I say over and over how I love tremolo.  Thankfully, I’m not nearly alone on this one.  Along with the explosion of craft effects builders, there has been a renaissance of tremolo.  The problem is, there are now too many choices that range from “never leaving my pedal board” to “this POS isn’t even worth bolding the ebay listing title.”  More often than not, the problem lies in features (or lack thereof) more than quality or sound.  So if you’ve been burned before, or are thinking of buying a trem pedal and need help narrowing down the list, I’m here to help.

Basic Features

  • Speed/Depth: I’ve never seen a tremolo without these basic controls, but if they aren’t there, something is really wrong.  They control the speed of oscillation and mix, so to speak (how much trem is in the signal).
  • Volume: One of the more often ignored features, I’d say it’s a MUST HAVE for any modulation pedal, but especially tremolo.  There’s both perceived and real volume drops when using tremolo, so aside from the various benefits of a boost, you’ll want one so it doesn’t seem like you drop out of the mix when turning the pedal on.
  • Tap Tempo: Many effects builders would have you believe that tap tempo is an optional or premium feature.  I realize it costs more, generally requires a larger pedal case, etc – but it’s another must have.  There’s an obvious rhythm to trem, you want to control that with something other than a knob.  Trust me.  If you turn on your pedal and the oscillations are out of time with your song, it will sound terrible in virtually every instance.
  • True Bypass: Like it or not, most tremolos have a boost, which usually pushes your high end.  You probably don’t want that bleeding through when the pedal is bypassed.

Good to Have Features

  • Tap Divide: Most of the high-ish end tremolos will have this, but it’s not essential.  You’ll want it though.  Everyone interprets this slightly different, but it generally works the same as on a delay.  Divide the oscillations into 1/8th notes, 1/32nd notes, whatever.  Some pedals get pretty crazy with this and have a lot of options (even triplets).  That’s cool, but gets into being a bit of a luxury.
  • Waveform Selection: Another feature found on most higher end models, and another one that you probably don’t want to live without.  I’d like to say that a really good tremolo that only does sine waves would be just fine, but you just don’t see it too often.  I feel like a lot of people have a waveform that sounds good to their ears and stick to that one the vast majority of the time – so having this option ensures that the one that fits you will be on hand.

Premium Features

  • Waveform Shaping: This one definitely gets interpreted differently by different manufacturers.  There are controls to change the ramp up speed, ramp down, how long the peaks hold, angles, etc.  You can spend all day playing with these controls and no time actually playing guitar.  But if you have a song in mind that has tremolo front and center, you may want the ability to really tweak the exact waveform that fits.
  • Foot Pedal Control: Cool if you want to get that Planet Telex sound where the tempo kinds goes up and down.  A lot of folks have little DIPs to select what the expression pedal controls (tempo vs depth vs whatever), which means opening up the box whenever you want to change things… but it’s probably a small price to pay for the flexibility.

The Pedals to Get

Sticking with ones that are currently in production, thus easy to find.

Empress Tremolo 2 ($249)

Good: All the essential features, all the “good to have” features, and expression pedal control.  Great sound, well built.  Expression pedal functionality set via buttons!

Bad: Secondary functions for buttons can be confusing.

What Sets it apart: Presets!  Glorious presets!

ZVex Sonar ($219 or $329 for hand painted)

Good: Every feature but expression pedal, great boost circuit, small footprint

Bad: Hidden features are confusing, switches are confusing.  Everything is confusing.  You’ll need to watch the video a couple times to really understand how to use it.  Boost does have a noticeable impact on tone, which can annoy some folks (but it DOES sound really good).

What sets it apart: Very unique boost circuit, option for a dirty boost, super unique controls of waveform.

Catalinbread Semaphore Tap-Tempo ($249.99)

Good: Easiest to use of the list.  All the features, tons of waveform options.

Bad: Less flexibility compared to the others in the sense that there is a single knob to shape the waveform and you have to open it up to change the expression pedal functionality.

What sets it apart: Tap can be controlled by an external switch, random waveform options are kooky!

Final Thoughts?

Are there other tremolos that sound great or have cool features?  Of course!  But these are tried and true, easy to use and with all the features you’ll want.  I’ve yet to see any serious complaints about these pedals1.  At the very least, go demo these yourself and use them as a basis for comparison to everything else.

  1. Where folks seem to never get consistency with the Pigtronix models, the Diaz trems screw with your tone too much, the Guyatone Ultrem requires an engineering degree to operate, etc