Killer Vibrato: The Ultimate Guide

Brian May, Yngwie Malmsteen, Slash, BB King... ever wondered what separates pro players from the rest of us? Vibrato. Anyone can learn to have a great vibrato - it's not down to talent; read on to find out how to get your own unique vibrato.

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Killer Vibrato: The Ultimate Guide


Brian May, Yngwie Malmsteen, Slash, BB King... ever wondered what separates pro players from the rest of us? What makes them sound better, and what every professional guitar player (from death metal to blues) has in common?

Great vibrato.

It's the one thing that separates a good player from an incredible one. The single skill that gives a solo "that something" that is often so hard to capture. In short: it's vital.

If you want to become a great guitar player then you should seriously think about investing some time into practicing your vibrato. Most players know it's important but assume that it will develop on its own - and although in some cases it does, you'll get much quicker results if you focus on it and practice it in isolation.

In this article you'll learn exactly how to go about improving your vibrato, including specific and easy practice methods you can use to start progressing right away.

Note: In this lesson I assume that you already have a decent grasp of bends, and that you can bend notes accurately to the correct pitches. If not, learn your bends first and then come back here - the lesson will be much more useful then! I'm also assuming that you know what vibrato is: a rapid change in pitch of a note that gives a richer tone.

The Motions

Before we get onto the practice methods themselves, I'd like to discuss the different motions you can use to do vibrato. This will give you a nice grasp of the technique so that you can practice more effectively. In essence, there are two main ways to do vibrato: side-to-side and up-and-down.

Side-to-Side Vibrato

This is where you fret a note and then pull your finger side-to-side (parallel to the string) to stretch and release the note, resulting in a subtle change of pitch. It is most often used by classical players rather than electric guitarists, but that doesn't mean you can't use it on an electric; it's great for subtle effects that are well suited to softer songs or slower solos. The motion that's usually used for this technique is a vibration of the arm side to side. If you want to see the technique in action, look at a few videos of classical guitar players and watch how they do their vibrato.

The main disadvantage of this technique is that it is difficult to get any more than a slight change in pitch from it - you can't use it to get a wide vibrato. This means that it isn't the best vibrato to use for a heavy rock song, for example, because that kind of music is usually better served by a stronger, more aggressive vibrato. However, use it in a softer context and it could be ideal.

Up-and-Down Vibrato

This is the most common vibrato used on the electric guitar, and it's much more versatile than using a side-to-side motion. By stretching the string up and down (like when you do a bend) you have far more options when it comes to the width of the vibrato, allowing you to create more sounds and suit the vibrato to different contexts.

There are a number of different motions you can use to vibrate the string up and down. You can keep your thumb behind the neck and move your hand up and down from the wrist to create the vibrations. You could also move your arm from the elbow, although if you do this you'll have less control (some players do prefer this, though). Try keeping your hand in the same position and just moving your fingers for vibrato - it requires a little more practice but is still a very effective method. The most common motion is to place your thumb over the top of the neck and then rotate your wrist to vibrate the string - BB King style! This is a good way to create the vibration, but I personally prefer keeping my thumb behind the neck and using my fingers for vibrato (which, contrary to popular belief, does not actually result in any loss of control. After all, guitar strings are very thin - finger muscles are more than strong enough to stretch and manipulate them in a controlled way). Try all of these motions and use whichever you prefer.

Practice both side-to-side and up-and-down vibrato and get used to the motions for each - then once you've got them under your fingers try using them in songs. Play a solo you've learned a few times through, using a different vibrato motion each time. Notice how the different motions produce different sounds - which do you prefer?

When you've done this, you're ready for the next stage.

How to Practice Vibrato

If you want to have a really great vibrato, then you need to focus on it and really pay attention to how it sounds.

To practice it, I've developed a step-by-step system that will help you to learn it more quickly.

1) First, fret a note and then bend it up in pitch slightly

2) Then, bend it down to the normal fretted pitch again. Make sure to release the bend down to the fretted pitch exactly. If you don't bend all the way down to the correct pitch again, your vibrato will sound messy and out of tune - the opposite of what we want! This is really important, so make sure you pay attention to it. You could even use a tuner if you like, to make sure that you do it correctly and that you stay in tune.

3) Now, bend it up but try and hit the exact same pitch that you hit before - this is vital in order to ensure that you develop control and get a good tone. Use a tuner again if you like to make sure you return to the same pitch.

4) Then bend back down, and repeat these steps. Once you've got used to bending to the same pitch, try doing your vibrato in time to a metronome. Making your vibrato in time is a vital part of making your vibrato sound good, as well as giving you more musical freedom: if you can do it perfectly at a certain tempo, you'll have no problems speeding it up or slowing it down to create different effects.

Do this for just 5-10 minutes each day and within a few weeks your vibrato will be far better! Even focusing on it for this short length of time will transform your sound and give you much more control (a key part of great vibrato).

This shouldn't be the only way you practice your vibrato, though - use it to improve your control over the motions but you'll need to use other methods if you want to develop your own unique vibrato style; you'll need to use some new strategies. In the next few sections I'll give you some more ideas about how to improve your sound.

Experimentation is Vital

If you really want to make the most of this technique, it's important to experiment. In between using the method above, try just playing vibrato on one note and see how many different sounds you can get. Play it faster. Play is it slower. Play it narrow. Play it wide. Have fun with it! Try copying your favourite guitar player's vibrato, and then try doing something completely different.

This is actually great fun, and doing this regularly will really improve the tone of your vibrato. If you get control over lots of different widths and speeds of vibrato you'll be well-equipped to suit your soloing to any style of music. Get into the habit of doing this every day - even for two minutes - and you'll be well on your way to making your vibrato sound great.

Extra Tips

When you do vibrato up and down, you bend the note from the base pitch upwards and then back to base pitch again. This means that the "average" pitch of the note isn't the base fretted pitch - it's slightly higher.

However, when a violinist or other instrumentalist (or vocalist) does vibrato, they bend both above and below the base pitch of the note, meaning that the "average" note is the base pitch.

What does this mean for guitarists? Well, it actually means that when we do vibrato, because we can't physically bend down in pitch (at least not using up-and-down motion vibrato) but we can bend up, the vibrato is technically out of tune. This means that for it to sound good and in-tune, you need to show the listener what the real pitch of the note is BEFORE you apply vibrato - otherwise the listener's ear will assume that the pitch of the note is the average between the two (which as stated above, will be too sharp and will sound out of tune).

This is really simple to do - all you need to do is play the note but before you play any vibrato, wait a short moment. Don't apply the vibrato straight away; instead, wait a moment and the vibrato will end up sounding much better. This will allow the listener to subconsciously register the pitch of the note before the vibrations are added, so that the vibrato sounds in tune.

You could even try slowly fading it in; play the note without any vibrato and then gradually start vibrating the note, increasing width and speed as you go on. This is a very violin-like approach, and it sounds absolutely great when done well.

The One Final Key to a Great Sound

If you only take one practice tip away from this article, let it be this one. Whenever you play anything where vibrato is involved (a melody line, or a solo) pay attention to how it sounds! Every time you pick up your guitar try and make it sound a little bit better than it did last time. Keep focusing on it and it'll improve without you even spending any focused time on it - and if you do have time to do the exercises above, then you'll progress even faster.

This will teach you to use it in context (another vital skill) and will help you to improve your tone every time you play. Ever heard people say "the tone is in the fingers"? A lot of that is down to vibrato.

Keep playing and have fun!

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9 comments sorted by best / new / date

    these are good tips, particularly about waiting for the note to ring out before wobbling the note. this is extra important when bending notes. i've found that i need to apply a bit more pressure to the bend in order to have enough control to exert a decent vibrato and stay in pitch. a really pro sounding vibrato is to bend up 1 tone, hold it, then wobble the note.
    Sir Don
    Some good information here, I might just add that I think vibrato sounds so much better when done slowly rather than fast. Just listen to any Robin Trower and you'll get what I mean. It's harder to control it when it's done slowly but, again, sounds better to my ears.
    I will add 2 tips : 1) have your vibrato in sync with the rhythm of the music you're playing. 2) don't hesitate to have a WIDE vibrato, because a narrow vibrato may sound nice when you're playing alone in your room, but in live conditions, when other instruments are playing too, your vibrato may simply not be heard.
    Interesting point about the width of the vibrato - I'd never thought of that before. As long as the mix is good I don't think a narrow vibrato would be a problem, but if you're in a live setting (like you say) where the mix is usually sub-par then I can see your point. I'll have to try it and see!