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Guitar Vibrato for Beginners

And maybe for non-beginners as well ...


by Chris Loeffler


Vibrato is a very important technique for guitar players to learn, as it has a big part in creating “their” sound as well as conveying emotion. Most players will pick it up without intentionally studying it, but players looking to define their sound tend to devote dedicated practice to develop theirs.


Vibrato is pitch modulation that animates the notes played, like a singer holding a note. There are three common techniques players use to achieve vibrato, although you can blend them for a hybrid-style of vibrato; standard, classical, and arm. There aren’t formal names for them, so we’ll go with those to describe and differentiate.


The standard vibrato used by the majority of guitarists employs the same technique as string bending - modulating the note by bending the string horizontally to the fretboard. However for vibrato, there's a cyclical bend/unbend cycle where the player doesn't remove his finger from the string. The rate at which this bending and unbending occurs determines the vibrato speed. The mechanics to this are almost entirely in the finger.


Classical vibrato involves pivoting your finger up and down on a held note, alternately toward the headstock and bridge, and uses the wrist to perform this action. Classical vibrato modulates the held note in a more subtle way than the standard vibrato technique, and is most common with nylon-stringed instruments and orchestra strings.


Whole arm vibrato is a technique where the entire arm modulates the string while the finger stays locked on the note. It is achieved by holding a note and pulling your arm back and forth. It too has distinct modulation qualities, most noticeably in that it has the least fluctuation in volume.


Like many things in life, you can apply the Goldilocks theory to vibrato. When vibrato is too fast it can be unpleasant and sound out of control. When vibrato is too narrow in range it makes the notes sound weak. Too little use of vibrato results in notes that decay too quickly and sound lifeless, but over-use can be fatiguing to listen to. Worst of all, inconsistent or out-of-tune vibrato can destroy a performance.  


Typically, the “ideal” vibrato approach for maximum expression is slow to moderate in speed and wide in range, but different situations may call for different amounts. These variances are exactly why vibrato is such an important and expressive part of playing, and practicing all three will make you a better player.


Bring on the good vibrations!


 ...  -HC-





Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer. 


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