The Bigsby vibrato tailpiece is a bridge vibrato system for electric guitar designed by Paul A. Bigsby. The Bigsby Vibrato allows musicians to bend the pitch of a note, and/or entire chords, with their picking hand, enabling a variety of different effects.
The Bigsby Vibrato was the first successful design of what is now called a whammy bar or tremolo arm. Technically or grammatically speaking though, vibrato is the correct term for the musical effect produced by the Bigsby Vibrato, not tremolo.
In standard usage, tremolo is a rapid fluctuation of the volume of a note, while vibrato is a fluctuation in pitch. The origin of this nonstandard usage of the term by electric guitarists can be traced back to Leo Fender, who also used the term vibrato to refer to what is really a tremolo effect.
The Bigsby Vibrato unit is installed on the top of the guitar and works in conjunction with a rocker bridge. There's no routing necessary. The arm of the Bigsby is spring loaded and attached to a pivoting metal bar, around which the strings of the guitar are installed. In the neutral or unused position, the pressure of the spring counterbalances the pull of the strings, resulting in constant pitch when the strings are played. When the arm of the Bigsby is pushed down towards the top of the guitar, the bridge rocks forward causing the strings to loosen, lowering their pitch. When the arm is released, the strings return to normal pitch. The arm may also be lifted slightly to raise the pitch of the strings. The Bigsby is highly controllable within its range of motion and usually requires little force to operate.
The Bigsby Vibrato is ideally suited to musicians who use slow, subtle, or extended bends. It is not meant to be used for EVH style dive bombs. Its range is limited in comparison to tremolo units using longer springs that are internally located. Competing units, like the Floyd Rose and the Fender synchronized tremolo (or strat-style) are therefore preferred by some players.
Bigsby vibratos have been copied and recopied by numerous builders, but the real deal Bigsby Vibratos are factory installed on numerous electric guitars such as those manufactured by Epiphone, Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Guild, Hamer as well as various boutique builders. Many electric guitars can also be retrofitted with a Bigsby (requires no routing of the body), and there are different varieties of the unit designed to fit different styles of guitar, such as a hollow body or solid body guitar.
Bigsby units ship with their own rocker bridges, though adjustable alternatives such as the Tune-o-matic style bridge or Jazzmaster style bridge are also available.