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Why Is Guitar Vibrato So Important?

Elvis Elvis

Why is guitar vibrato, or the intentional oscillation of a fretted note, important?

Because it shakes up your sound, can make your notes sustain longer, and generally has a huge positive impact on your sound. A player with a great vibrato gets tons of style points, even if they aren’t the fastest or best overall.

There are several ways to vibrato-ize, but they all have this in common: they make your music more “alive” and keep your audience from wishing they were standing in line at a government office instead of listening to you play.

The good news? It’s really a simple technique to understand, even if perfecting it takes a bit more practice.

The Types of Guitar Vibrato

Again, there are several different types of guitar vibrato, each with their own effect on your sound. In order to round out your repertoire, you should become familiar with and practice each type.

I’ve stuck to the traditional list of “types” accepted by most guitar players for the purposes of this page.

A quick rundown of those types:

Rock Guitar Vibrato

Though most stringed instruments can be played with some sort of vibrato, the rock vibrato is the most common on guitar.

It’s also one of the widest and potentially over the top vibratos, so it’s a good fit for most electric guitar styles.

Here’s how to do this one: pull the string down toward the floor a little ways and then let it go back to its ‘home’ position. Repeat. In this way it’s a lot like a bunch of regular bends strung really close together.

How you do this pulling is up to you. You can fret the note with a finger of your choice, lock your wrist in place and move your forearm up and down.

You can also fret that note and twist your wrist in a sort of turning motion, like you’re repeatedly turning a doorknob that won’t budge.

Why Is Guitar Vibrato So Important?

Or you can do a “come here” motion with just your finger.

You have a lot of options and they all have their place. The important thing is that you’re stretching that string out a little bit; you should hear it oscillating as you vibrate it.

Tips

  • Experiment with different speeds; from slow to fast, each has its place, but they don’t all sound good in every situation.
  • On the high E string, pulling toward the floor will typically make you pull the string off the edge of the fretboard; Unless that’s what you’re going for you should push toward the ceiling or try a different type of vibrato.
  • This vibrato works by sharpening a note; You won’t achieve tonal balance with this but it fits the rock sound extremely well.


Classical Guitar Vibrato

To be understood more as “vibrato in the classical style” than as “vibrato for classical guitars”.

This type is very common with stringed instruments in general. If you’ve ever watched a violinist perform vibrato you have seen this technique. You may have noticed that they approach it a bit differently than do rock guitarists. Rather than a floor-to-ceiling motion, it tends to be a left-to-right motion.

This also works on guitar. The idea is basically the same as on violin. Pick a finger, pick a fret, “lock” your finger in place in the middle of that fret, and without bending the string up or down, pivot your hand left-to-right over your locked-in finger.

As you alternate the note will go slightly flat then slightly sharp because by tugging left to right you are effectively slackening then tightening the string; still, the overall effect will be tonally balanced.

This is the strength of the classical vibrato; in situations where you don’t want the “sharpness” of the rock vibrato because it’s too out of tune or whatever the case may be, the classical allows you to add that vibrato flavor and still stay balanced.

This is good in situations where restraint is in order, but it does have the downfall of being much less range-y than a rock vibrato. Without applying tons of pressure and permanently embedding fret-and-string-marks in your fingertips, it’s very difficult to get a range of much more than one fret sharp or flat with this technique.

Whammy/Tremolo Guitar Vibrato

I’ve saved the most extreme for last. The whammy (or tremolo)bar works by raising and lowering tension on your guitar strings from the bridge of the guitar.

Depending on the tremolo system in place on your guitar, you may be able to do these with no ill effects or you may throw your guitar wildly out of tune every time you do much of this. Having locking tuners and a good tremolo system are wonderful assets here.

Most tremolo systems go primarily one way: down. Vibrato with these systems will consist primarily of mini dive-bombs. Slightly flat, then back to normal, and repeat.

Guitars with floating-bridge tremolo systems, on the other hand, can slacken the strings and drop the pitch but they can also pull the strings and raise the pitch. This, like the classical vibrato, lends itself to a very even vibrato, but does require a good deal of precision to maintain the same range of pitches.

Tips

  • Make sure your bar is inserted firmly into the slot in the bridge. You don’t want any slack here; a tight fit ensures that the bar will react properly to your motions.
  • Be sure to practice the other types of vibrato more than this unless you exclusively play shred. Why? It won’t help you on acoustic guitar, and if your tremolo system is sub-par, you’ll throw yourself out of tune way too often, making the reward too low and the cost too high.

Don’t get stuck in a box with these, though. Experiment and make the guitar vibrato your own. Create a new type if you want to. How? However you want to. Pick a note and jump up and down on a trampoline if you like. The important part is to try something and see what happens. You may discover something great.

One of the best things you can do to improve your vibrato is to listen to players that do it well, and listen to lots of different ones.

For starters, try:

  • Marty Friedman
  • Jason Becker
  • Jeff Beck
  • Michael Lee Firkins
  • Yngwie Malmsteen
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan
  • etc…

Listen carefully for when they use vibrato, and just as importantly, when they don’t.

Best of luck!