Improve your Electric Guitar Finger Vibrato Technique


In this guide, our focus is on vibrato, it is part 2 of a series that started with string bending.

We are going to approach vibrato similar to the way we approached bends from my previous guide starting with the hand position.

Vibrato is like doing several mini or micro bends in a row.

Also, you’re not playing whole steps or half steps. You’re just going bending a little sharp then coming back. It’s very important to come back to the original note. Some people, whether with bends or vibrato, will bend the note up but fail to bring it back to the original note, so their bends and vibratos are always a little sharp and out of tune. 

Ultimately, when it comes to vibrato, what’s most important is your style preference.

However, there are some technical aspects to go over as well. For example, using the thumb and fingers of your right hand to mute the strings you aren’t playing and eliminate unwanted noise.   

Using a simple melody line, practice playing clean, clear vibrato using all of the strings of the guitar. 

You also want to practice your vibrato using every finger of your fretting hand, especially the first three (index, middle, and ring).   

Particularly important when it comes to vibrato is to know how much you’re going to use and when you are going to use it.

As far as styles go, the first one we can look at is the classical vibrato, which is a subtle side-to-side motion on the fret. Rather than changing the pitch, it gives just a little sustain and life to the note — you’ll see this technique used by players like Steve Vai and Alan Holdsworth. 

Now onto the more aggressive vibrato, where we’re changing the actual pitch, plus varying the speed of the vibrato. With regards to pitch, the further distance you bend from the original note, the more aggressive it will sound.

When it comes to the vibrato speed, faster is more aggressive, but be careful — if it’s too fast, it’s not going to sound very good. 

Think about vibrato in terms of a human voice. If a singer is always using vibrato on their voice, it would sound a little weird — good singers generally start out on a flat note, then introduce the vibrato at the tail end.  

This gives a sense of calm and control. It makes the note more interesting and keeps it going longer before it dies out. You can try out different variations of vibrato on a melody line by starting with a flat note, then adding a slow, subtle vibrato at the end, or try a more aggressive half-step vibrato. 

Try different combinations of aggression and speed. Also, experiment with where and how quickly you introduce the vibrato to the phrase. 

Of course you should also listen to some of the masters of great vibrato like Jeff Beck, Dave Gilmour, Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Malmsteen, Vai, Steve Morse etc. So many great players you can listen to and check out their approach. They all have such unique, individual styles. 

Watch some videos of these players and just focus on their vibrato and when and where they use it.

A great song to check out is Steve Vai’s “For the Love of God.” How the song builds emotion with his use of vibrato is very natural.  

Vibrato can also reflect whether the player is in control or anxious — if the vibrato is super fast, it can sound like the player is tense or nervous. You want to relax. let it flow naturally and focus on control. If you approach it with confidence and control, you’ll play better and enjoy it much more. 

Another vibrato technique is to use the tremolo. This way, rather than bending the note sharp, you can start it flat and bring it back up. You have to make sure you let the bar come all the way back to the original point or else your note will be flat. 

Finally, when you play, try to be aware of the intensity, the pitch, the speed, and the acceleration of the acceleration of the vibrato, and do your best to control all of those aspects. I know I’m always going on about the fundamentals, but I feel it’s so important. Someone can be an extremely technical, fast player but if everything they play ends with a horrible vibrato it just doesn’t work. 

A guitar player who isn’t technical or fast, but has a beautiful vibrato — everyone wants to listen to them. 

Having good vibrato is the best way to give life to the notes you’re playing. 

Q&A from chat

On holding [muting] the rest of the strings. 

Yes. At least the strings that are closest to the one you’re playing. So if you’re playing the second string, you want to mute the third and the first strings. And we’re talking about playing rock and metal so you will probably use more aggressive vibrato techniques so muting strings becomes especially important, or else it ends up being nothing but noise.

 When you learn how to mute correctly, you can start to let some of that noise mix back into your playing — because the noise can be good too! You just have to know how and when to use it. 

How much of the vibrato is in the fingers — or is it 100% wrist?

For me it’s mostly the wrist — you can use the fingers, however there is more strength in the wrist. For longer, held out notes, the wrist will have much more endurance and strength. On the lower strings it’s a little different; you’re grabbing the strings rather than pushing, so the fingers handle that better than the wrist. 

If you’re on the third string, does your vibrato start up or down? 

That’s a good question … it doesn’t matter. It comes down to either what feels more comfortable or what the music calls for. If I’m using my first finger, I would start with the down motion simply because it’s easier for me — possibly because I’m left handed. Now if I’m using my third finger, it doesn’t matter. Either way feels okay for me. It’s whatever you are most comfortable with and whatever the next note is going to be and what string it’s going to be. 

Pinch Harmonics?

To be honest, I don’t know how to play them that well, because I’m not a big fan of using them. There was a time when everyone was using them and I just didn’t like them — I like the sound of the note or maybe something in between. 

Lack of vibrato in Jazz guitar.

You don’t hear a lot of vibrato in jazz guitar because of the strings and style, they have other ways to express or mimic vibrato. It’s just different — jazz guitarists spend a lot of time exploring harmonic possibilities with intervals and interesting arrangements. But if you want to play jazz and add vibrato to your phrases you totally can. There’s a lot of players doing that. 

On the Floyd Rose

With the bar it makes the vibratos sound different, mainly because you’re going flat and then back to the original note rather than going sharp and back. You can mimic the vibrato of the hand with the bar, but that’s not the idea with a Floyd Rose. 

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