A Guitarist Answers: What’s That Stick Thing You See On Guitars Sometimes?

This post is a public service announcement for non-guitarists. Especially those who design guitar-based toys or who design cartoon characters. It’s not intended for guitarists who already know this stuff, but they might get a kick out of it anyway, and may even want to refer non-guitarists to it the next time this question comes up.

One thing I’m often asked by non-guitarists is “What’s that stick thing you see on guitars sometimes?” They’re referring to this.

Or maybe this.

Or maybe even this.

What is that thing? What does it do?

That, my friends, is a whammy bar. Also known as a vibrato, a tremolo, a trem, a twang bar, a wang bar (teehee), and sometimes even a wiggle-stick. And what it does is this: it moves the part of the guitar that the strings attach to (the bridge), so that the pitch of the note goes down (or sometimes up). Some springs (usually in the back) return the bridge to its neutral position. See?

You can use a whammy bar to make cool racecar and horse noises, or to add a light wobble to notes, finish a song with a cool divebomb sound, or even use it to hit different notes. For a great example of how a whammy bar can be used, check out this video of Jeff Beck.

For a bad example of how a whammy bar can be used, listen to anything by Poison’s CC DeVille.

I’ve heard a lot of non-guitarists refer to this as a “wah wah stick.” Please don’t say this in front of an actual guitarist. It’s considered offensive. As offensive as using the word ‘twang” to describe what a guitar does. This little mistake is due to confusion with the wah wah pedal, which is a foot-operated unit which works kind of like a tone control. It looks like this.

When you rock the pedal with your foot while playing, the rapid tone change makes a kind of a ‘wow wow’ sound. It sounds like this:

One thing guitarists especially hate is when whammy bars are depicted emerging from the body of the guitar instead of where the strings attach. The worst offender is Guitar Hero. Argh!!!

At least Gumby got it right.