Varieties of Vibrato
Hi again. These are the five most common vibrato techniques (aside from mechanical vibrato, such as whammy bars and neck-bending).

  1. Moving a fingertip parallel to the frets in an up-and-down motion, gripping the neck with your palm and thumb. The motion comes from the finger.
  2. Like #1, but without the thumb or palm touching the neck, and moving from the elbow.
  3. Moving a fingertip parallel to the strings in a side-to-side motion, gripping the neck with your palm and thumb. This is closer to how a violinist or cello creates vibrato. (See the Yo-Yo Ma clip above.)
  4. Like #3, but without the thumb or palm touching the neck, and moving from the elbow.
  5. Pivoting your entire fretting hand as if you were turning a door knob. The motion comes from the elbow. B.B. King was known for this technique, and many blues players imitate him.

Video 1 is a quick demo of these techniques:

Listening back, the main difference I hear is … I suck at some of these techniques. (I tend to be a parallel-to-the-string guy.) Other than that, the sonic results are remarkably similar. No technique is innately superior, though it may be worth your while to practice the methods you’re least comfortable with, just to see what that inspires.

Selective Vibrato
Here’s an exercise to challenge muscle-memory vibrato: Play any scale or melody while adding vibrato to some notes and otherwise avoiding it completely. The concept couldn’t be simpler, but trust me—this isn’t easy. You may be shocked by how often your fretting hand starts wiggling, even when you will it not to.

Video 2 demonstrates three possible variations. First, I play a major scale with vibrato on every other note. Next, I play the same scale with the pattern reversed (with vibrato starting on the second note). In the third example, I vibrate every third scale note.

The actual notes don’t matter. Play anything, but go for black-and-white contrasts, with full vibrato on some notes and none whatsoever on others. For a real mental challenge, try applying vibrato to short notes while avoiding it on long notes.

Controlling the Rate
The previous exercise helps you control when to use vibrato. Now let’s try controlling the effect’s speed.

Vibrato is almost always in time with the music’s tempo, based on subdivisions of the beat. The most common subdivisions are 2, 3, 4, and 6 pulsations per beat. Do you want a fast, stinging vibrato, or a slow, sexy pulsation? (Answer: Both, silly.)

The exercises in Video 3 will improve your rate control. Using only four adjacent chromatic notes, I start by sustaining each note for four beats. I vibrate the first note twice per beat, for a total of eight pulsations. Next, it’s three times per beat (12 pulses), then four (16 pulses), and finally six (24 pulses). Then I descend, reversing the order (six times, four times, three times, two times). After that, I repeat the exercise, but only sustaining each note for one beat, so everything happens faster.

Make up your own variations, using whatever scales or melodies you like. The sole goal is heightening your vibrato awareness. After a practice session with these, you’ll be less likely to jiggle away on auto-pilot, and more likely to apply vibrato deliberately, expressively, and meaningfully.

Dear Reader
I welcome your thoughts on this lesson and the one from last month. Aside from a few small workshops, this is the first time I’ve shared this material, so I’m eager to hear what works for you and what doesn’t. Also, while I have a rough roadmap for the coming year, there’s some wiggle room, so feel free to suggest topics. I hope you find this useful!