Most musicians begin their journey due to some figure of inspiration. Elton John has probably kick-started many piano lessons, John Coltrane has no doubt been responsible for thousands of newbies to take up a saxophone, and John Bonham undoubtedly incited more rookie tub-thumpers than any other drummer in history (possibly excluding Buddy Rich...)
As for guitarists, the list of muses is probably impossible to list in a book, let alone a blog article. But for me, it was the other-worldly sounds of Pink Floyd, and particularly the stunning blues-rooted guitar playing of Dave Gilmour that truly motivated my 6-string journey. Those amazing riffs, effortless broken chords, and particularly the crystal-clear solo work in 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond'...
As my skills grew over time, the goal of attempting to replicate Gilmour's playing in that legendary tune started to seem more and more realistic. I remember the first time I sat down with the TAB, diligently working my way through that glorious intro section on my Stratocaster bar-by-bar, note-by-note. But something seemed wrong...
I KNEW my notes were correct. I was CERTAIN I had the bends down perfectly. But even though I was using the same make and model of guitar as my hero, the sound coming from my amplifier was depressingly flat and emotionless - no zing whatsoever. I had the hot dog, but where was the mustard?
My problem was identified by a guitarist friend (also a huge Floyd fan, and with much more experience than me) who was good enough to hear my complaints and then sit through one of my attempts at the intro. When I'd finished, he grinned, took my guitar from me, and announced that it was his turn "but this time with a bit of shimmer!" Two minutes later I was left stunned - the same solo, but sounding worlds apart from anything I'd managed! This was my introduction to the magic of Vibrato.
What is Vibrato?
The musical effect of vibrato (literally taken from the Italian 'to vibrate') very simply means a rapid, constant, pulsating change of pitch. You can clearly hear opera singers using it on most longer notes, which explains why applying the technique to guitar gives the sound a 'singing' quality. Vibrato adds expression, warmth, sustain, and all-round character to melodies - something that was crucially lacking from my own playing, but which my friend had added in bucketloads to his brief Floyd recital. I was hooked, and determined to figure this technique out myself...
How does it work on guitar?
Very simply by fretting a note on your guitar neck, then gently shaking or vibrating your hand at the wrist. This will cause rapid minuscule bends of the string, creating the tonal 'shimmer' that you're after.
Many different varieties of vibrato technique are usually banded about by guitar players - 'classical', 'traditional', 'blues', 'standard', the list goes on. But in reality, there are two main physical approaches to practise this method...
So-called due to it being the 'standard' technique for classical guitarist on nylon-stringed instruments, and the first method I experimented with. Your fretting hand should be positioned parallel with the axis of the guitar neck, so that hand movement basically occurs in line with the string. This causes a rise/fall in tension, creating a very subtle vibrato effect.
This is the more common method for just about all popular music styles, and I found it certainly more effective with the heavier metal strings on electric guitars. Your fretting hand should be angled more parallel to the radius of the guitar neck (and subsequently the frets), which means that vibrato hand movement causes rapid minuscule string bends. Much less subtle than the classic method, but then you're likely to be employing this technique whilst playing much less subtle music!
Both of these techniques take some getting used to, particularly for beginners, but they're definitely worth the practice. Here's a few things I found whilst working on my own vibrato sound...
- The main rule; it's all in the hand/wrist movement! And this goes for both approaches mentioned above. Yes, there are guitarists that can carry off effective vibrato by just moving their fingers, but I'm certainly not one of them. Yet.
- The ability to play vibrato with any finger on your fretting hand is your ultimate goal, but start your experiments with fingers 1-3 - they're the strongest. I'm only just getting to grips with using my pinky in this way, but it’s allowing me to expand my use of vibrato over longer sections of guitar solos.
- Take extra care with using Radial/Traditional Vibrato on either of the E strings (1 and 6) - their proximity to the edge of your guitar neck means it's all too easy to accidentally bend the string over the side of the fretboard, which is the last thing you want to happen!
- Once you've nailed this technique, use it sparingly. I tried running through “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” with shimmer on every note, and it sounded worse than when played with no vibrato at all. Less is definitely more...
One more thing...
There is another method for getting vibrato out of a guitar that you may not have considered - and its one that I missed completely at first. Many electric guitars (including ALL Stratocasters) are fitted with a Tremolo arm, aka Whammy bar, designed to rapidly slacken or tighten the strings quickly and easily to change the pitch. This guitar component actually has a very misleading name, since the 'tremolo' musical effect actually involves a rapid change in volume rather than pitch.
Nonetheless, it is technically possible to use the whammy bar for the purposes of vibrato playing. But if you're gonna try this then my advice is to go seriously easy - the bar is designed for much more extreme changes in pitch than you'd normally aim for when playing vibrato, and a delicate touch is definitely needed. I experimented with picking normal runs whilst gently resting my right hand against the bar itself, but even this caused note bending beyond any acceptable limit. Maybe I'm not quite as delicate as I think..
Wrapping it up
As a new technique to try out, I can’t recommend vibrato enough to any guitarist – whether you’re playing electric or acoustic, nylon or steel-string, rock or jazz. There’s a use for this effect in just about every genre of music played on the guitar. Don’t be satisfied with just the hot dog – be sure to add some mustard! Until next time...