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Basics of Vibrato Technique for Guitar Players REVISITED

I used magic cartoon gloves as training aids when first developing my vibrato techniques. But that's just not necessary, and today I'm gonna give ya some handy tips.

Note: Skip to the video at the bottom. Reading all this is not necessary unless you're a friggin' nerd.

Trem Unit: Trems allow you to shimmer full chords and open notes as well as single notes. Just go to YouTube and check out vids of SRV, Eric Johnson, Jeff Beck, Scott Henderson & Michael Landau. Or really put your freak on and check out Lori Lindstruth. Usually trem unit vibrato oscillates from center pitch to lower pitch, though not always. But learn to distinguish the sonic difference between this typical oscillation and a fretting hand vibrato technique-- as the fretting hand must ALWAYS oscillate pitch from center to sharp. In other words, a bent string goes sharp whereas a bridge rocked toward dive direction sends the pitch flat. But enough about trem, just watch those players I suggest.

Lateral Finger-Wrist Vibrato: This is my term for the classical vibrato associated with fretless instruments and classical nylon string guitar technique. Not so much the focus of this post, but this technique has to be the original and oldest vibrato approach there is. The sound is shimmery although cellists and violinists can get some wide crazy stuff going. This technique is easier to observe than other ones we're yet to explore. But again, go watch cello players and classical guitarists to see what you're hearing!

Slide Vibrato: Before getting into the fret grindin' stuff, we can't skip slide. Think about a slide in terms of a highly mobile fret or bridge capable of traveling anywhere along the full scale length. Also think of slide vibrato as an exagerrated lower friction version of the classical/lateral/fretless technique already described. Slide vibrato technique's unique sound is due to its oscillation from flat to sharp, back and forth across the center pitch point fret position. The pivot point being the thumb against the back of the neck. This effect is also possible with a floating trem. Good singers work that whole spectrum-- listen to the vibrato of Stevie Wonder and K.D. Lang.

Fret Grindin' Stuff...

First, let's touch on a key point-- perhaps the most important thing you gotta know. The string is like a spring, and its tension is a counter-force against your force of bending the string. Read that again.

Get that whether you're bending a string toward the ceiling or bending it toward the floor, to raise the pitch, you're applying force against the tension of the string. But returning to center home note need only be a RELEASE allowing the string's own counter-force to do part of the work. In other words, you DON'T push or pull the string back into home position. In the context of vibrato, unbending the note involves releasing it so that the tension of the string returns it.

I'm going into excruciating detail, because some teachers & writers simply describe vibrato as pushing the string back & forth which is not only vague and inaccurate-- it can also steer a player off the course of realizing that a tension & release is occurring and of ever learning to utilize that factor. Most guitarists discover this accidentally and many players NEVER get vibrato. I've watched players trying to "shake" a fretted note-- resulting in a shakey sounding note instead of vibrato. Sound familiar?

Applying force both ways makes it very difficult to maintain an oscillating equilibrium since you actually encounter resistance in one direction only. The string wants to return, so you hardly need to force it back to the home note. In fact, forcing it back only confuses your own motor skills into nullifying the vibrato in most cases. There's that shakey thing again. If you've ever jumped on a trampoline or a diving board you may have experienced what occurs when trying to jump against the rebound. It disrupts & nullifies the entire bounce cycle-- sometimes even knocks your a#@ into the grass. Getting smooth fluid vibrato is similar to jumping on a trampoline. Wider vibrato is like jumping higher. The forces are in equilibrium. SRV's Texas Flood is loaded with prime examples of great vibrato equilibrium.

Yeah, I'm beatin' this to death alright. But nobody else ever really explains the physics, so I'm feelin' kinda original-- not that I invented vibrato or the internet or pop tarts, but cuz I'm putting this into language.

Okay, so now let's talk about pivot points or fulcrum points-- and tennis balls. The vibrato travel range of bending a string across a fret surface by mechanical-human means involves pivot points. These pivot points are the elbow joint and the middle knuckle joint or "proximal inter-phalangeal joint" clearly indicated HERE. Muscles provide the tension & release, while one of these joints acts as the pivot point. Squeezing and releasing a tennis ball engages pivot points in the finger joints. Unsqueezing the ball involves simply releasing the tension, and the ball returns itself into shape.

In the context of pivot points there is technically NO SUCH THING as "Wrist Vibrato". Yes, I said that. Just make a fist, make your forearm rigid, then grabbing your fist with the opposite hand, try rotating that fist at the wrist joint. Doesn't rotate. Sure, GI Joe's does but not yours. The actual pivot rotation occurs at the elbow. Yes, the forearm has 2 bones which permit this articulation, but the rotation emanates from the elbow end of the forearm, and not from the wrist end. If I described this well enough to communicate correctly, you weren't able to twist your hand at the actual wrist joint. When you twist your wrist your entire forearm always turns too. Watch it.

Get yourself some coffee...

Squeeze Vibrato: Again my invented term. When quickly squeezing & releasing a tennis ball, the primary pivot point is at the middle knuckles. Yes, your base knuckles move too, but when you're really squeezing, the middle ones are the grip focus point-- especially around a guitar neck. Squeeze Vibrato is employed when pulling the low E & A strings downward since pushing them upward would ride them over the top edge of the fretboard. Vibrato on these northernmost, wound strings involves pull-down tension and release with the middle knuckle joint acting as pivot point.

Does everyone do it that way? Not necessarily everyone, but listen to Steve Morse's crazy wide but fast vibrato on the lower pitch notes. That's Squeeze Vibrato, just as if Steve were rapidly squeezing and releasing a tennis ball. You can't get that snappy & wild-- yet very controlled response using elbow vibrato at those strings closest to the top edge of the fretboard, especially considering the speed of Morse's runs. Elbow pivoting doesn't sound the same as Middle Knuckle Squeeze either. Observing Steve using this technique may require some slo-mo. But if you try doing this yourself you'll eventually know by the sound.

It's even possible to pull down with the shoulder as pivot point, while all other joints are rigid, but why would you wanna do that? -- other than to comment here that I might have missed something. Well, don't bother.

Important Note: Regardless of which vibrato technique used, rarely do you use only the fretting finger to apply all the force. In other words, it greatly helps to anchor that finger against the others for more stability. For example, when bending a note with the 3rd (ring) finger, the 1st and 2nd fingers should be fretting the lower positions on that string which the 3rd can brace against. Conversely, when the 1st finger note is oscillating there is also bracing against 2nd & 3rd fingers although obviously the latter fingers aren't touching the string.

Elbow Rotational Vibrato-- aka "Wrist Vibrato": This is the one that most guitar players struggle with from the very start. Why? Because this is the closest anatomical-ergonomic-geographic representation of vibrato we most commonly observe when facing the forward profile of another guitarist (I really just wrote all that). Unfortunately it's also deceptive, as the true mechanics occurring aren't usually what we think we're seeing. So we try to do what we saw, and get that shakey result once again.

The tension & release of this vibrato pivots on the forearm rotational aspects at the elbow. Just knowing this, can make it easier, however this is NOT typically the easiest one to develop either. When you "see" BB King, Albert King or even Michael Schenker wildly twisting that "wrist" back & forth, remember that the wrist ain't really turning! It's the elbow, not to mention some stabilization provided from the shoulder. Also important to know is that there is an alternating tension and release required at each of the knuckle joints and the wrist joint. Alternating rigidness with slackness must parallel the tension and release. In other words, if too many joints are loose during the tension phase of bending the string, the bending range will be offset & thus compromised by the slack motion range of those joints which should have been rigid at that moment. Likewise, if everything doesn't relax when the string should unbend, the string won't return smoothly. And that don't sound good.

Trampoline Break

More coffee? I shouldn't have to remind anyone about the myriad of simultaneous mechanics coordinated between mind and body at any given instant, but it's necessary to clear up some vibrato related misconceptions and difficulties. Playing guitar involves a lot of things, and it's even tougher trying to get from point A to B via Q. I'm trying to remove some of the via aspects created by false & inadaquate explanations.

Elbow Hinge Vibrato: BTW, these elbow vibratos are the ones you'll use on D,G,B & hi-E strings when bending upwards (towards the ceiling). In a way, I've saved the best for last here. When everything is well coordinated, this is the probably the most effective, powerful, wide and expressive vibrato option you'll have, particularly on the strings just mentioned, especially when using 10's and higher gauge strings. Elbow Hinge Vibrato involves more of a straight up and down motion of forearm to fretboard and all points in between. It's more powerful because you have more strength at curling than you do twisting, PSI-wise. But again, the rapid, tension to release coordination of joints and muscles through wrist and knuckles to fingertips to strings is essential, otherwise the elbow's range and force is compromised by weak links en route to the fretboard.

I hope this helps anyone struggling or dissatisfied with vibrato technique. Also understand that you don't use just one of these techniques to the exclusion of the others. You should use them all according to which one is most appropriate for the string(s) you're on at that instant, and the degree or quality of vibrato effect you intend to produce. There's also a technique involving the nose which we'll save for a later article.

It's all about the tension and release exchange between your force and the string's tension as a returning force. Balance that out muscularly then add the loop of your listening, emotion and taste to fine tune the vibrato into your intended musical & emotional expression. That's the whole banana folks! So don't stay stiff and shake it in both directions! If you do that too much you may need to seek medical attention and immediately stop taking Viagra. But seriously, it probably also contributes to tendinitis or at the very least not being able to play as fluidly as you actually should.

Not trying to come off as a know-it-all, I've simply tried to observe and describe the mechanics of my own vibrato development. This includes observing others, whether beginners or legendary players. I've never read or viewed a clinic where vibrato technique was broken down like this. If I'd found one, I'd just provide a link or reference and tell ya to check it out. If I'd read this as a beginner, it might have taken years off of my development curve. Either that, or I wouldn't have understood a friggin' word! It's also probably true that a good demo video could demonstrate this entire post in 5 minutes, and do it better. Still, I hope some of this is useful & workable to someone.

Then there's always the magic cartoon gloves Doc!

sponsored by: Stratoblogster Labs

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