The Importance of Vibrato

Posted: October 12, 2012 in Guitar playing

I was asked to write an article a while back and I chose the subject of vibrato. I’ve added a couple of YT vids at the end which further demonstrate my approach which weren’t in the original article. I hope you find some of it useful !

Friedman has it. Malmsteen has it. Satriani has it. In fact, any famous guitar player you can name should have it.
What is it that I’m referring to ? A great vibrato. A great vibrato is a crucial ingredient that any guitar player cannot afford to overlook. It separates the good from the great and is like a stamp or mark that says ‘I take my guitar playing seriously, I made the effort to dig deep.’

Why is this ? I can only offer you my view on it but please explore this for yourselves. Technique is technique. Alternate picking, legato, sweep picking, tapping etc. Our fingers move across the fretboard to get to where they need to be. We will collect technique and hone technique throughout our guitar journey and ultimately we will all develop our own unique way of navigating over the neck. However we do it, we’re all ultimately using a combination of available techniques that are universal to most guitar players.

Vibrato is a different matter, though, because we’re all given the same medium for the technique (our fingers) but we are able to craft out a personal aspect that says ‘This is me’. In other words, we’re given almost the same ingredients but we still have to make something different to the next guy, or girl. This is where our we have a chance to shine and choose how expressive we can, or want to, be. Do you want to be able to choose a different level of emotion or intensity when you want to, or will you make do with an automatic, knee jerk style vibrato that’s the same every time you do it ?

That leads me to my first area of focus – ‘knee jerk vibrato’. A ‘knee jerk reaction’ is what we call anything that is an automatic flinch response to something. We do it without thinking. In my opinion, a lot of players use vibrato like this. For example, it might always be fast and buzzy, like an angry bee. Perhaps not the best approach for a slow ballad which requires restraint. So, the first step in acknowledging that we should perhaps do something about our vibrato is just that; acknowledging it. Think. Practise playing an improvised solo (or even a rehearsed one) and every time you’re about to do some vibrato, make a conscious desicion to try and do it differently than you would normally do it. Remind yourself that you do have a choice.

In order to get to this point we should be practising our vibrato right ? Well, yes. In order to be able to have a varied range of expression we should do our homework so that when the time comes, we’ve got it ready to pull out of the bag. Another issue I see quite a lot is players doing vibrato but somehow it sounds out of tune. How does that happen ? That leads me to my next area of focus.

Vibrato can be treated like a series of string bends. After all, vibrato is just an oscillating, undulating movement of the pitch. A wobbly effect. A string bend is also an altering of the pitch. Vibrato is just alterations of the pitch strung together. If we use the same approach as string bending when we practice vibrato then we can train ourselves to have more control over this technique. Pick an interval like a semitone or a whole tone and bend it to the desired pitch then release it back to the starting pitch. Try it again. Then try putting 2 together. Then 3 and so on. The key is that we keep returning the note back to its original pitch in between oscillations. However, what sometimes happens is players start the vibrato (bending the note out) and they don’t quite return it back to the starting pitch and they perform vibrato with the string bent a micro tone out of key. So, by treating vibrato like a series of string bends we can slightly demystify this technique and break it down to bare bones so anybody can create the awesome type of vibrato that they deserve to have. It won’t come easy, but it will come !

I haven’t even touched upon classical vibrato, which uses a side to side motion and is used much less than ‘regular’ vibrato, but some things you’re going to have to go out and get ! It’s all there for you, when you’ve got the time to slow things down and remember that it’s the expression of a player – the small things like vibrato and string bending, that can truly make you a great guitarist.



Lead with the fretting hand.

What the hell does that mean ?

It’s something I discovered naturally once when trying to take my mind away from my picking hand by focusing all my attention and energy onto the fretting hand.

Rest your picking hand against the strings and now forget about it.

Look at your fretting hand. Imagine that your fingers are somehow connected to your picking hand so any time one of your fingers move, it automatically moves your picking hand. Maybe imagine that there’s an electronic impulse that connects each finger with your hand or even a series of pulleys that pull the picking hand along when the fingers move.

Whatever way you choose to visualise it with, the key is to get the idea that the fretting hand fingers initiate all movement. Most of us look at the picking hand as the hand that drives things along, right ? Well, now the fretting hand is the one that drives and the picking hand is getting pulled along for the ride. So imagine that the pick does not move at all unless the fingers move it. Weird, I know.. but stick with it. 🙂

I recommend to let the pick rest ‘on the string’ ready. Try it on one string only at first and use something like a repeating 3 note lick.

What it does for me (and many others who’ve tried it and reported it to me) is that by taking away the focus from the picking hand, you automatically reduce the tension and effort that you put into it. I’m not saying it will all disappear totally and you’ll magically be able to shred like M.A.B. but you should notice a dramatic reduction in tension.

I liken it to shining a spotlight on somebody. With the spotlight on them they become self conscious and very aware of everything. Maybe uncomfortable and nervous. But you take that spotlight away and they can relax. All we’re doing here is taking away the spotlight from the picking hand and allowing it to perform its function without any pressure.

Now, reduction of tension is one thing but the other thing I noticed whilst ‘ leading with the left hand ‘ is that by concentrating intently on my finger movement my pick was able to follow anywhere on any string without having to think about it at all. That’s the kind of hand co-ordination relationship you want to build.

This approach really makes you realise how accurate your fretting hand is and highlights areas where your finger positioning and shifting could be improved. The way I see it, the fingers running over the fretboard is mapping out a pathway for your picking hand to follow. I call it  ‘ Drawing the map. ‘ If you draw the map correctly there’s more chance of the pick following accurately.

Draw the map and lead with the left hand.

Give it a go and let me know what you think !


As well as write & record in The Reckoning, I teach guitar at