To me the best designs have both a function and are pretty to look at. I’d say it’s quite rare a design is considered a real classic, so what makes it a classic? Does it need the majority’s approval? Does it need the maturity of an old design or can a new design compete with a classic? One thing I’m sure about is that just having the good looks or working really well is just not good enough.
The designs I’ve recently been fascinated by are tremolo- or vibrato systems. Seemingly such simple designs, but with very high expectations.
The first one that should be mentioned is the Bigsby Vibrato Tailpiece, the most classic of them all. It was designed by Paul Bigsby, who in the 1920’s was working as a pattern-maker (designing engine parts) and was also a motorcycle racer. After quitting racing he began designing instruments and parts for them, including the Vibrato Tailpiece which he managed to complete in 1951. It was completely cast from an aluminium alloy and at first could raise and lower the pitch by one half-step. Although the design has been changed a bit since the first examples, it still is pretty much the same as in the early -50’s. It’s definitely not one of the most extreme vibrato systems you can find and it’s more suited to slow and subtle bends, but it is still the most beautiful if I may say so.
Even if I mentioned the Bigsby first, one of the earliest vibrato systems was the Doc Kaufmann’s Vibrola which was put on some Epiphones as early as 1935 (it’s the same guy who later teamed up with Leo Fender). It was also used on some Rickenbacker lap steel guitars which, in fact, was one of the original ideas behind a vibrato, to gap the bridge between an ordinary guitar and a lap steel.
In 1954 Leo Fender came up with the Fender Synchronized Tremolo, and ever since has confused everyone about whether it should be called a Vibrato or a Tremolo. The design was made more compact on the front of the guitar and adding the springs to the back. The bridge and the tail piece were now joined into one unit and it balances on sort of a knife’s edge, the springs pulling one way and the strings another. This type of vibrato unit allows much more travel either way than the Bigsby, but it is also a bit harder to set up and a badly set up vibrato unit is worse than not having one. The Synchronized Tremolo has become, by far, the most popular design of all time, not just on Fender guitars but a whole bunch of other makes as well.
Only four years after the Synchronized Tremolo, Fender came up with the Floating Tremolo which he designed for the Jazzmaster. In another radical turn he made it a two piece again and returned the springs to the front side. The unit appears big and bulky at first, at least if compared with the earlier version, but the guitar’s body is also bigger so one doesn’t notice it so much. The design was also used in the Jaguar (1962) and has received some bad press for being difficult to keep in tune, particularly in the Jaguar. The culprit was, in fact, to a big extent the combination of the bridge and thin strings (since it was designed for big flat-wounds) which can’t produce enough string tension for the tuning to be stable.
One of the most extreme vibrato units to date is the Floyd Rose. It’s loosely based on the idea of the Synchronized Tremolo in that it too, floats and is kept in place by spring vs. string tension, but additionally clamps down the strings at the nut to eliminate any excess string length. With a Floyd Rose almost any bends are possible, up or down, and has been a favorite with metal/rock players ever since. It is also the most tricky one to set up right, I’ve seen some pretty un-playable guitars due to the problems the owners have had with it.
The Stetsbar has more of a old school flavor to it. It feels a bit like a Bigsby but more like an updated version of it. It can usually be installed without drilling any new holes in the guitar body and the set up is really fast. The difference to any other vibrato unit is that the bridge moves along on bearings as you bend the arm, so there is no friction in the string slots and your strings will stay in tune and last longer.
There are of course more brands and models of vibrato units, but are all fairly similar to the ones mentioned and I haven’t personally had the pleasure of trying them out.
What all these guys have in common, is that they were inventors as much as they were designers, and that it must’ve taken a long time to think those things through. In some cases they were inventing something that didn’t exist at the time and did it beautifully. Just shows what a bunch of tinkerers can do when they get an urge to make something.
Altough one might be tempted to get a cheaper version as your first tremolo, I would strongly advise to stick with these original designs because you will have a lot less headaches in the long run. Trust me, I’ve been there.