What is perhaps the most basic musical effect, tremolo—the undulation of volume—has a remarkable history that has yet to be fully documented.
The formal use of tremolo dates back to the 16th century when orchestral shuddering was marked on the page by three lines through a note’s stem and executed by trained bows.
In America, tremolo has long been present in the natural wobble of accordions and harmonicas. In modern electronics, however, tremolo has only been on the map since the 1930s, when it began frequently appearing in organs.
The lingering question is exactly which artists and inspirations led to the rise of modern tremolo. Despite troves of patents, it’s difficult to pin down the details of the transition that led to early recordings like this 1940s song by Roosevelt Sykes.
By the 1950s, tremolo had been widely incorporated as simple knobs on popular amplifiers. Set fast and shallow, tremolo will produce a subtle warmth as heard in this 1953 song by Muddy Waters.
A decade later, a more pronounced tremolo was the haunting sidekick to Nancy Sinatra’s rendition of “Bang Bang”
These decades of varied use show the effect’s resilience and serve as a reminder of those unknown pioneers of tremolo history still waiting to be uncovered.