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How To Use Vibrato In Your Guitar Playing

Obviously having the right facial expression is important

For all my students who play lead guitar, vibrato is the one skill that most need to work on above most other things. Put simply, vibrato is more than just the shaping of a note by changing it’s pitch repeatedly, it’s the overall shaping of the note to match the intensity and emotional content of the music. It can make the most simplest of melodies sound musically powerful and when played right can add a real touch of class to your playing. 

First, listen to a couple of examples of great sounding vibrato. The first is a live version of Sweet Little Angel by B.B. King.

The second is a live version of For The Love Of God by Steve Vai.

Live video versions are important because I want you to take note of how vibrato is played. A big ‘lightbulb’ moment for me was watching Dire Straits play Sultans of Swing. Whilst this isn’t a live version but the band miming over a studio version for a music video, simply seeing Mark Knopfler do a vibrato gave me so much more understanding of what needed doing.

Now, don’t skip watching any of those videos. Regardless of what your musical tastes are, make sure you take the time to listen and watch what is going on. An important part of learning is keeping an open mind and listening to what different people have to offer will only serve to make you a better musician.

B.B. King was one of the early pioneers of electric guitar. It is still amazing how someone who are up in a town without electricity went on to become an electric guitar hero to generations. However the most important thing to remember is that he listened and emulated what he liked the sound of. In his case he wanted his vibrato to sound like Hawaiian singers and acoustic players. His sound is very specific but also very recognisable along with the rest of his playing. In terms of modern day guitarists his style is still quite primitive but then electric guitar had only been in popular existence for about a decade at that point! Listen carefully to his playing; his vibrato is fast and narrow and cuts through his melodic lines. In particular, any time he lets a single note ring out it tends to have vibrato on it to help add interest and tension to the note.

The second video is of a very different player; guitar virtuoso Steve Vai. Steve is one of the pioneers of guitar in the 80s and 90s and still releases breathtaking music today and tours globally. He was most noted for being Frank Zappa’s ‘stunt guitar’ man on records such as You Are What You Is and The Man From Utopia but also worked with David Lee Roth, Alcatrazz and Whitesnake amongst others. One of his signature skills was being able to be very expressive with the guitar, shaping notes and melodies in ways that had not been done before. You can hear on this tune that he takes a simple melody and using various articulation techniques really brings it alive. Needless to say his use and control of vibrato is something to behold!

The two examples above are of very different players but they both use vibrato technique in the same way; to add interest, tension and colour to their melodic lines. Whether you particularly like one way of doing things or the other doesn’t really matter, the point is that it is a very personal thing. It is a technique that can be used in a myriad of different ways and different people over the years have utilised it to help to personalist music and make it more their own. There surely couldn’t be a bigger difference between someone like the gentle vibrato shaping of someone like Hank Marvin to the high throttle of Yngwie Malmsteen yet both have their own style, approach and ways of controlling their sound using vibrato.

The best way of beginning to develop your own technique is to take a rather dry approach to practicing it. However this will push you through the early stages of the technique and get you on to using it in your playing as quick as possible. First, take a regular beat (drum beat recording or metronome) at a moderate tempo or between 80-100bpm. Secondly take any note on the guitar and bend it in time with the music with a half step bend. You need to make sure you are doing two things correctly: 1. That you are playing in time and 2. That your bend is exactly the same pitch every single time. Also make sure that you being is smooth and rises and falls from the bent note without any awkward stops and starts.

Got this? Good. Now repeat it. Repeat it on every sing string and every single finger all over the neck. You need to be able to do this everywhere and you need to make sure that the technique becomes second nature. DO NOT try to use it yet. Keep your practice of this in isolation for a week or so (provided that you are doing this regularly. There is a chance that you will go insane practicing this for long periods of time so make sure that you do this for a short amount of time but very often throughout your practice.

What you are looking to develop here is CONTROL over the vibrato motion. Once you have control you can start listening to a learning from how other people do theirs. To make one point crystal clear, there is no right or wrong way to make vibrato sound but you need to ensure that the sound you are making is the sound that you want and not just a default way of doing things, hence all the dry practice earlier!

A vibrato can be fast or slow, wide or narrow. It can start when the note starts or begin after the note has run for a while. If can build or drop in intensity and change over the course of the note. The pitch of the note that you are applying the vibrato to can be raised above the original note, lowered below, or can do both. There are so many options that they best thing to do is to listen to the guitar players (or in deed other musicians) that you like the sound of a work out exactly what they are doing. Youtube is a great resource for this. Once you have begun to figure this out, copy them and start applying it to your own music.

If this article has been helpful to you then please get in touch and let me know. Alternatively if you have anything to add or would like to see a blog post on something that you have observed when learning guitar or need help with, please get in touch. I look forward to hearing from you!

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