Tremoloa review: what even is this thing?

A picture of a tremoloa
The defendant

The tremoloa is a strange, exotic looking instrument (though there is some question whether it can be called an “instrument”), belonging to the “fretless zither family”, according to Wikipedia. It’s a pretty obscure item. Most people haven’t ever heard the name of it. Now, as a collector of strange objects, I simply had to get my hands on one of these. Lemme tell you how that went…

But first, some backstory:

So how exactly did this “Frankenstein’s monster” come to be? Well apparently during the 1930s, Hawaiian music became exceedingly popular, becoming a prevalent subject in most cliques (and still to this day has lasting effect on the generic, stereotype of surfer dudes and the west coast of the USA in general).

During this craze, a man by the name of H.G. Finney had an idea to cash in on this trendy trend. He devised the tremoloa, a cross between an autoharp and… a mistake. His design was intended to mimic the sound of The Hawaiian lap steel guitar. The contraption is composed of on oddly shaped sound board, with 4 sets of strings clustered together on one side, and a weird sliding arm with a weighted roller on the end, which rests on a single string on the other side.

A picture of the left side of a tremoloa, featuring it's grouped strings
The left side of the device
A picture of the right side of a tremoloa, featuring it's single melody string
The right side of the device

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They were marketed, quite falsely, as “easy to play” and “for the whole family”, or some crazy crap like that (spoiler alert: it’s not).

They were primarily sold by hired solicitors, who could glorify these things in person and make them look cool. The selling price was $40, which, adjusting for inflation, was a stiff $600.

A picture of a tremoloa sound hole and price sticker
Inside the sound hole, a sticker is visible

But with the promise of quick mastery and beautiful music, thousands were bought. In fact, they were quite commonly sold on payment plans to The unsuspecting housewife while the man was at work. Thousands were purchased, but the manufacturer received plenty returned units when the deed was found out. The fad faded, as fads are wont to do, and the get-rich-quick scheme which birthed this disfigured creation faded with it, and the whole faded fad faded into fated forgotten fuzziness. Yup.

So how does it work?

It doesn’t.

 

Seriously though, this thing is really tricky to operate, as both your hands will be doing two completely different tasks simultaneously, and even with proficiency, it still sounds like a tortured warbling guitar.

If you feel like you need to know how anyway, the prospecting tremoloist would ideally sit with the monstrosity resting on their lap (like you do with monstrosities) with the single melody string on the right, and the 4 sets of strings on the left. These 4 sets are each tuned to a different chord, so that you need only pick a set and strum it to play chord, rather than memorize some complicated finger positions, like with guitars and most zithers.

The weighted roller resting on the melody string is attached to a thumb pick, and when the string is plucked, the weight bounces, raising and lowering the tension, which produces a ghostly vibrato. Because there are no frets, the roller remains in contact with the string, causing a glissando effect meant to parallel that of the Hawaiian steel guitar.

What actually comes out is hard to put to words. It ain’t pretty, that for sure.

My experience.

I heard word of a man who was selling one of these in a nearby town for its original sticker price, so I did some research on it, and found it to be most intriguing. Now, as I said before, I collect stranger and unusual things, and since I had never heard of this particular item before, who could tell when I’d hear of it again, and at this price? So I took the offer. It was weirder in person than in pictures. I find that since anything can exist in pictures, it’s not always real to me, but once it’s lying in your hands, well…this thing is real. Not sure if that a good thing…

I got mine severely out of tune, which was an issue because the method of tuning the tremoloa is by means of small squarish tuning pins at the far side, which resemble piano tuning pins, and are just as tightly clustered and difficult to turn.

A picture of the tuning pins of a tremoloa
The tuning pins

Unfortunately, I didn’t have tuning wrenches lying around. I don’t even know what size these pins are compared regular autoharps, zithers and pianos. And since they were like 6 bucks on Amazon, I want willing to buy it just to see if maybe it would work. So using a monkey wrench and an online tuner, I very laboriously set to tuning the chord sets. The recommended tuning, right to left, is:

Set 1: C, G, C, E (C major).

Set 2: G, G, B, D (G major)

Set 3: F, A, C, F (F major)

Set 4: D, A, D, F# (D major)

A picture of the tremoloa's chord sets
The tuning of the chords

I didn’t like this configuration, because I can think of approximately zero songs off the top of my head that work with this arrangement. So I took some liberties and tuned the chords to C major, G major, F major, and A minor.

There is apparently some confusion over the markings underneath the melody string. Some initially think they mark where the roller ought to rest, but this inaccurate. The lines indicate where you should position the pick when you pluck the string.

A picture of a tremoloa's melody string and notation markers
The melody string and it’s notation

Upon first hearing this contraption for first time, I couldn’t help but let a mix between gag and chortle. It was really awful. “Maybe it gets better with practice”, I thought hopefully. Maybe the strummed chords, but this melody string… I want to believe, but it’s just too far gone.

Verdict:

Wall ornament.

Am I glad I bought it? Yes. Would I recommend it? No.

For the sake of owning such a piece of history, and a few laughs, I’m glad I have it, but for the serious musician, this thing belongs in a bonfire. It’s a cool mantel-piece accessory, and might start a few conversations, but other than that, it has little practical value.

 

What do you think? Should I make a project, attempting to redeem it with some adjustments, like removing vibrato, and adding frets? Let me know in the comments.

Jason Summer

6 Replies to “Tremoloa review: what even is this thing?”

  1. I give you major props for spending money on the Tremoloa because I never would haha has this instrument ever been used in any sort of professional song or any sort of song in general? From the looks of it, this so called “instrument” doesn’t seem like it would hold up well against violins or other stringed instruments. I’m glad I decided to take guitar lessons instead of fretless tremoloa lessons. It’s cool to know something like this even existed, I enjoyed reading through your opinion about it Jason!

    1. As far as we know, the beast has never made a concert appearance. I would like to try and use a violin bow on that melody string, fort experiments sake, but I can almost guarantee my ears will bleed.

  2. I love learning about abstract stringed instruments and now I have the Tremoloa to add to my list.

    Sounds like you have a great conversational piece so I vote it was a good choice to make this purchase. I am a guitar player so I am intrigued by this instrument.

    Too bad the sound is crappy and tuning it sounds excruciating. The look of this instrument is awesome.

    It’s crazy the price was so high and they offered a payment plan. You would think after finding out it didn’t work as advertised it would have died.

    Thanks for the education.

    1. I think that the pain I endured tuning it was entirely my fault, what with my lack of patience and all. Those $6 tuning wrenches probably would fit, but I couldn’t wait for shipping time. I wanted it now! As for the sound of the thing, the chords are fine, and I’m experimenting on the melody string to see if I can fix it.

  3. I’m hearing of this instrument for the first time through your blog and I was intrigued enough to check out if there are good videos on YouTube on tremoloas. Wanted to hear how it sounded. Let me be frank – it sounds awful. Maybe the videos were uploaded by novices but it looks like a bizarre instrument to me. There’s this video where two persons are playing on the same instrument. Reading its history from your article and how it became a fad, I too feel that apart from its antique value, it’s a dud. Thanks to your article I got to read about this very obscure musical (?) instrument.

    1. Sorry I don’t have any video of me playing it. I can assure you that no level of skill will fix the sound! Puting frets on it and removing the vibrato will probably help.

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