The definition of vibrato really means to vibrate, to shake and it’s very simple to do.
What we’re doing, we’re taking the notes and we’re shaking them a little bit to make them sound a little bit more like the voice. Everyone has their own opinion on what sounds good to them, what kind of vibrato works and what they like to listen to. And they also have their own opinions on how to classify the different types of vibrato. It’s basically expression, we’re drawing attention to certain notes and we’re giving our guitar a voice.
Have you ever listened to a player and you say in a few notes you knew exactly who it was that was playing? Most likely that player had a certain type of vibrato, that you associated with their playing. And we’ll get to some players. We’re going to take a good look at a few players vibrato in a moment.
Well, let’s start off talking about the basics. Basically, what are we doing, we’re tightening and then returning the string to normal pitch. Were slightly raising the pitch a little bit and then lowering it back down. Or, we could raise and lower around a central pitch. So the pitch would go up a little bit and then you can go underneath a little bit. Both ways are considered vibrato. So instead of playing a note just straight, just flat, we’re going to manipulate the pitch a little bit by bending the strings slightly or even very widely if that’s what you choose, to create some interest.
And that what if you’re a beginner? Most beginners are so worried about just starting to play and vibrato is the last thing that they’re worried about, they just want to get their fingers to work, to go to the right places on the guitar. So you start to play. And as a beginner gets to a certain point, they start comparing their own playing to what they’re listening to. You start to think, well, I’m playing the notes right, but it just doesn’t sound correct. It doesn’t sound like what I’m listening to or how my friends play. And you start to say, oh, they’re kind of shaking that note at the end of a phrase. Then you start to experiment with this and you form your basic vibrato. “Okay. If I just put a little shake at the end, it’ll sound a little bit better. “
And usually that’s all that’s ever thought about it, that’s all that’s put into it. But, vibrato is important. It’s an emotional thing. People feel it. It gets to the listener and it’s something that it deserves more thought and more practice to really get something. If you really want your plane to become effective to the listener, it’s something we need to think about. And so let’s talk about the types of vibrato. I’m going to break this into a few types. If you, if you look up vibrato on the Internet, everyone has a different way of looking at this, but I break it down pretty basic.
Let’s go ahead and start with the first type I talked about, which was vertical, or along the string. This is usually thought of as classical technique of vibrato or it’s called parallel vibrato. Basically, it boils down to where your finger is on a note and it’s planted in one place. It doesn’t move and it’s basically where you would press the note down and your wrist or your arm is in motion. So I’m at the eighth fret on the B string, just playing a G note. I’ve got my thumb on the back of the neck and I’m shaking my wrist back and forth, but I’m not letting my finger slide anywhere. It’s planted where it is. It’s not a wide vibrato, It’s very tight, and I can play it faster or slower.
It’s a very subtle effect. The motion from your arm or your wrist is transferred through your finger onto the string and it creates a very gentle tension on the string raising and lowering back to pitch. You hear it described as rocking your hand back and forth while your finger is still. Sometimes you will see players who take their thumb off of the neck or they’ll leave it on and anchor from that thumb. This is called a vertical or a parallel type of vibrato because we’re going along with the string. We’re not moving the string back and forth. Any motion is going in the same direction that the string is.
There’s another type of vibrato that also stays in this vertical style, and that’s the slide. Where the last vibrato we talked about your finger stays planted. This is different. Your finger actually travels up and down the string. So, let’s say you’re on the seventh fret of the G string. That’s it. That’s a D note. And what I’m doing is, I put my finger down like I’m just going to play regular D note. I actually slide my finger back towards the fret behind it and then come back and forth, back and forth, up and down the string.
It’s still a very gentle, subtle, effect. The pitch raises and then comes back down. It’s an understated gentle effect, but it sounds very nice. It’s very vocal.
Let’s talk about the one that I use the most, and this is a horizontal type vibrato and that just means it’s going across the fret. We’re using bends. We’re bending the string slightly (or even wide if that’s what you’re going for) and then releasing it back to the pitch. These aren’t bent to reach another note. We’re just trying to go a little bit above the note and then come back.
Just surrounding the intended note, even though we’re not going underneath the pitch yet.
We’re featuring the note and surrounding it. This is a traditional style vibrato. It’s used in blues. It’s generally wider, meaning that the pitch goes farther away from the intended note. It’s performed like a regular bend. You can have your thumb wrapped around the neck. You can use any finger that you want, but you see blues players using the first finger and the third finger, a whole lot. There are several different ways we can achieve this. You can twist your wrist, You could lift the thumb.
You don’t have kind of a reference point when your thumb is on the neck. You can actually shake the whole neck. The note that you’re pressing down slides across the string in a horizontal way across the frets following the fret direction, not the string direction. You can do that with your arm doing the movement. Your wrists actually your fingers doing, the movement. It’s not a drastic change, but it feels good for you to play it as the way it sounds.
The next type of vibrato I want to talk about, is called circular vibrato. I remember a friend who played classical guitar when I went to music school. He would go on and on and on about circular vibrato. And basically, it’s both the vertical and the horizontal types of vibrato performed at the same time. Steve Vai, is a big proponent of this. It’s just a combination of the two. The verticals going up and down the string, the horizontals going back and forth across the string. If you combine the two, it’s almost like you’re drawing a circle,
The last type of vibrato, we’re going to talk about is mechanical or an effect type vibrato. Let’s start from easiest and work our way to the more involved. So the one thing you could do is you could actually bend the neck of the guitar. You hear this a lot with cords. You put your right hand on the upper horn of the guitar or, or the bout of the guitar, and then your left hand, which is you’re fretting hand, It’s pushing the neck a little bit, pushing it a little slack. So in this instance, you’re going down. As you push the neck of a guitar forward, it loosens the strings. You could do it the other way too.
That’s pulling nick back to get a higher pitch. I’m pushing to get it a lower pitch. A lot of people are afraid to do this. They’re afraid they’re going to break the neck of their guitar. On more fragile guitars. I wouldn’t recommend trying it, but on a regular electric guitar with a truss rod, I don’t think you’re going to have a whole lot of a problem.
Another one is pushing the string down behind the nut. You play a note, take your other hand, go back behind the nut on the same string and push that string down. This raises the tension of the string.
The next thing we’re going to start talking about something that there’s a lot of confusion about, and that’s these two words: Vibrato and Tremolo. And one of the big reasons it’s so confusing is because of Fender. They got it backward. If you look at the fender amps, especially the 60s, the black face, and the silver face. There are two channels. A normal and a vibrato channel. The Vibrato channel has controls for speed and intensity to create an effect. One of the first built in amp effects. And basically, the effect that you find in that amplifier is not vibrato. It deals with amplitude. It deals with the volumes. It raises and lowers the volumes really quickly, which is pretty neat.
But, vibrato deals with a pitch, where the pitch of the note is raised or lowered, not the volume of the note. So, in the real musical world, tremolo deals with volume, vibrato deals with pitch. So on fender amplifiers, when it says Vibrato, it really means a Tremolo. Here’s where it continues to get more confusing on a Fender guitar. The bridge. When you have a bridge with a bar and the springs that can raise and lower the pitch, they call that a Tremolo, which doesn’t give you tremolo at all. Tremolo deals with volume and these bridge things, they deal with the pitch. They raise it, they loosen or tighten the strings, raising and lowering the pitch, which is great. If you listen to Jeff Beck and David Gilmore, they both used the tremolo on their guitar to get wonderful vibrato.
There are the classic Fender and Bigsby vibrato bridges. Both Fender and Bigsby have tuning problems. Some people don’t like to use them because it just knocks to a guitar out of tune too much. There are certain ways to set it up to help with that. But then you go into the rock solid ones like the Floyd Rose. I had a Kahler that worked well. The Wilkinson’s now work very well too. There are also pedals that can give your signal vibrato. Chorus pedals, Flangers, phasers, vibrato, and the whammy pedal. So there’s a lot of pedals that can raise and lower the pitch in different ways and you can adjust them in different ways to give you a wonderful vibrato.
Let’s talk about variables. What are some things we can do with all of these different types of vibratos to even get more mileage out of them? Well, we talked about using your arm, using your wrist or using your finger. Each one gives a slightly different sound to your vibrato. Also what finger you use. To me, you can have a nice vibrato no matter what fretting finger you use. It’s more about positioning to me, what pattern that I’m in. It’s about what finger I’m using in the pattern at the time. If I find a note that I’d like to have a nice Vibrato on, I just use that finger no matter which one it is. I don’t make conscious positioning choices to set up so that have a certain finger vibrato. Another variable that we have is speed. You can get a very fast BB King type of vibrato or a very slow by a vibrato that matches with the quarter notes or the eighth notes of your playing.
To me, speed is the most important thing, at first, to get under control. Matching the rhythm of the song will make you really sound professional very quickly. We’re going to do some of that in the exercises at the end. Try experimenting. Find what’s appropriate to both your style and the song that you’re playing at the time. Sometimes I’m playing a song that requires a certain type of vibrato that I wouldn’t think of it as my regular style, but it works for the song. Pay attention to vibrato in your favorite songs and your favorite players. Let’s talk about some best practices. You don’t want to put vibrato on every note. You want to be choosy. It features a note. If every note is featured, you just tune out. So the first place that I would start using vibrato is at the end of phrases. So you play a lick. When you hit the tonic note, put a little vibrato on the end. It gives a nice singing sound. You can also put it at the end of sustained notes. So if this is the very end of a long note, I put it on there. Sounds very nice. You can also put it at the end of a bend. I know some players will bend
and at the end of the bend, to give it a little more interest, add vibrato. So the bend goes up, stays flat, and then a little vibrato at the end. You can use it on chords as well. It sounds fantastic on chords, especially with your whammy bar. It’s a very deep and lush sound. It will resemble using a chorus pedal, which has its own sound, which is very nice.
Let’s talk about bad vibrato. What makes vibrato bad. Really, that’s in the ear of the listener, but here are the things that I notice when I listen to someone who’s struggling with their vibrato. Usually, it’s timing. The timing’s uneven. You might hear something that speeds up and slows down.
When the vibrato is not even, it can draw your attention away from how nice it sounds. Or, it could be just too fast or too slow for the tempo that you’re playing. Also, the pitch can be uneven.
Let’s talk about typical styles of vibrato with some different players, some blues players. When you think blues, do you think about BB King? I know I do. His vibrato is very fast. It’s been called shimmering. It has a shimmering effect.
In this video, he talks about the way he does his vibrato. He holds his neck with his thumb wrapped round to get started. Then he Finds the note he wants to put vibrato on. And at that point, he lifts his thumb and he shakes his wrist. It lets you speed up that vibrato. It’s very similar to a person’s voice. It’s a very vocal, it gives a faster speed and a narrower tone. It’s not wide, it’s very fast and narrow. He doesn’t play with vibrato on bends. He won’t bend a note and then put a vibrato at the end of the bend. Here’s a link to this video. Let’s talk about another blues and Rock player who is known for his vibrato, Eric Clapton.
Eric Clapton’ vibrato is incredible. It’s very even sounding. It’s different than BB. King’s. It’s very even and very appropriate for the song. Clapton does a lot of vibrato from the arm and he uses his first finger or his third finger. You don’t see pinky too much and you don’t see the second finger too much. He’s known, especially when he plays electric, for shaking the note without his thumb on the back of the neck, as BB king does.
He’ll have his thumb wrapped around the neck when he’s playing normally. And then, when he goes for vibrato, he just lifts off slightly. This helps the string slip across the frets. That’s what he’s known for. But, if you really pay attention to his playing, he doesn’t do that all the time.
He does both, especially on Acoustic Guitar, he keeps his thumb wrapped around the neck when he uses the vibrato. Here a link to some of his acoustic playing, where you can see he keeps his thumb on the neck when he does his vibrato. But, in contrast to BB King, Eric Clapton will use vibrato at the end of a bent note.
Carlos Santana is known for playing long sustained notes and he doesn’t use vibrato. That stands out because you would expect on a long note to have some sort of vibrato. When a person sings a long sustained note, vibrato naturally creeps in there. Usually, guitarists use vibrato to emulate the voice. But, what happens is he does it the opposite way. He leaves those long sustained notes without any by vibrato at all. He does use vibrato and everything else. So even though he’s known for his lack of using it on the long notes, Carlos actually has a very lyrical vibrato on a lot of his licks. He knows when to use it and when not to use it.
I've got two clips that’ll be on the show notes. One is from Woodstock: Soul Sacrifice,
and then another one that he did recently in 2018.
His playing hasn’t changed at all in a very long time.
Jeff Beck uses vibrato all from the tremolo bridge on his guitar. It’s all from the bar, all from his bridge He uses wide vibrato, flutters, different speeds. He will use whatever’s appropriate for the song. Nothing’s holding him back because he’s using the bar for all of it, instead of using his fingers.
You can’t put Jeff Beck in just one category. If you watch any of his songs, just wait for a few bars and he’ll be doing a completely different style of vibrato. He blurs the lines a lot of time between vibrato and bends as well.
David Gilmore, he uses a combination of styles of vibrato. He will usually use the bar for his by vibrato for a while, and then to get a whole different sound, he’ll use finger vibrato or wrist vibrato. He uses vibrato on the end of his bends as well. He also uses the whammy pedal for really out there effects. David also uses his first finger for vibrato. He uses his wrist to go back and forth with that first finger. His vibrato is very lyrical and his speed is very in time with the music.
You don’t see a whole lot of jazz players play with vibrato. I think most of the reason why is the heavy strings that are used on guitars for jazz style. I took a look at a clip of West Montgomery and really paid attention to where if he was using Vibrato. He did use a little bit but it was mostly at the end of single-note phrases. It’s very quick, but it was a beautiful sound.
So what do you do? What do you do if you want to develop your vibrato a little bit more, or if you’ve never really paid attention to it? How do you get into this now? Let’s pick two. Pick two of your favorite players. I want you to listen and pay special attention to the end of their notes. See if they shake the notes. Pick two songs from each and play along trying to emulate their vibrato. Then I want you to decide which one of those two styles suits you’re playing more. Is it a vertical, horizontal, a circular or a mechanical type of vibrato? What was the speed? Was it fast? Was it slow? Did they sustain notes? Was there a little bit of by vibrato at the end of a sustained note? What was the width? How far away was the pitch from the center pitch that you want to use? What finger did they use mostly? Did they use their wrist or finger or arm? Write these things down.
Get your loop pedal out or some background tracks out. start taking licks that you already know, and adding the vibrato that you chose to those licks to make them more vocal, expressive, and dare I say professional sounding!
We talked about the different types of vibrato,
we talked about the variables you could use for each of those types,
we went over best practices when you’re going to use vibrato,
we talked about some styles and some players who are famous for using vibrato,
and then we have some quick exercises for you here at the end.
I have a question for you. How important is vibrato to your guitar playing now? Is this something you would like to get into more, or do you feel you’ve really got a handle on it? You can let us know all about your experience with vibrato below in the comments.