How to Use Your Whammy Bar Musically

This is an article I wrote for Heavy Metal’s “Guitarget Practice” column in January 2015.

Great for: Steve Vai fanboys, creating a more vocal sound from your guitar, ear training, creativity.


In this article we’ll cover some quick definitions, limitations of frets and some ways we can train our brain, ears and hands to work together to create some great melodies via the whammy bar.

Limitations of Frets

Frets are awesome, don’t get me wrong. Maybe limitation is the wrong word here, and “consequence” would be better. A consequence of frets, is that when we move from one note to the next, we have a discrete change in note, we abruptly change in pitch from one note to the next. If we want a continuous change in pitch, we bend a string. However, when we do this, we can only increase the pitch. If we want to decrease the pitch, we have to pre-bend the note… which isn’t really the same.

With a whammy bar, we can change pitch continuously, increasing and decreasing pitch. Now, to play a melody, or part of a melody, using the whammy bar, our ears need to be good enough to hear when we are hitting specific notes.

Training Our Ears and Hands to Work Together

So next up is some exercises to enable you to be able to do that.

We’ll play up the following scale of A major (chosen to fit all the notes on the string):

figure 1 ( ‘Figure 1’)

We’ll be using the whammy to goto the next note up - your ears are probably more familiar with that from bending up to notes. So here is the first exercise:

figure 2 ( ‘Figure 2’)

So what we are doing here is playing B (fret 12) to hear the sound of the pitch we want to hit. Try to hear this note in your mind, then play A (Fret 10) and use your whammy bar to increase the pitch (pull the bar out) until you hit the B (fret 12) you just heard. Pull the bar out slowly, if you do it too fast you might go past the pitch you are aiming for without realizing it!

Next, we’ll do the same process with the next interval in the scale:

figure 3 ( ‘Figure 3’)

Again, play C# (fret 14) then play B (fret 12) and pull out the whammy bar until you hear C#.

Follow the same process for the rest of the notes in this scale:

figure 4

Next, we’ll look at bending the string to a lower pitch using the whammy. Following the same principle as the previous exercises, play the note we want to goto first, hear it in your head, play the note we are manipulating, then slowly push the bar in until you hear the first note. So we will play A (fret 10), then play B (fret 12) and push the bar in until we hear A again:

figure 5

As we did before, we’ll do this for the other notes in the scale too:

figure 6

Hopefully you’re starting to get the hang of this! Don’t worry if you’re really struggling with this. If you are finding it difficult to hit these pitches, give yourself time, and keep struggling at the exercise for a couple of minutes a day for a few weeks. You’ll find it gets easier and easier to hit these target pitches as time goes on.

The final exercise we are going to look at involves bending down and up to notes:

figure 7

So we play the A (fret 10), press the bar in until we hear G#, then allow the bar to come back up to A (so the bar is now at rest), then pull the bar out until we hear B (fret 12). As we did in the previous exercises, you may want to pick the melody first to hear it in your head, then use your whammy bar to play the melody back.

We can do this for the other notes in the scale too:

figure 8

I’ve put the rest of the exercises for this scale at the end of the article to make it more readable.

How to Integrate this Skill into Your Guitar Playing

After having fun playing through these short melodies with your bar, hopefully you are starting to hear the sounds you can create that you weren’t able to create before. If you want to integrate this into your playing, spend a few minutes a day over the next few weeks working through these exercises (even the ones you can do well already!). If you want to kick things up a notch, try using some different scales to practice whammying up and down.

Final exercises:

figure 9 figure 10