Guitar vibrato mimics the vibrato of a singer’s voice and their ability to slightly vary the pitch of a note. It’s an expressive technique that separates experienced guitar players from those with less skill. Vibrato makes you sound great assuming you can actually do it correctly. It takes time to master the technique and I explain it so that you can master it.
Guitar vibrato is one of the two guitar techniques that involve a single note. It is a technique that is best described by the keywords “fluttering” or “wavering”. It tends to be at most 1/4 note bend but it tends to be less than that.
Vibrato is a subtle technique best described by the keywords “fluttering” or “wavering”. It tends to mimic a 1/4 note bend at most, but true vibrato is less than that.
There are 3 aspects to vibrato:
1. The technique itself – the “how-to” of vibrato
2. Speed of the vibrato
3. Width of the vibrato
Let’s look at the actual technique first.
The vibrato guitar technique
There are basically two techniques: full arm and wrist.
The full arm technique involves pulling and pushing the string along the neck to alter the pitch of the note. This is the method used by classical guitarists but it is also used by musicians such as Eric Clapton.
This article focuses on the wrist-based guitar vibrato which is actually a slight repetitive string bend. You play about a 1/4-note bend or so, over and over again with the wrist method.
The classical or full-arm vibrato requires that you only have your fretting finger on the guitar while the arm moves back and forth to vary the pitch. What that does is pull and push the guitar string along the neck of the guitar.
On the other hand, the wrist vibrato uses the thumb on the back of the neck as a pivot point and you twist your wrist to push and pull the string up and down, similar to a string bend. I prefer the wrist method and I tend to have my thumb high up on the back of the neck or sometimes over the neck.
A variation of the wrist method is required for the high and low E strings. For those strings, you have to make sure not to pull or push the string off of the neck. You can only push the high E string up and then release it to its original position, then repeat. It’s the opposite for the low E, you can only pull the string down and then release it over and over.
Wrist method details
Remember to use the thumb on the neck as a pivot point for the wrist method of vibrato – anchor the thumb behind the neck, high or wrap your thumb around the neck (for a great anchor point). You have way better control that way. Then rotate the wrist & forearm to do a slight bend.
There are times I only use my finger which EVERYONE mentions as the wrong technique. I don’t know and I don’t care, because that method comes so naturally to me that I continue to do it. But you should know that it is considered the wrong way. I personally like to break the rules.
One final note. If the other strings ring out, use your picking hand to must the other strings.
Vibrato speed and width
There is definitely a difference in speed of vibrato, though some people also mention the width as a second characteristic.
Fast vs slow vibrato has a different feel to both of them. The speed of your vibrato can be either slow or fast with each one conveying a different mood or feel. You would play a fast vibrato during a climatic part of your solo and a slower vibrato over slower parts of your solo.
To understand better, try reversing that – play a fast vibrato in the middle of a slow lick, and then try a slow vibrato in the middle of a ripping solo. That switch doesn’t sound too good, does it? Match like with like.
Fast vibrato has a tension associated with it while slower vibrato has more of a melodic and resolution tendency. Play around with fast and slow to hear the difference for yourself.
Then there is the width of your vibrato which can vary from subtle to wide. It’s basically how much you are bending the note. I prefer a narrow subtle bending vibrato regardless of the speed.
When I want more than a 1/4-note bend, then I do a bend – don’t go nuts with a large bending vibrato. Either play like a caveman or play with subtlety and finesse.
Suggested vibrato exercises
I only use vibrato on the root, 3rd, or 5th of the chord that is playing, and I’m pretty sure that is the standard with other players. You can experiment, but I don’t think a vibrato on the b7 or 9 will sound good.
Here is a simple lick based around an A dominant 7th chord, maybe an A13. The lick below doesn’t sound exactly like I play it but it’s close (I’m still working on my rhythm in standard notation).
I put vibrato on the perfect 5th E and the root note A. You could also try it on the major 3rd C# – experiment.
It is my opinion that vibrato is the most important guitar technique. What it does is make you STOP – vibrato creates a pause in your solos.
It was always a big problem for me to break from position playing and stop playing. I would play too many notes of whatever scale I was using. But as soon as I started practicing vibrato, there would be a break in my licks and it sounded fantastic. This is a technique I practice every day.
Take a look at my Guitar Techniques article where I list 25 guitar techniques you should learn. I guarantee you there are some techniques in that list that you are unaware of or have forgotten about.