Vibrato

by James Stelling

Vibrato is one of the most commonly misunderstood and ignored techniques on the guitar. It is also one of the most important to master as it is unquestionably one of the most characteristic aspects of any player's sound.

Even those who feel they have a good grasp on vibrato could benefit from using the exercises in the second half of this lesson.

Here we will take you through what vibrato actually is, how to practise it effectively and provide you with 2 very different backing tracks with which to practise your new found vibrato techniques to.

Here are two tracks that we've written for you to learn and practise using your new found vibrato skills with.

We've included backing tracks and transcriptions for both.

The first is a slow tune reminiscent of 'Gravity' by John Mayer. The vibrato used is always 1/4 tone vibrato at a 16th note pulse.

The Soundcloud example below and the backing track have been enabled for downloading so that you can use them in programs like 'Transcribe' to slow them down and practise with them more efficiently.

The second is a more up tempo, hard rock tune with more ostentatious vibrato in keeping with the genre. The vibrato varies between semi tone and whole tone vibrato as indicated on the score, and alternates between a 16th note triplet and 32nd note pulse.

Again the Soundcloud example below and the backing track have been enabled for downloading so that you can use them in programs like 'Transcribe' to slow them down and practise with them more efficiently.

Now that you've seen what we're aiming for let's take a look at how we can improve our vibrato.

How many of you have seen players (or are players) whose vibrato consists of nothing more than a wildly unmeasured shaking of the fretting hand? If this is you, you have to spend some time on your vibrato!

Think about the vibrato used by John Mayer in the intro to 'Gravity', by Steve Vai in 'For the love of God' or by Yngwie Malmsteen in everything he plays. These are all different types of vibrato that are chosen to be stylistically relevant to the musical situation in which they are being played. They are of varying depth and speed and if you want to be able to sound convincing in the musical genre or genres in which you play then you need to be able to vary your vibrato accordingly.

So what is vibrato?

Vibrato is the oscillation between two notes of specific pitch to a specific rhythmic pulse.

This is achieved by bending from your starting note to your destination note and releasing back to the starting note and repeating this motion.

The pitch of the destination note and the speed at which this oscillation occurs are the factors most commonly ignored by players with suspicious vibrato.

So let's start by choosing a note to apply vibrato to. Lets use the note 'A' on the B string of our guitar. We are going to apply 'quarter tone wide' vibrato to this note. This means we will oscillate between our original note 'A' and our destination note half way between 'A' and a semi tone above it: 'Bb'. This is a subtle form of vibrato favoured by the likes of Eric Clapton or John Mayer.

Let's start by playing this vibrato to an 8th note pulse.

We will now apply 'quarter tone wide' vibrato to the 'A' on the B string to an 8th note triplet pulse:

So far these have sounded very much like exercises. The following examples start to sound a lot more like usable vibrato (of course this is all relevant to the tempo). It is important to start with the first two exercises though as they allow you the time to really examine your technique.

We will now apply 'quarter tone wide' vibrato to the 'A' on the B string to an 16th note pulse:

We will now apply 'quarter tone wide' vibrato to the 'A' on the B string to an 16th note triplet pulse:

This is the vibrato used by John Mayer in 'Gravity'.

Now let's move on to 'semi tone wide' vibrato. This is less subtle vibrato than quarter tone wide vibrato but not quite as ostentatious as tone wide vibrato.

Let's start with 'semi tone wide' vibrato to the 'A' on the B string at an 8th note pulse:

We will now apply 'semi tone wide' vibrato to the 'A' on the B string to an 8th note triplet pulse:

The following examples start to sound a lot more like usable vibrato (again this is all relevant to the tempo).

We will now apply 'semi tone wide' vibrato to the 'A' on the B string to an 16th note pulse:

We will now apply 'semi tone wide' vibrato to the 'A' on the B string to an 16th note triplet pulse:

This is the vibrato used by Steve Vai in bar 25 of  'For the love of God' (he had been using quarter tone wide vibrato at varying speeds until this point)

I personally prefer Quarter and Semi tone wide vibrato as to my ears they are more subtle than Tone wide vibrato. It's important to have command of Tone wide vibrato though if you are playing music where this type of vibrato is more common, such as more ostentatious forms of heavy rock music.

Bearing this in mind we will start by applying 'tone wide' vibrato to the 'A' on the B string to an 8th note pulse:

We will follow this by applying 'tone wide' vibrato to the 'A' on the B string to an 8th note triplet pulse:

Now it starts to sound like more usable vibrato again when we apply 'tone wide' vibrato to the 'A' on the B string to an 16th note pulse:

We will now apply 'tone wide' vibrato to the 'A' on the B string to an 16th note triplet pulse:

This is the vibrato favoured by Yngwie Malmsteen and is very characteristic of his sound and of most heavy rock guitar players.

Now that you have a better grasp of vibrato at varying rates and depths, have another go at the songs from the beginning of this article and see how much more convincing your vibrato will be.

I hope you've enjoyed this lesson and found it helpful. 

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All the best, James.