to the Maestro system and has had several generations. It debuted in 1962 on some SGs and, rather than moving up and down, primarily moves side to side to achieve its vibrato effects. The ’62 Vibrola lever also attaches to the side of the tailpiece, rather than the top. Initially this device had tuning issues similar to the Maestro, but in 1963 it was revamped as the Gibson Deluxe Vibrola and adopted the same up-and-down arm action as the Bigsby, but with a sexy cover plate. The improved Gibson Vibrola first appeared in 1964 as an option for the ES-335 and was standard equipment on the 1967 Flying V, a model year immortalized by Jimi Hendrix.