If you play electric guitar, unplug it, fret a note, pick it – result: a sort of metalic little ping that dies away quite quickly. Not a great sound.

That is the raw sound you get to work with. So how do we get from that little ping to the singing tone or voice like wail, we think of when we think of the electric guitar?

1) We amplify it, distort it, overdrive it. This does at least two things; it sustains the unamplified ping, and it brings out, emphasizies, otherwise hidden sounds (upper harmonics) from the ping, thus transforming the sound.

2) We vary the attack of the notes, use pull-offs, vary the strength and angle of the pick, pinch harmonics. This gives the ‘ping’ a variety of different start sounds.

3) We use vibrato. This is one of the most powerful weapons in the war against the ping.

There is more still to this list, but I’m going to concentrate on vibrato.

Vibrato is one of the most ignored, but most necessary tools of the electric guitarist, as many a professional player will tell you.

What is it exactly?

Vibrato is the technique of moving the pitch of a sustained note up in pitch slightly and back down to the origonal pitch in a rhythmic manner. (The pitch can also be moved down, but usually not both up and down)

Listen to a singer who’s thought to have a “good voice” or a sax player. They usually have a nice vibrato.

Vibrato helps the notes sing.

Vibrato means you can say more with one note.

Vibrato goes a long way towards helping the guitarist get away from that little metalic ping.

It is often said that a developed controlled vibrato, more than anything else, separates the amatures from the pros.

Having spouted that old cleche’ (true as it may be), I’d also like to mention that there are some great players who choose not to use vibrato, or who only use a very subtle form of it. These are mainly jazz players however. Almost all the great rock and blues players have a well devoloped, controlled vibrato: have a listen for yourself. In jazz also, many of the great players have a very nicely honed and controlled vibrato; for example John Scofield, Alan Holdsworth or Terje Rapdal.

So how do you go about developing a good vibrato technique?

Let’s start by looking at the various ways you can create vibrato.

1) The finger waggle method

2) The whole arm method

3) The horezontal ‘clasical’ method

4) The wammy bar method

5) The controlled wrist rotation method

There are probably more, but these are the five main methods.

Let’s look at them in some detail:

1) The finger waggle method

This is normally the default untrained method people start with. Generally speaking it’s not a good method, as you have to develop it separately for each finger, as well as the fact that there is not as much strength or control (for this purpose) in the flexing of the fingers as there is with other methods. Though like with everything else, there is always the exceptional person who uses this method with excellent results. For most people however, this is a method to be strongly avoided.

2) The whole arm method

This is not as popular as some of the others and not very easy to control, but one or two famous players (of the older variety) use it.

With this method you lock all your fingers into rigid claw like shape, and use the whole forearm pivoting virtically up and down from the elbow to vibrato the string.

3) The horezontal ‘clasical’ method

This is an interesting method. Normally used by classical guitarists on nylon strings, it can be employed on the electric guitar as well. You won’t find it easy to get your classic rock vibrato using this method, but it can yeild some interesting results none the less.

This requires a fair deal of strength and control in the fingers. What you actually do is to streach the string horezontally along its length. So you line up say three fingers in a row on a string, and while fretting a note, you pull along the length of the string away from the bridge towards the nut (end of the guitar). This, if done correctly will stretch the string. With practice, you’ll be amazed at just how much you can stretch the string with this method. Once you have this working, you need to practice pulling and releasing rhythmically to a beat or metronome.

4) The wammy bar method

This is another interesting method that gives you unusual but useful results.

Here the wammy bar or (inaccurately named) tremolo arm is used to create vibrato. Two players who spring to mind are Dave Gilmore (rock guitarist from Pink Floyd) and Terje Rapdal (contemporary jazz guitarist) who use this method with drastically different, but very effective results.

For this method, you simply waggle the wammy bar (if you have one) on your guitar while sustaining a note. Once you start experimenting with this a bit, and listening to what some great players do with it, you’ll probably realize that there is a lot of potential for personal expression here, and a lot of subtlty available.

5) The controlled wrist rotation method

This is the most common vibrato techique used by professional guitarists (except classical players). This is probably the hardest of the vibrato techniques to learn. But once learned is probably the most versatile and easy to control.

Unless you have tried all these methods and have good reason to choose one of the others, I would recommend you use the wrist type of vibrato.

To really learn this technique, I advise you to get a good teacher, having said this, they are not that easy to find. I’ve often seen people teaching who haven’t even got a good vibrato technique themselves.

So keeping that in mind let’s have a look at how wrist vibrato works. The idea here of course is that your wrist, and only your wrist, moves the string up and down. Your fingers and hand act only as a way of connecting the movement of your wrist to the strings. So it is essential that your fingers remain rigid, locked in a claw shape, while you are vibrating the string. Remember, you do not waggle or flex your fingers, they remain locked in a claw like shape. You use your wrist, specifically the rotation of the wrist, to move the string. Keep in mind that when you vibrato you bend the string up, and then release the bend back to 0 pitch (unbent pitch). So for the top three (E, B, and G) strings you bend up towards the ceiling. For the bottom three (D, A, and E) you pull down towards the floor.

Its not enough to just waggle the string about and think, right, I’ve done my bit. You have to really listen to the sound your vibrato makes. There are so many different ways to do it (even within one technique ie: the wrist technique).

You can vary the speed of your vibrato, the amount of pitch bend, and you can get a lot more detiled than just this. For example, when you move the string up and back down rhythmically, what proportion of that time is spent at 0 pitch? You can for example spend longer at 0 pitch than at the bent pitch, moving the string up and back down very qucikly with a sizable gap between each movement of the string. Or you can spend equal time at the bent pitch as you do at 0 pitch. Or you could go from 0 pitch to bent pitch very quickly and then come back down to 0 pitch a little more slowly. There is a lot of room for variation here.

There’s also of course the question of how high you go with the pitch bend. Some players only bend slightly sharp on each movement of the vibrato, while others can bend up a wholetone or more (granted this results in a very extreme vibrato, none the less there are those who use it e.g: some heavy metal players). I think it’s really worth taking notice of exactly how your favourite players vibrato. I also think it’s really worth listening to how other instruments, for example the sax, use vibrato

Finally, hopefully I have convinced you of the importance of vibrato in taking your notes from pinging, to singing. Be prepared however, it takes time to develop a really good, controlled vibrato. In my experience of teaching; it usually takes 6 months minimum, but be prepared for it to take a lot longer – like 18 months to two years. For most players it’s something really worth working on though. A year is not a long time to wait, when you think how much better you’ll sound.

I give lessons via Skype, contact me about setting up a lesson here.

All content © copyright 2011 Mark Wingfield, Dark Energy Music Publishing