All right, here is a rant, more than anything: Vibrato is the most important technique for all soloing guitarists, except classical. (Well, it’s important in classical, too, though perhaps not the most important)
By that, I mean finger vibrato, not the kind you do with your tremolo.
Why? It’s because vibrato is the single technique required to make single-note playing listenable. It doesn’t matter how slowly you play, how few notes. If you develop a competent vibrato, your single-note playing will have a character.
And vibrato has the strong likelihood of being a huge part of your signature sound, as we all have different fingers, different movements — none of our vibratos are exactly the same. In the other words, work on your vibrato if you’re intent on developing your own unique and recognizable signature tone. Take Santana — the reason he’s one of the few guitarists you can recognize by hearing just a single note lies in his touch.
5 Finger Vibrato Techniques
Now, there are several variations in terms of the commonly used vibrator technique. This has been discussed elsewhere, but below are my thoughts on them:
- In-fret vertical vibrato: you rock your fretting hand, pivoted on the fretting finger, in a direction parallels to your neck. This is the one most commonly employed by classical guitarists, and the effect is subtle and delicate. This kind is also easily done on double-stops and chords, when you’re fretting more than one note. The position of your fretting finger doesn’t change usually — I wonder how it will sound if I actually moved the fretting finger’s position? It’s only possible on lower frets, without actually sliding to another fret, but I bet it produces more distinct effect. I’ll try it some time.
- Bend-up vibrato: this is where you bend your note up and down slightly to produce pitch variation, by pushing the string up toward your head and bring it back down to the regular position. The most common kind on blues and rock guitarists, and used on steel-stringed instruments. If the vertical vibrato moved parallel to the neck, this one moves perpendicular to the neck. It’s the same technique as regular bends, just done in a smaller range and in rhythm.
- Bend-down vibrato: This is the same as bend-up vibrato, but you bend down in the direction of your foot. (In terms of pitch, it still goes up from the original note.) You probably have to do it on the 6th string, but I actually use this on all strings except the 1st.
- Bend-and-shake vibrato: You bend a note up and then from there employ a vibrato. The hardest and most virtuosic of all finger vibratos. The interesting fact here is that on an already-bent note, you can apply vibrato that go up or down in terms of pitch. I think it’s more common to go down and then back up to the original pitch, as it’s easier — and it produces a different sound. Bend-and-shake tend to sound quite dramatic and intense because of its initial bend and the big variation in pitch that this vibrato tends to produce. Can sound too exaggerated on subtler, quiet and intimate music.
- Multi-fret vertical vibrato: This is one where you actually move between more than one frets, but you do it so fast that it sounds like a vibrato instead of a tremolo. Rarely done but I read that George Lynch employed this technique.
The Further Exploration of Vibratos
The most important thing you have to remember for vibratos is that whatever the amount of pitch variation, the vibrato ought to have the same amount of variation and is done rhythmically. Not necessarily at the same tempo as the music, but just that the vibrato is done at a regular tempo on its own.
Being able to control the amount of pitch variation and the tempo gives you the greater range of expression. In a nutshell, the bigger the pitch variation, the more dramatic and intense its effect. Sometimes that’s good and appropriate, but not all the time.
Synching the tempo of the vibrato to the tempo of the music is sometimes discussed — I don’t think it’s a must, though. Again, it produces a different effect. When you do it, it sounds rehearsed and calculated — it comes across like you’re trying to apply an effect to the note, instead of expressing a feeling.
And finally, mastering vibrato also has a direct impact on your ability to sustain notes. Simply put, a well-executed vibrato can make notes sustain longer. This is one of the reasons why an accomplished player can make notes last long, in addition to the quality of the instrument/gear and how they are set up.
In my opinion, vibratos are a great indicator of the maturity of a guitarist. Most, if not all, accomplished guitarists master this technique. Can’t think of any other technique that is as widely and universally employed as this one.
It’s a pet peeve of mine, when I hear guitarists, particularly metal guitarists, who can play at great speed and yet don’t have decent vibrato. Some professionals get away with it, but it’s such a missed opportunity, as vibratos can add so much to single-note playing, and they are not hard to develop. You may think that it’s not as important as speed for metal guitar, and I may not disagree with you — but still, a wide vibrato communicates so much passion and intensity, and those feelings form an integral part of metal guitar, more so than others. You can communicate your intensity by playing lightening-fast passages — but then, add a wild vibrato to the last note, and it’ll be even more intense.
So, I’ve been intentionally working on my vibrato over the years, and it’s one technique where I feel fairly confident in. And it makes me feel comfortable not to overplay, as I can say a lot with just a few notes.
I highly recommend vibratos to any guitarists who want to develop soloing chops. It’s really an essential and potent technique.
PS Again, I realize this post really calls for a clip or a video. But if I wait to post until I have one or the other, this post will just sit in my head in the mean time — so my apologies for posting without clips or videos, but I think it’s better to post and then add, instead of waiting. I’ll work on building a setup where I can produce quick clips and videos.