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How to Play Vibrato on Guitar

Complete Guide to Vibrato on Guitar

One of the most useful and beautiful effects we have on the classical guitar is the vibrato. In fact, for many people, it’s the vibrato that originally attracted them to the classical guitar (whether they know it or not!)

Quite versatile, a fast vibrato can sound agitated, while a slower, wider vibrato can be sweet, seductive, or sad.

Vibrato can lengthen the sustain of a note (make it ring longer) and even create the illusion of longer sustain than is actually possible on the guitar.

The vibrato adds depth and personality to a note. It can help to demonstrate the psychological character of a line of music.

Perhaps we connect so emotionally with vibrato notes because the vibrato is “vocal” in nature. It imitates the human voice. If we want “singing melodies”, the vibrato helps us get there.

What is Guitar Vibrato?

So what exactly is the vibrato, and how do you execute it on the guitar?

Technically speaking, a vibrato is an effect where you shorten and lengthen the string with a left hand finger. This results in the pitch undulating up and down.

The 3 Main Vibrato Techniques

There are a few different ways to acheive vibrato on the guitar. Each way is valid and can be the right choice for a specific situation.

Some of these work better on the classical guitar than others. And some are more versatile than others. It’s most ideal to be able to do them all well. That way you can make an educated choice for the musical moment.

The Radius/Ulna Vibrato

The radius and ulna are the bones of the forearm. If you do the “hang loose” gesture, or turn a doorknob or lightbulb, you can witness the radius and ulna in motion. Do this back and forth now to familiarize yourself with the action.

There are a few benefits to this method, and it’s my personal go-to when possible.

It is generally more subtle than other vibrato methods, but it allows more freedom in the joints and wrist, which is useful when things are moving quickly or there are strenous sections in the piece of music.

It is also my favorite to use when applying vibrato to chords. Because the fingers are free to move individually, you can make your chords lusher without adding excess tension.

This is perhaps the more complex vibrato to learn, but practicing this one improves your touch and technique on the guitar (beyond just vibrato).

The Push-Pull Vibrato

This is perhaps the most common method for classical guitarists. Here, you push the string toward the fret, then pull it back away from the fret.

Generally speaking, when you use this vibrato, you fret a note with the left hand, then brace the finger and wrist while the shoulders rotates or the bicep and pectorals (big arm and chest muscles) move the hand back and forth.

This method can create a wider vibrato (more “warbly”), and is much more present a sound than the radius/ulna vibrato.

The biggest downside to this vibrato is that it is very easy to use too much tension and “lock” the hand, arm, shoulder and chest.

Note: You can also combine the radius/ulna movement with the push-pull movement to maintain freedom in the joints and big muscles (arm and chest), while producing a more powerful vibrato. In a perfect world, you practice the radius ulna movement, and as time goes on, you increase the pressure.

The Rocker Vibrato

This is the most common vibrato for electric and steel-string guitarists.

Here, instead of keeping the string parallel with the other strings, as in the two above, you move the string laterally, toward the neighboring strings. The high tension on the electric and steel guitar strings allows for some major pitch bending using this method.

On the classical guitar, it just isn’t practical most of the time. The demands of the music (all the notes) often makes this vibrato inefficient for the moment.

However, it works very well and is usually the best choice for low bass notes on the classical guitar.

Other Vibrato Techniques

There are a couple of other vibrato methods for the guitar. These used rarely (or in the case of the Neck-bend, never!) on the classic guitar. But we may as well include them here.

Behind the Nut

For the open strings, we can add a vibrato by pushing the string down and releasing behind the nut.

This works much better for the strings with tuners that are further away from the nut (more string above the nut). In other words, the outside “E” strings are not as present as the interior strings.

This method is not great, but if you really need an open string to have a little vibrato, it’s the tool you have available.

The Neck Bend

Note: Never do this on a classical guitar. I won’t be held responsible for your demolished instrument!

That said, the neck bend is commonly used on electric and steel-string acoustic guitars, especially in the country genre.

Here, you can use one of two methods. One bends the pitch down, the other up.

To bend the pitch up, you brace the body of the guitar against your body. Then, you simultaneously pull the neck back with your left arm, while squeezing with your right elbow/forearm.

This acts to tighten the strings by pulling them. If you took this to extremes, you could break the guitar in half over your chest and stomach.

To bend the pitch down, you use the right hand to push the guitar top near where the neck meets the body. The left arm then pushes out on the neck.

This loosens the strings, creating the bending pitches. Many a guitar has gotten a broken neck using this technique! Nonetheless, pretty cool.

Again, this is not suitable for classical guitars. Classical guitars are built and braced differently, and have less tension on them. Procede with caution.

Increasing the Range of Your Vibrato

Using the push-pull method from above, there’s a way we can get a wider vibrato if we need it. This really only works with single notes, not chords (unless you have extra fingers).

Instead of just using the one left hand finger to depress a string, we put the adjacent finger just behind it.

This provides more grip and with the same amount of push and pull bend the pitch more widely (loosens and tightens the string more).

Want even more? Three fingers creates an even wider vibrato.

Going for psychedelic haunted house vibrato? You got it: Four Fingers!

Where and When to Use Vibrato (or not)

A mild vibrato sounds good on most sustained notes. As long as you let your good taste prevail, it’s usually worth the effort.

That said, it’s important to remember that vibrato is an “ornament”. And like other ornaments (trills, gracenotes, etc) there are a few rules.

The basic rules for ornaments that apply to vibrato are:
1. The ornament cannot mess with the rhythm of the main notes. (in other words, don’t drag the rhythm because you are going for a sweet vibrato.)  Many players affect the rhythm on high notes no accentuate the vibrato on a note (sadly, Segovia did this often).  If the only reason you are slowing down is because you like the way the vibrato sounds, you’re putting the cart before the horse.  A pretty note is not worth defiling the rhythmic structure.
2. The ornament serves to further demonstrate the psychological character of the line. (In other words, make the vibrato appropriate to what you are playing, so that it adds and not distracts from the line.)

Good Vibes

With all these options of vibratos to choose from, I’m sure you’ll be warbling all over the place!

What’s your favorite or go-to vibrato?  Let us know in the comments!

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2 Responses to Complete Guide to Vibrato on Guitar

  1. Eric September 24, 2015 at 2:50 pm #

    Is there a way to indicate that you should play vibrato in the musical notation, or is it just something you add when you feel like it?

    • Allen September 25, 2015 at 8:02 am #

      Hi Eric,
      Great question! Sometimes a composer will call for it specifically, but a large majority of the time, you just add where you think it adds something and makes it sound better. Typically on long notes, it gives some ongoing interest. And on melody notes that have to last longer than they are really audible, you can speed up the vibrato as the note dies and it will seem to stay loud longer (because it draws attention). Ultimately, it’s on the performer to use it with taste and style. Listening to top classical vocalists can help you determine how to use it. It’s different for different situations. But in general, if it’s too fast out of the gate, it sounds frenetic. Generally singers will start slower and speed up slightly. You can also observe how varied a singer’s vibrato is (how much pitch bend). This will change by situation as well.
      I hope that gets you started.

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