** As featured in issue 30 **
A wise man once wrote; “Putting vibrato on every note, is like putting ketchup on all food” Ketchup is great on certain things, but request it at your local Michelin starred restaurant and you may be faced with a look of surprise to say the least! Much the same with vibrato, it can be and should be one of the most beautiful and expressive guitar techniques available to us, but poor/constant use can sound like a strangled goat and really start to grate on you. Vibrato is a strange thing for us guitarists, unlike any other technique we tend to just do it automatically, without thinking about it. You wouldn’t tap/sweep pick/alternate pick etc. everything so why put vibrato at the end of every note? I get students who fall under the overzealous use of said guitar technique to play a simple scale run but on the last note they can't add any vibrato. I can see the physical effort on their faces as they force themselves NOT to add anything to the note, as it’s so built into their muscle memory.
If we consider certain styles of music such as traditional Jazz, you only need to listen to some famous Jazz guitarists to hear that vibrato wasn’t a big part of their technique, in fact it’s one of the big things that can instantly give a Rock player away trying to play Jazz, they could have the best Jazz lick under their fingers but end it with big old vibrato and - busted! It works the other way round too, a ferocious Metal line won't have the same impact if there isn’t an obscene amount of warble at the end of it, it's all a matter of context. Another thing to consider is the quality and expression of your vibrato. I'm quite confident that I could recognise a fair few guitarists just from hearing their vibrato. BB King for example has very fast shallow vibrato, whereas Yngwie Malmsteen has ridiculously wide and slow vibrato, neither has more merit than the other, but both are totally unique and add to the character, sound and style of a player. Once again context applies. Over the top vibrato won't work over a delicate blues, and fast understated vibrato won't cut it over neo-classical shred: you should be able to manipulate and alter your vibrato to suit the musical situation. It's one of the things that was pointed out to me many moons ago by my teacher at the time, and really made me think about my vibrato and how I use it. I have to say that it has been one of the biggest things that has changed and shaped my playing over the years, just from thinking about it, I didn’t really have to do loads of practice because I could already do it!
I included string bending in this lesson too as in my experience it also falls under the “Can do it, but don’t really think about it” category. String bends take a long time to master. They are a physically hard thing to do, and can actually be painful. People spend so much time working on the physical movement that they forget to then work on the musical aspect of the technique. I often see/hear players just throwing in random bends without any consideration for pitch, length, adding or not adding vibrato to it. Bending to pitch is the biggest culprit. Players spend hours working on scales, modes and arpeggios in order to avoid playing a “wrong” note, but all that effort can be instantly lost with one ill thought-out string bend. You are, after all, bending to the next note in the scale, it’s just a cooler way to get there. You should practice bending to pitch, half and whole step bends need to be built into your muscle memory for each string (they all require different amounts of force due to their tensions) anywhere on the fretboard. Record yourself and ask if that bend was to pitch.
Vibrato also plays a big part in bending. There is a time and place for adding vibrato to a bend, but you also need to just be able to get to that pitch straight away without any vocal type acrobats on the way! Using Yngwie as an example again, listen to him play a blistering single string run all the way up to the 22nd fret, and then bang a tone bend up to the 24th pitch perfect every time and with vibrato to die for, that takes practice and a good set of ears!
For me, the guitar playing that makes the hairs stand up on my arms are the “perfect note” moments, where you think, 'man nothing better could suit this': and that could be a bent note, a long sustained note, or emotive vibrato. They all have their place, but the execution must be correct, or hairs standing up on arms can quickly change to fingers down a chalk board!
On the video I demonstrate ways of practising and applying vibrato and bending, check it out and try applying it to your own playing.