Mastering a proper vibrato is a must for any string instrument player, but as a guitarist it’s even more crucial. Mastering a great controlled, in-tune, musical vibrato will give your phrases the vocal quality they’ve been missing and give your soloing more soul power. Even though it may take some time, getting a great vibrato under your fingers will make your playing stand out and help you develop your own fingerprint as a guitarist!
Hello fellow gear enthusiasts, guitars students, and guitar lovers one and all! I’d like to share my thoughts on a very important, but often overlooked, playing technique: Vibrato! I’d to share some stories from my childhood and help bust some myths to help you integrate this into your playing. What exactly is vibrato? Why is it so crucial to develop a vibrato as a string instrument player? What’s the best way to develop a great, musical vibrato that sounds like your musical fingerprint? All good questions to think about when learning about vibrato. Essentially, vibrato is the embellishment of a note by bending a note up and bringing it back to pitch repeatedly. It feels much more like you are shaking the string underneath your fingers as opposed to regular bending when you hold a note up to a new pitch. While seemingly very simple, vibrato is a very difficult to master because learning to control the repeated pitch bends to where it sounds in tune and fits your phrasing musically takes time to master. I find that vibrato is often not included in a practice regimen. So, it becomes a weak part of most players technique. The good news is no matter your skill level on the instrument, you can always learn to start being aware of vibrato as a technique, and work on improving and fixing your personal vibrato!
My first experience with vibrato was when I was a young kid, well before I ever became a guitarist. As a young kid I was more of a music enthusiast as opposed to a musician. I was always looking around for new music. I was lucky enough at a young age to get to see the King of the Blues himself, Mr. B.B. King. B.B. King is the absolute master of vibrato bar none. If you want to disagree with me, I like to think you’ve never heard how goosebumps worthy his vibrato drenched single note line playing is. Hearing songs like “Everyday I Have the Blues”, “Sweet Little Angel”, “How Blue Can You Get?”, and “Thrill is Gone” changed my life forever that day. I couldn’t get over how his guitar playing sounded like it was having a vocal conversation in the context of the band playing. It sounded like a real human voice was being wrenched from his guitar “Lucille’” strings. Then there was just how cool B.B. looked while playing with vibrato. He would tilt his head back, eyes closed, while dressed to kill in a black suit and just twirl his finger, in what looked like equal parts fast and tight and relaxed and loose. There was a balance happening tonally. He never lost the original pitch of the note he started on. He just enhanced how that note came across. B.B.’s incredible expression with his unique vibrato and his note choice was to this day, one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard.
Fast forwarding to years later when I started playing guitar, recreating B.B. King’s “shaking of the notes” was something I immediately wanted to get down. When I first started learning, I wasn’t formally trained, so I would rely on my ears to learn the basics and help me hear how fast to apply vibrato, on which strings, and when to use it musically. Once I began taking lessons at 13, I began to learn that vibrato was a very wide-ranging subject. My teacher would introduce me to other players who had their own versions of vibrato, and I began to learn how to make slight adjustments to my wrist and thumb on the neck, as well as using different fingers on my left hand to get different inflections on the notes. As I progressed in my playing, I began to learn that different vibratos were like different people’s fingerprints. I would gravitate to the vibrato styles I liked and ignore the ones that didn’t speak to me. I started hearing Jimi Hendrix and how he would add his vibrato to the top of bends, Mike Campbell from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and how his vibrato was incredibly subtle and slow, or Carlos Santana who end his phrases with the most tastefully chosen vibrato. The common factor in who I liked as a player was always good vibrato. I was mindfully determined to try and emulate these radically different vibrato techniques I was gravitating towards and take mental notes of how my hand felt when my ears said I nailed it.
Vibrato, to my ears, is learning to develop inflections around your musical notes. Adjusting vibrato to taste on your notes is very much the same process as when we speak to one another in person. There are many different styles of vibrato, just like there are many styles of accents through out the country. Is one accent, or dialect, better than another? No, they are just different. Much like how varying styles of vibrato are just different. So, I wouldn’t think about vibrato in terms of right or wrong, but simply what does your ear gravitate towards musically!
Working Up Vibrato:
When working on developing vibrato it is always important to remember it should feel relaxed. The more tense your fretting hand is the more the vibrato feels forced and out of control. You want to play with only the minimal amount of pressure required to fret the note and produce vibrato. Play around with the timing of how fast or slow you shake the string with vibrato. You’ll start to hear a speed that suits what you are trying to do with the up and downs of the note. Also think about making the vibrato shake in tune. The best way to think about this is that vibrato is applied to a note, it isn’t a note itself. So usually, when you over-do the vibrato it over takes the sound of the note and sounds too sharp or flat. Try vibrato with whole step bends, half steps, quarter steps, and eighth steps. These are all different inflections. Also try to learn how to accomplish vibrato with each finger on your fretting hand individually. This helps your playing because you’re never always sure which finger will naturally fall into a fretted phase.
A few different ways I do vibrato is by taking my thumb of my fretting hand to the middle back part of my guitar neck. I feel as though this is a much better anchor point for your hand to produce a basic vibrato. Don’t think about choking the neck by moving your palm closer to the neck. Keep you hand with the thumb farther back on the neck so you have more hand space to twirl back and forth. I usually go “side to side” with this method of vibrato.
Another way I play is by taking my hand, except for the fretting note, completely off the neck of the guitar. I then allow the natural weight of my hand to help shake the string. To me this feels as if I’m shaking the string “up and down” as opposed to the earlier “side to side”. A great example of this style is watching Eric Clapton play with his vibrato. It’s bold sounding and defined around the note, but with not as much shake to the note.
In closing I would like to say that vibrato is a musical technique not just limited to string instruments. Woodwinds, brass instruments, and even vocals all use vibrato to influence their phrasing. Many of the famous blues guitarists who popularized vibrato on the instrument took their cues from either great horn soloists, or female vocalists from the time. So, be wide ranging in the music you listen to so you can pick up on other examples. Pick one of your favorite players and try to emulate their style. This is a great way to start. Don’t worry about being totally exact with the recreation. Every player’s hands are different, so the tone and feeling won’t be precise. I would focus on trying to recreate the feeling you get when you hear the vibrato. This will ultimately help create your own style of vibrato and help create your musical fingerprint on the instrument. Attached to this blog is a link from many years ago, of the great B.B. King giving many examples of how he uses vibrato in his playing. I think, as it was for me at a young age, a great place to start in learning how to manipulate your fingers to produce a vibrato.