Pedals for Vintage Amp-Style Tremolo

Tremolo is the most primitive of effects: on-off-on-off-on-off-on-off, and so on and so forth. That's how tremolo works, in a nutshell, so it would seem that there wouldn't be much to say about it. Despite this simplicity, however, tremolo can still be a many-splendored thing, with different varieties exhibiting a warm, heartbeat-like throb, a staccato helicopter chop, or perhaps something that inhabits the grayer areas between those two extremes. All of these different types have their devotees, but perhaps the most highly revered among guitarists are those that originate from the tremolo circuits (sometimes erroneously labeled "vibrato") built into vintage tube amplifiers. Tremolo was among the first effects that saw common use in the early days of electric guitar, probably because it was so simple, but also because so many early amplifiers featured fabulous sounding tube-powered tremolo circuits built right in. From the smooth, round palpitations of the bias-modulated (or "bias wiggle, as it's sometimes called) tremolo found on early Ampeg, Gibson, Valco, and some Fender amps, to the mesmerizing, vibe-like "harmonic tremolo" of the Fender brownface era, to the warm flutter of the Fender blackface opto-coupler tremolo, vintage amp trem can take several forms and exhibit many subtly delicious variations. For those among us who are lucky or wealthy enough to own a vintage tube amp (or modern reproduction) with a good trem circuit built in, things don't get much better, but for players for whom owning a vintage trem-equipped amp is not an option, a pedal that does the job will usually have to suffice. There was a time when the options for such things would've been very limited, but no more, for we live in an age of unprecedented tone technologies, and options abound for players who want a vintage tube amp-style tremolo that will fit on their pedalboard. Here are a few of our picks for amp-style tremolo pedals:

Demeter TRM-1 Tremulator

James Demeter's Tremulator pedal is simple, elegant, and a true classic. It was designed at the request of Ry Cooder in 1982, with the goal being to replicate the sound of the tremolo circuit built into Cooder's vintage Fender Twin. The Tremulator accomplished this with an optical circuit, which uses a tiny light bulb and a light-dependent resistor, just like the circuits found in blackface Fender combos from the 1960's. The pedal's simple mono design, with two knobs on the front for speed and depth, and a trim pot on the side for adjusting the bias of the circuit, belies its deep, pulsating tone and superb build quality. The Tremulator has been used by many guitarists besides Ry Cooder, including Sonny Landreth, Jonny Greenwood, Eddie Van Halen, and David Gilmour, among others.

Fulltone Supa-Trem

Fulltone's Supa-Trem has been around since 1996 and covers some of the same sonic territory as the Tremulator, as both were designed to replicate blackface-era Fender tremolo circuits, but the Supa-Trem adds quite a bit of extra functionality. In addition to big, foot-adjustable speed and mix knobs, it has a half/double speed switch with an LED to indicate the rate, and a hard/soft switch that lets the user select between softer sine wave sounds and harder square wave chop. It also features a tiny volume control on the front for giving the front end of the amp a kick in the pants. Turn down the mix knob and the Supa-Trem becomes a "supa" clean boost.

Mad Professor Mellow Yellow Tremolo

Finland's Mad Professor has a reputation for building no-nonsense pedals that put tone and function first, and the Mellow Yellow trem exemplifies that philosophy. With straightforward controls for speed, depth, and level, and a proper sine wave oscillator for a smooth, vintage-style throb, the Mellow Yellow nails the sound of early tube amp tremolo. Its speed control goes from super-slow to butterfly flutter, and with the depth down it makes a great boost pedal. Its sound may be a bit too mellow for some players, and those accustomed to more feature-laden boxes may find it to be a bit of a one-trick pony, but for straightforward vintage throb, the Mellow Yellow's hard to beat. Mad Professor offers it in both hand-wired and (considerably less pricey, but just as good sounding) PCBs versions.

Catalinbread Pareidolia Harmonic Mesmerizer

This difficult-to-pronounce pedal from Portland, Oregon's own Catalinbread mimics the legendary "Harmonic Tremolo" circuit of Fender brownface-era amplifiers. Just like the original Fender circuit, the Pareidolia's inner circuitry splits the guitar signal in two, feeding one side into a high-pass filter and the other into a low-pass filter, and then modulating the amplitude of each side with a sine wave that's slightly out of phase with the other. When the signals are recombined at the output the end result is a lush, hypnotic sound that has characteristics of tremolo, phaser, vibrato, and perhaps some other mysterious, swirly, undulating effects.

Strymon Flint

Strymon is a company that is valiantly leading the charge into our digital future, with an incredibly impressive range of innovative effects that are peerless in tone and brilliant in functionality. The Flint is a dream for fans of vintage Fender amps, as it features all three varieties of Fender tremolo, including tube bias, photocell, and the magical, mysterious Harmonic Tremolo. As if that wasn't enough, the Flint also throws in three varieties of 'verb, including a classic Fender spring reverb, '70's-style plate, and a spacious hall sound inspired by '80's rack units. The Flint features separate left and right stereo outputs, a switchable TRS stereo/mono input, and the tremolo and reverb halves of the pedal can be engaged or disengaged independently. In keeping with Strymon's reputation for feature-rich products, the Flint also features functions for expression pedal control, tap tempo, and roughly a billion other things that will blow your mind with the creative possibilities.

Effectrode Delta-Trem

Effectrode, out of Corvallis, Oregon, is well known for their distinctively styled, tube-powered effect pedals. Despite its valve signal path, the Delta-Trem is not a tube-bias tremolo, but a photocell, in the manner of blackface Fender amps. It can, however, mimic just about any variety of vintage tube amp tremolo with its continuous wave shape control, which lets the user dial up triangle, sine, square, and other wave shapes, as well as all the little variations in between. In stereo mode the Delta-Trem's output ping-pongs between left and right outputs for some rather spacious and bewitching undulations with a dual-amp setup. Like a lot of tremolos, the Delta-Trem also makes a fine booster with the depth knob turned down, but unlike these other tremolos, the Delta-Trem is tube-powered, lending it a bit more juice and flavor than the competition.

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