When Did Guitarists First Use Tremolo, Echo, and Other Early Effects?

The passing of Glenn Snoddy—the Nashville recording engineer who made an early fuzz box in the '60s and died this May—set off a round of questions and debates about who exactly was the inventor of the fuzz effect. The answers prove murky, depending on whether you're talking about the effect itself, the fuzz pedal, or whose stories you choose to believe.

But the affair got us thinking that we should celebrate the creation and early uses of other effects that revolutionized the electric guitar. In this installment of a new mini-series, we'll look at four examples of groundbreaking first effects—the artists that used them, the recordings on which they were first or most influentially heard, and the ways in which they originated and evolved.

This time out, we're probing four classic effects that first caught attention for their occurrence in the natural world, or for musician's ability to produce them by simple mechanical means—driving the innovators of the pre-rock'n'roll era to invent ways of producing them on demand.

Tremolo

Defined as a fluctuation in volume, tremolo is a relatively simple effect. Often produced naturally and used by singers and the players of acoustic instruments for centuries, it's also generally considered the first actual effects box created for the electric guitar, although it was used as an effect on electric pianos and organs even before that.

DeArmond's Tremolo Control

Even today tremolo remains one of the most haunting and atmospheric effects in the guitarist's arsenal, and has added enormous power to everything from Link Wray's "Rumble", to Duane Eddy's "Rebel Rouser," to the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now". Guitarists were creating tremolo by a number of manual means (rolling volume knobs or pumping volume pedals) as well as cobbling together their own basic electromechanical devices almost from the time guitar met amplifier, but it first arrived in a widely available effects box in the form of DeArmond's Tremolo Control, available around 1941.

Connected between guitar and amp, the unit used a motor to shake a small container of electrolytic fluid which in turn made and broke a connection to ground that rhythmically shorted-out the guitar signal passing through it. Freaky, yeah, but these units can sound marvelous—when properly restored to working condition, which they inevitably have to be after all these years.

Roosevelt Sykes - "Sugar Babe Blues"

According to Dan Formosa's "A Brief History of Tremolo" (Premier Guitar, October 2013), the first verifiable recorded use of tremolo on guitar can be heard in the April '42 recordings made by singer/pianist Roosevelt Sykes—including the songs "You Can't Do That to Me" and "Sugar Babe Blues"—with the guitar parts very likely played by Big Bill Broonzy.

More than a decade later, Muddy Waters would use guitar tremolo masterfully on the song "Flood," and a couple years after that Bo Diddley would turn tremolo into a way of life.

Muddy Waters - "Flood"
Vibrato (and Leslie)

Another effect that singers and acoustic instrumentalists have been applying to their tone via throat or finger technique or other natural means since time immemorial, vibrato is also one of the earliest effects applied to the electric guitar. Often confused with tremolo, this sound is properly defined as a steady fluctuation of the pitch of a note (rather than of its volume).

1939 Electro Vibrola Spanish Electric Guitar

If not for the fact that it was first done very differently, and in a rather cumbersome electro-mechanical way to boot, vibrato might have qualified as the first effect used on electric guitar. Built into the Rickenbacher (as it was then spelled) Vibrola Spanish Electric of 1938, vibrato was produced by an internal motor that rotated a cam to "wiggle" the guitar's tailpiece to subtly fluctuate the pitch of the strings.

The design made it a heavy beast (most were played bolted to a floor stand), and very few examples were made between its debut and its departure in '42. Later, of course, players would discover it was much simpler—and lighter—to put springs and a "whammy bar" on a bridge or tailpiece and wobble it manually, as pioneered by Paul Bigsby later in the '40s.

The real granddaddy of vibrato effects, though, in sonic terms at least, is the Leslie rotary speaker cabinet. Designed in the late '30s by Donald Leslie to be used with the Hammond organ, the Leslie Tone Cabinet produces its deep, rich, Doppler-effect-fueled vibrato by means of two rotating speaker units, a woofer below and tweeter (horn) above. The utterly infectious results soon began catching the attention of guitarists, too, but there's little documented use by six-stringers until the '60s.

LaVern Baker - "Bumble Bee"

Leslie-induced vibrato is likely first heard being used by the guitarist on LaVern Baker's 1960 recording "Bumble Bee", while later in the decade The Beatles, the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd and others used Fender's Vibratone cabinet (licensed from Leslie) to achieve that distinctive, three-dimensional rotary-speaker throb.

Reverb

Having described the previous two effects as being "produced naturally," this is the first of the bunch that often exists without any effort whatsoever being made to produce it. Reverb has existed as "room sound"—whether from a reflective room, a chamber, a bathroom, a gymnasium, a cave, or a cathedral—since virtually the dawn of recorded sound. The effect that we know as reverb began as a means of creating and controlling that reflective-room sound, and evolved from there into something all its own.

1961 Fender 6G15 Reverb Unit

The first viable electronic reverb units likewise began life as used with Hammond organs in 1939, when Hammond adopted a spring reverb original patented by Bell Labs (originally designed to reproduce the sound of the delays in a long-distance phone call). Fast-forward a decade and a half and the effect was finding its way into guitar amps and stand-alone units alike, courtesy of makers like Gibson, Premier, and Danelectro.

Fender, arguably the most legendary name in tube-drive spring reverb for guitar, didn't have a stand-alone Reverb Unit for sale until 1961, and first put reverb in an amp in '63, but when they did it they did it right, and pretty much set the standard (with a nod owed here to Ampeg's lush reverb too).

Once it was widely available, spring reverb became popular pretty quickly so it's difficult to pinpoint exactly who logged the first such recording on guitar (if you know, please drop it in the comments section below!). Let's instead turn to one of the most classic uses, surf supremo Dick Dale and the Deltone's 1962 recording of "Misirlou", which exemplifies the sound of the Fender Reverb Unit when turned up toward maximum splash.

Dick Dale - "Misirlou"

"Wipe Out" by The Surfaris and "Pipeline" by the Chantays also make great examples from the era… but guitarists all know the sound pretty well by now, and subtler uses of reverb have contributed to classic and ethereal recordings in every genre ever since. The first studio use of artificially created reverb of any sort, for what it's worth, is credited to engineer Bill Putnam Sr., who turned the Universal Studio bathroom into a "chamber" to produce the reverb heard on The Harmonicats' 1947 hit "Peg o' My Heart," which also includes a wistful guitar part similarly 'verbed.

Harmonicats - "Peg O' My Heart"
Echo

Another of the earliest effects applied to the electric guitar, echo (or delay) is also one of the most enduring, and still considered an essential on any texturalist's pedalboard. As it was first produced by fairly cumbersome electro-mechanical means, it's another one that took some time to move into compact, portable boxes (and was still pretty big and clunky when it first did so), but the sound was used on prominent recordings earlier than most players might imagine.

We often think of the dawn of the history of the electric guitar as coinciding with the birth of rock'n'roll in the early to mid '50s, which would point us to Scotty Moore's use of one of Ray Butts's EchoSonic amplifiers with built-in tape delay on seminal Elvis Presley recordings like "Mystery Train" of 1955. Country picker supremo Chet Atkins had used a Butts EchoSonic at least a year before that, though, as heard on his '54 recording of "Mr. Sandman."

Chet Atkins - "Mister Sandman"

Even a few years before that, however, our oft-cited guitar innovator—Les Paul—was creating similar slapback echo by manipulating reel-to-reel tape recorders, even before the existence of any dedicated echo unit. Listen to Les Paul and Mary Ford's hit 1951 recording of "How High the Moon"—which is also groundbreaking for its use of sound-on-sound overdubs and in many other ways besides—and you can clearly hear the echo on the main guitar part.

Les Paul & Mary Ford - "How High The Moon"

By the late '50s several companies were manufacturing stand-alone echo units that could be used in front of any conventional guitar amp. The tape-delay section of Butts's EchoSonic design would eventually transmute into the Maestro Echoplex, while Raymond Lubow of Tel-Ray Electronics (later Morley) in Burbank, CA, marketed his Adineko Memory System, which ran on an unusual oil-can delay design.

Another Californian, Ray Stolle, developed a tape-loop delay called the Ecco-Fonic in '58, and Germany's Dynacord and Klempt, Italy's Binson and Meazzi, and Britain's Watkins all brought viable echo units to market before the end of the decade. Credit for creating the first non-electro-mechanical, pedal-sized delay, out around 1974, seems to go to either Electro-Harmonix's Memory Man or Dynacord's EC 280… depending on whose story you believe.

In the next installment, we'll dig on down into fuzz boxes, wah-wahs, octave dividers, and more as the transistor revolution takes hold.

Banner image via Division Street Guitars.
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