Vibrato for the Lead Guitarist

INTRODUCTION

In my opinion, a fully developed vibrato is probably the single most important technique to have for any aspiring lead guitar player.

Why? Because having a developed vibrato technique allows you to exploit the almost unlimited expressive possibilities of an electric guitar. With the assistance of sustain and amplification, a lead guitarist with developed vibrato can really express him or herself and make a true emotional connection with the listener.

A COMMON PROBLEM WITH BEGINNERS

A lot of beginning lead guitar players have the impression that vibrato is basically a note that’s bent and released very rapidly, as demonstrated in the video above.

The problem with this approach is that it’s difficult to control the width/pitch of the vibrato and its speed. Being able to control your vibrato’s speed and width/pitch is extremely important. Songs with different tempos will require you to vary your vibrato’s speed. Songs with different moods will require you to vary the width of your vibrato. For example, a wide vibrato sounds more dramatic and would be appropriate in a song that requires a lot of drama in your lead playing.

VARIATION 1: BASIC VIBRATO TECHNIQUE

I developed my vibrato by listening to and watching videos of many 1960s and 1970s rock guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Paul Kossoff (of Free), Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix. All of these guitarists were blues-based, so having a fully-developed vibrato was an essential element to their playing.

I noticed one common technique among these players – they all employed their wrist (rather than their fingers) in executing their vibrato technique. In the video above, I describe how I execute vibrato from the wrist, following in the footsteps of my “teachers”.

VARIATION 2: “FLUTTERING” VIBRATO

Building upon the technique I described above, you can also use a rapid “fluttering” vibrato in your lead playing. Instead of pushing up on the string, you pull down on the string towards the floor. I learned this from listening to and watching players like B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. However, this technique is probably most associated with B.B.

VARIATION 3: SUBTLE VIBRATO

Finally, you can move you finger up and down the length of a string while pushing down on the fingerboard to create a subtle vibrato effect, as demonstrated in the video above. I got this technique from listening to and watching Allan Holdsworth, who rarely (if ever) bent strings but rather, used the technique described.

It’s easier to execute this technique if you have larger frets on your guitar (or a scalloped fretboard, à la Yngwie). However, you need to be careful with your intonation when doing this type of vibrato because you can easily play out of tune.

SUGGESTED LISTENING

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Here are some songs and solos that I learned “note for note” that were very helpful in the development of my vibrato technique.

Eric Clapton – While My Guitar Gently Weeps (the Beatles)

This is one of my all-time favourite guitar solos because although he’s not playing too many notes, Eric makes you feel it with the few notes that he’s playing due to his astounding vibrato. If you can play this solo like the recording, you’ve essentially mastered vibrato!

Jimmy Page – I Can’t Quit You Babe (Live at Albert Hall 1970)

A lot of people knock Jimmy Page because of his “sloppy” playing. And maybe they’re right. But you cannot deny that this man has a wicked vibrato, as demonstrated in this live version of “I Can’t Quit You Babe” from Albert Hall. This recording was originally on the Coda album that came out in 1982.

Paul Kossoff (Free) – Crossroads

The great Paul Kossoff of Free had a great fiery playing style with a fast intense vibrato. This is amply demonstrated in Free’s live version of Crossroads. I think this version is just as good as Cream’s version.

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