Complete Guide to Vibrato Technique

Everything you need to know about types of the technique, how to practice and good songs for that.

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Ultimate Guitar
Complete Guide to Vibrato Technique
13

As we've been mentioning a lot of guitar techniques recently in our complete guides to "Welcome to the Jungle" and "Cowboys From Hell," we thought it would be cool to make something interesting and educative for the reference.

So, today, we kick off our new rubric, with a Complete Guide to the Vibrato technique. Read it, tell us what you think about it and if you have anything to add, share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Vibrato

Vibrato is a constant rhythmic bending of a string. You gotta do bends up and down quickly to create a moving sound.

Vibrato helps add intensity and variety to musical phrases, lengthens the sustain of notes and bent notes, and gives the guitar a human-like voice quality.

Steps to Perform Vibrato

  1. Fret a note on the fretboard with your finger. Play that note.
  2. While the note still sounds, use a little extra pressure pushing the string down on the fretboard, then bend the string up and down while turning the string back to its normal position or alternate rolling your finger from side to side within the fret.

Types of Vibrato

Vibrato is played Vertically and Horizontally using the muscles of the wrist to support the fingers while the fingers perform the vibrato motions.

Horizontal

Horizontal vibrato means that your vibrato is generated by shifting your fretting hand finger from side to side within the fret. This vibrato type has a more limited range than vertical vibrato and is generally used in situations to create a subtle, but noticeable vibrato. This type is regularly used on the classical guitar and sometimes on the electric guitar as well.

The biggest disadvantage of this type of vibrato is that it is hard to get any more than a small change in pitch from it - you can't use it to get a wide vibrato. This means that it isn't the best type of vibrato for a heavy rock song because that kind of music is usually better served by a stronger, more dynamic vibrato. However, use it in a softer context and you'll be fine.

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Vertical

Playing vertically means bending the string up or down to create vibrato. This motion provides a wider range of note possibilities than horizontal vibrato. It makes no difference whether the string is bent up or down, it produces the same pitch. Bending direction is decided by the player's preference or location on the fretboard.

Some players create vibrato by combining horizontal and vertical vibrato into a circular motion with a narrow to wide pitch range.

Vertical vibrato can be divided into types, according to movements, produced by the left hand:

  • finger vibrato;
  • wrist vibrato;
  • whole-hand vibrato;
  • arm (elbow) vibrato.

Finger vibrato

Finger vibrato is achieved by keeping thumb behind the neck and using fingers for vibrato. There is a popular belief, that finger vibrato can result in loss of control. But guitar strings are pretty thin, so finger muscles have more than enough strength to stretch and manipulate them in a controlled way.

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Wrist vibrato

Wrist vibrato is the most common motion which is achieved by placing thumb over the top of the neck and then rotating your wrist to vibrate the string. It's also called BB King style.

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Whole-hand vibrato

Whole-hand vibrato involves the entire hand. You should keep your thumb behind the neck and move your hand up and down from the wrist to generate the vibrations.

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Arm (elbow) vibrato

Arm (or elbow) vibrato is the most severe and hard to control a type of vibrato. Elbow is the main area, where you produce the vibrato from. Fingers, hand, and wrist are held tight and rigid and thumb is held away from the neck, so it's difficult to control the vibration. It's very fast and radical type of vibrato.

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Circular Vibrato

Circular vibrato is a combination of vertical vibrato and horizontal vibrato, where a sound is created by a circular motion. Steve Vai is a well-known user of this technique.

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Sliding Vibrato

 

Greg Howe and a few others actually slide their fingers between the fret above and below the "original" note, creating a fast, wide, and interesting "vibrato" effect. In extreme cases, players will create a wide-ranged intense vibrato by using a motion spanning across 5 frets or more. This is unusual, though, and can be easily duplicated with much less effort by using vertical vibrato.

This technique is often used by fusion guitarists, that's why sometimes it's called fusion vibrato.

 

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Chordal Vibrato

Often we need to create a vibrating sound not just for one string, but for a few. This type of vibrato is called chordal vibrato.

This type of vibrato produced by the joints in your fingers.

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Shaking neck vibrato

Vibrato effect can be achieved by pulling and pushing the guitar neck.
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Vibrato on bends

Adding vibrato on bends can help you make your solos more impressive, but it takes time and practice to learn. To add vibrato to your string bends, follow these steps:

1. Bend to pitch and hold without vibrato.

2. Bend to pitch and add vibrato (e.g. wrist vibrato).

3. Bend to pitch, hold, and then add vibrato.

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Vibrato Depth

Depth indicates how much the pitch differs from the original pitch. There are 3 main types of depth:

  • Narrow: a quarter step
  • Moderate: a half step
  • Wide: a whole step

Vibrato Rate

Vibrato rate (or speed) indicates how fast the pitch fluctuates back and forth from the original pitch. There are 3 main types of vibrato rate:

  • Slow
  • Medium
  • Fast

Reasons to Use Vibrato

Vibrato increases intensity and expressiveness of guitar sound if when vibrato isn't used or used too little, notes have less sustain and passages sound less interesting, but remember that if vibrato is used too often, it loses its effect on the listener and becomes gimmicky.

Common Mistakes

Vibrato doesn't mean you have to shake your hand super fast until the string will swing from the top to the bottom of the neck. In fact, good vibrato technique begins from a relaxed motion that will add just a tiny extra natural vibe to the note you're playing. 

The point most people are missing when playing vibrato is time. Vibrato must be in time as well as the other notes.

You need to be accurate with vibrato because it can produce unwanted noises, so you should also get better at muting to prevent it.

Another mistake is to start vibrating the note as soon as you play it. This can make you sound out of tune.

Don't use as much vibrato as possible. Some people think that emotional playing means using it a lot. Think of vibrato as spices for a meal, you don't need a lot of it to make dish tasty.

Tablature Notation

In tabs, vibrato is usually represented by the tilde '~' symbol.

e|------------------------|
B|------------------------|
G|----------13---13~(13)--|
D|-------14-14---14~(14)--|
A|------------------------|
E|------------------------|

Songs to Practice Vibrato

AC/DC - Hells Bells

Tab versions: AC/DC - Hells Bells
Interactive versions: Guitar Pro, Tab Pro

Offical Video

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Music video by AC/DC performing Hells Bells. (C) 1981 J. Albert & Son (Pty.) Ltd.


Hells Bells Guitar Lesson Part 1 - AC/DC - All Riffs

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Hells Bells Guitar Lesson Part 2 - AC/DC - Solo

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Metallica - Fade To Black

Tab versions: Metallica - Fade To Black
Interactive versions: Guitar Pro, Tab Pro

Metallica: Fade to Black (live performance)

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Filmed live at The Opera House in Toronto, Canada on November 29, 2016.

Fade To Black Guitar Lesson - Metallica - Intro Solo & Interlude

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Pink Floyd - Comfortably Numb (outro solo)

Tab versions: Pink Floyd - Comfortably Numb
Interactive versions: Guitar Pro, Tab Pro

Pink Floyd - Comfortably Numb (live performance)

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A live performance from October 20, 1994, PULSE

Pink Floyd - Comfortably Numb Guitar Lesson - Outro Solo (First Half)

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Pink Floyd - Comfortably Numb Guitar Lesson - Outro Solo (Second Half)

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3 comments sorted by best / new / date

    ArthurSungward
    Good idea. Stuff to add: -vibrato on bends, a lot of people can't do it properly. When you can do it, then you can play killer solos. -muting: gotta be careful with it, vibrato usually brings in some unwanted noise if you aren't careful. -unless you're Yngwie, less is more. It's a common mistake for guitarists to put vibrato everywhere. When you do that it sounds horrible. Listen to some Miles Davis, he rarely uses vibrato and sounds great. Not a guitar player, but he's a good musician to emulate. -another mistake is to start vibrating the note as soon as you play it. This can make you sound out of tune. Listen to singers, the vibrato usually doesn't come in instantly. -and in general, don't mistake vibrato for emotion. When playing an emotionally intense tune, noobs will use it as much vibrato as possible. Bad idea. It's a very vocal technique so you need to use it with that in mind. If someone speaks to you and their voice is constantly wobbling in pitch, you're not gonna be drawn to them. Or you're gonna feel pity for them because they sound traumatised. Same when you'r eplaying guitar.
    Udjine
    Thanks for your suggestion, we added information about vibrato on bends and a section about common mistakes.
    jerrykramskoy
    Great idea. Well written. I'd add a few points. 1/ consider supporting the fretting finger with others behind it 2/ Pivot hand against treble-side edge of neck 3/ Lock fingers and use forearm rotation with the pivot. Finger strength doesn't come into it. 4/ There's another strange form of vibrato, similar to classical, which does require finger strength ... push down hard on string and literally pull it or push it horizontally (parallel to string) to actually cause the string length to change. Shortening the string feels odd, but it sounds effective. 5/ As well as classical, another rock version is wide slides back and forwards around the "vibrato" fret ... two or three frets either side, moved very rapidly (Greg Howe). This following video by Shaun Baxter (monster player) is very good for vibrato (and bends).