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Joe Gore's The Subversive Guitarist: Mindful Vibrato

Shake it like you mean it.

Liberation from muscle-memory habits is a major goal of this column. And is any aspect of guitar playing more susceptible to mindless auto-pilot than vibrato?

This lesson will help you truly listen to your vibrato. You’ll get better at applying the effect mindfully to heighten your musical ideas, as opposed to automatically wiggling your fretting hand whenever you reach a sustained note. We’ll look at vibrato technique in general, and then try some exercises designed to help you deploy various approaches with greater awareness.

But first, the easy part: a listening party!

Do You Shake It Like Ethel?
Let’s listen critically to a variety of vibrato styles, none of which feature guitar. We’ll start with some over-the-top pitch-wobbling.

Ethel Merman was a popular mid-20th-century Broadway performer. I wish I could say I was the first person to realize that most hair-metal and shred guitarists duplicate her vibrato, but it was ace shredder Paul Gilbert who pointed it out. Here’s Merman’s signature song, Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

Almost all of her sustained notes receive three deep pulsations per beat with little variation. (Or six times per beat at slower tempos.) Love it or hate it, this is not a thoughtful or selective application of vibrato.

You Can Shake When You’re Old
Let’s go to the opposite extreme. Trumpeter/bandleader Miles Davis was known for using little vibrato. In his autobiography, Davis credited an early trumpet teacher. “You can shake when you’re old,” he’d tell young Miles. Check out Davis’s version of the Rogers and Hart standard “It Never Entered My Mind.”

Even on this pretty, romantic ballad, Davis rarely modulates his pitch. But when he does, it makes a statement.

There’s an important lesson here: We often vibrate notes because it feels like we should be doing something. But a plain sustained note can be as engaging as a vibrating note. That’s especially true on guitar, because the harmonic content of a sustained note changes over time. You don’t need to wiggle your fretting hand to generate interest.

Shake for Me (Pun Intended)
It’s weird how many guitarists apply auto-pilot Ethel vibrato to their blues playing. Sure, the great blues originals sometimes used exactly such vibrato, but rarely in a sustained way. Check out Hubert Sumlin’s solo on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Shake for Me.” (The solo starts at 00:53, but the playing is phenomenal throughout.)

Eff me! The sheer range of articulation! No two notes are played the same way. There are only a few instances of strong vibrato, but man, do they have an impact.

Give the Singers Some
Now let’s listen to some great vocal vibrato. David Bowie’s “Sweet Thing” captured the singer at the peak of his vocal powers. His articulation range is as phenomenal as his pitch range. The dynamics range from a feeble croak to a heroic, quasi-operatic tenor. The vibrato isn’t subtle, but it’s selective. When it appears, it knocks you flat.

All the great jazz and R&B singers have masterful vibrato. Nina Simone’s vibrato was especially magnificent, a rare mix of technical perfection and naked emotion. Here’s one of her early hits, “Little Girl Blue.” Listen through once for the vibrato. Then, after wiping the tears from your eyes, listen again for long notes that have no vibrato. (And she’s playing that gorgeous piano arrangement at the same time!)

Classically Speaking
Let’s conclude our listening party with Yo-Yo Ma playing “The Swan” from Camille Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals. Here he applies vibrato almost constantly (watch his left hand!) but the effect never gets tiresome. Man, the way he occupies every single note!

Classical composers generally don’t give note-for-note vibrato instruction in their scores, though there might be a general indication like molto vibrato and non vibrare, which translate roughly from Italian as “shake it, baby” and “give it a rest, Mr. Jiggles.” Check out other renditions of this piece on YouTube to hear how differently each cellist employs vibrato, even though they’re all playing note-for-note from the same score.

Now take a break and play guitar for a bit, using your usual vibrato technique. Chances are you’ll apply it more mindfully just by having focused on other musicians’ vibrato for a few minutes. When you return, we’ll try some deceptively simple vibrato exercises.

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!