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Freak of the Week: THE TREMOLOA


Imagine a monster movie that takes place in the Mississippi Delta during the birth of the blues. This is the torture device from the movie's plot! The Tremoloa is one part ghostly slide guitar, one part fretless zither and a whole lotta weirdness.

The Oscar Schmidt Company is responsible for this freak and many were produced in the mid Twentieth Century.

Oscar Schmidt is well known for its other zither-like instruments such as Autoharps. Guitarists know them as the creators of Stella and Harmony guitars. This mutant is neither an autoharp nor a guitar. It is its own beast!

Patent courtesy of Patent Posters

The Tremoloa was created and patented in 1932 by H.G. Finney to cash in on the Hawaiian music craze that swept the US and features a warbling slide contraption, supposedly to enable every novice to become the next Sol Hoopii. Unfortunately, these things are almost impossible to play!

To give you an idea of the unwieldiness of the Tremeloa, here are two people wrestling a simple melody:

It takes two hands operating separately to play the Tremoloa. A single melody string under fairly low tension is played with a rolling weight connected to a thumb pick. Music note locations are marked on the large note label under the string. That position controls the pitch of the string when plucked.

The heavy weight of the slide arm actually bounces on the string and raises and lowers its tension a little, causing a ghostly vibrato. In addition, as the weight moves from one played note to the next, the weight stays in contact with the string, and creates a glissando that is reminiscent of the sound of a Hawaiian steel guitar.

In addition to playing the slide with their right thumbs, Tremoloa players ("Tremoloans?" "Tremoloists?") had to strum grouped chords with their left hand…not an easy task!

The majority of these instruments were sold door-to-door by dubious salesmen in rural America from 1932 to the mid 1950’s. Unsuspecting would-be musicians were promised that this was the instrument the entire family could play.

Tremoloas sported soundhole stickers with a whopping $40 price tag printed on them. However, the salesmen would reassure the unsuspecting victim that he could do better on the price. In fact, many Tremoloas were sold on payment plans to the women of the house while the man was in the fields. And, not surprisingly, Oscar Schmidt received loads of returned units sent back by irate husbands declaring "swindle!"

Thousands and thousands were sold, yet very few people ever mastered them. You can find Tremoloas on eBay for as little as the $40 sticker price. Yes, they’re tough to play, but they make cool conversation pieces.

And if you ever need that one special instrument to track freakish slide sounds on your next album, this may be the ticket.

Until next time, keep getting weirder, folks!

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Philip Taylor
Philip Taylor
Apr 06, 2022

My Tremoloa is in near mint condition and has the original case. Its label is black with the $40 price at the top. The instrument appears to be a Type 2b and has a serial number of 5255 stamped on the bottom. I assume this is a later model, probably made in the 1950s.

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