Guitar vibrato technique
The definitive guide to vibrato for guitarists and other musicians.
A guitarist's Vibrato Characteristic Curve (VCC) is a 'trademark' element of your sound. Every guitarist has one, a unique vibrato 'identity' like a fingerprint. Switch your audio on and click the green buttons on the Vibrato Visualizer below to see and hear some common curves.
Guitar Vibrato Technique
Vibrato is the reason why a guitar is the most expressive instrument there is, capable of projecting emotion - but what is the best technique?
The main myth perpetuated about vibrato technique suggests it comes from the wrist moving radially. It does not. The best technique is nothing like a surfer's 'hang loose' gesture. Such a motion is hard to control and therefore sounds too frenetic. A lot of the old blues guys like B.B. King play that way, and it does match their more ‘Raw’ style but, since the blues boom of the 1960’s, vibrato got slicker and has evolved with modern rock styles ever since.
Precision vibrato comes from the finger. Whichever finger you naturally favour. I use my first finger, though only on a slide to a note. Otherwise, my second finger is predominant, especially with string bends, though my third finger can get involved.
You just need to clamp the left hand to the neck by bringing the thumb over the fretboard and away you go. The thumb should not be behind the fretboard.
Some movement of the arm and wrist is inevitable, you may see the entire neck moving up and down during passionate vibrato!
The best description I have heard is that the finger action is like stroking pussy! 😉
I love you baby, but not like I love my guitar - Prince
Which Vibrato Sounds Best?
Some vibrato curves sound more pleasing than others. Why?
Vibrato Speed modulation
Arguably the most important metric for vibrato is speed, how fast it modulates pitch.
Usually, the beginner’s mistake is to try too hard and consequently play too fast.
The best general advice is... slow down. Fast vibrato is hard to control, and it usually just sounds bad - as in buzz-saw bad!
Vibrato Pitch variation
Regular, constant pitch variation is the other secret to sounding good, and that only comes with practice. Don’t get frustrated, getting smooth, symmetrical curves takes time. Remember, learning is the same for everyone, even your guitar hero made a plink, plink sound when they first picked up a guitar.
Wikipedia states here that the perceived pitch of a note with vibrato "is that of its mean", or the middle of its fluctuating pitch. As far as it goes it is correct, but this assumes a sine wave type curve, one that is varied above and below the pitched note equally. Voices and unfretted string instruments can achieve such curves. Guitars cannot, well only in certain circumstances explained later.
Fretted string instruments can only be manipulated upwards in pitch when playing a single note. You can push the string up or down but heading in either direction only results in the pitch going upwards. It cannot descend below the fretted note.
The representation of single note vibrato on a fretted instrument is actually more like a bouncing ball.
Fortunately, it doesn’t matter that guitars can only modulate up, it sounds fine. The ear still recognises the fundamental (starting) pitch as the mean. Someone should tell that to Wikipedia!
Sine Wave Vibrato
Sine wave vibrato curves can be achieved in one of three ways...
- Unfretted string instruments; violins, fretless basses
- Guitars with a tremolo arm (whammy bar)
- On a guitar when you bend up to another note and then manipulate around the 'mean'
String Bends with Vibrato
Whilst not strictly in the category of vibrato, string bends are often used in conjunction with, and can sculpt different types of, vibrato.
The guitarist usually bends a string a whole tone upwards, then applies vibrato.
This is the one occasion when you can produce a sine wave. You need a pretty good ear, and precision of technique, to hit the new note and oscillate above and below. Why bother? The bounce profile sounds fine, so just use the natural resistance of the tensioned string to modulate upwards.
Did you notice on the Vibrato Visualizer you can preview vibratos with shred on it? Just select clean or shred below the green buttons to audition the different tones.
The effect of distortion pedals like fuzz and overdrive is that any vibrato, even when flawed sounds better. Minor imperfections are covered up.
Vibrato by Genre
Just as different guitarists can have distinctive variations in vibrato so can musical genres.
the ‘twang’ is often electronic tremolo (and spring reverb) – or heavy on the whammy bar for that full sine curve
fuzz laden dramatic ‘pulls’ and whammy bar ‘dive bombs’
get a pedal steel and you can change pitch with the slide and the knee pedals for all sorts of bounce and sine curves
slower bounces to be more expressive
Famous Guitarist’s Vibrato
Vibrato is a huge part of my 'game'. With a couple of string-bends and four notes I've played whole solos!
One really good way to learn is to listen to guitar legends and dissect their vibrato technique. It worked for me.
Take a listen to old 'Slowhand' himself Eric Clapton. Eric Clapton - Layla (Live Aid 1985)
I learnt everything I know about vibrato from Paul Kossoff of the band Free. Just listen to his iconic solo on their hit 'Alright Now' - it's just vibrato and a couple of slides! Free - All Right Now (Doing Their Thing, 1970) Official Live Video
Of course, some instruments have no possibility of vibrato, such as pianos, though synthesizers have a pitch wheel that can produce many VC curves that stringed instruments cannot. Click on the curves below to hear some synth sounds...
Slow it down, get it under control.
Fuzz covers a multitude of vibrato sins.
Do not wrist wave - finger.
However you shape your vibrato - use sparingly, on the longer notes.