Strength and Accuracy for the Guitarist


Your Weekly Dexterity and Stamina Exercise

Updated January 27, 2005


Don't Go Anywhere Else!

Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx


As a native New Yorker and an American, I am still angered by the cowardly attacks of 9/11. Unless we restore New York City's skyline to its condition prior to September 11th, 2001, the miserable scum who attacked us will have won! Visit and rebuild America!


Playing in the Box

and Feeling the Vibes

(That's Vibrato....)

Blues/Rock Improvisation


Wow, man! Dig the funky vibes. As I've previously stated, vibrato is the string player's method of mimicking that warble the fat opera chic uses to mask her poor intonation... No, I didn't write that, what I had said was that vibrato imitates the lilting warble of the human voice. I'm not a bog an of singers who use a vibrato that spans more than an octave, but I do like a big, fat vibrato a la Yngwie Malmsteen. That boy can make a note cry.

There are two different means of achieving that warbling vibrato. One is used by violinists and classical guitarists and one falls squarely into the realm of the electric and steel-string player. Frankly, I use both methods on classical and electric guitar. Each has its benefits and I am a sincere believer that all techniques can be used for the correct musical reasons. No one technique should be considered 'banned' from a particular style. Okay, I'm an iconoclast. Heck, I want to make music, not live up to someone else's dictums of propriety.

The Rock n' Roller's Vibrato

My favorite

The classical guitarist uses a simple(!) vibrato--simple until you try to do it right and get a decent result, that is--The string is not bent in the classical approach, though there are reasons why a bend is more appropriate, but we'll look into that in a moment. Right now, it's the blues/rock style of bend that is on deck.

Hey, let's be green. I've recycled this diagram from last week's session. It is accompanied by the recycled pictures of fingers. In this old diagram, the first finger covers the e and the a on the first and second strings -- the red and black dots. Red dot is the tonic, remember? The third finger covers the d on the third string. We bent the note up to the pitch one whole step above it last session. This time we will do the same bend. LISTEN carefully. Before trying to vibrato, make dead certain you have made that d an e by bending the string. D sharp and three quarters is not an E, so make sure you've gotten there. This is very important with bends as well as vibrato. You can't depend on the perfect tuning and intonation of your instrument, you must, like a violinist, violist or cellist, listen to the pitch you are producing.

Let's regurgitate the technique required to complete the plain and simple bend. The third finger is then used to dig slightly under that third string and push it up towards the sixth string so that the d fretted pitch is raised in pitch to an e, the same pitch as is being played on the b string with the first finger. It will look something like this when the bend is completed. (Note that the third finger and the third string are also pushing the fourth string up into the fifth string. This is gonna happen and is of no concern.) When I say 'dig under' the string, I mean that it will require you to practice to develop the knack of getting that string to bend up without slipping out from under your finger. The string should remain pressed to the fretboard. You're not trying to levitate it up off the board. Also note that my second finger has snuck around to help out. You read this all here before, so now on to the news.

Get Bent.

Grab hold of that note as described in the previous paragraph. Make sure you've hit the right pitch with your bend by playing the e on the fifth fret of the second string and comparing the two notes. Once you've got the pitch locked down, we'll begin your vibrato. Slightly release pressure on the third string, allowing it to return slightly back to the original d note. Without letting the note choke out or die, bring it back to the bent e note. That's one cycle of vibrato. Not to put you off, but just one vibrato in the typical single melody quarter note that might require six complete vibrato cycles to make your musical statement..

Take a break. Catch your breath. Okay? Here we go again.

Au Naturel

This one is easier. I started with the hard vibrato first as we've just come off the bend session of last week. Now we'll vibrato on a plain old fashioned fretted note with no bend. For this vibrato, one can use any finger, though because of its relative weakness to the rest of the fingers, I find myself using the pinky the least for this type of vibrato. Once again, using that same d note as displayed in our diagram, place any of your first three fingers on that d. I'd suggest starting with the third finger as that allows your whole hand to help in the process.

Now for the fun. We are not going to even try to approach the e note in this vibrato. In fact, the finest thing one can say about this vibrato is that you should not be able to hear a distinct change in pitch, merely a certain ambiguity. You will be raising the pitch of the fretted note but only a miniscule amount. Do this by either pushing the third string slightly towards the fourth string and releasing -- smoothly and with slow control-- or by pulling the string down towards the second string, once again smoothly, slowly and with great control. This is a technique that must be carefully practiced to ensure that you are not just bum's rushing your way through it. Speed is your enemy here. You want deliberate controllable action of the left hand. Some say the motion is all in the wrist, but I have found that while the majority of the motion is there, the finger itself should contribute some motion in the form of a bending at the first joint as well. In the picture above, I am using purely the third finger to slightly pull the third string down towards the second string. This last picture is me doing the same vibrato with my second finger. Why different fingers? Depends on where the melody has been and where it is going. You are going to want to have a decent vibrato available no matter what fingering you're using.

As with all the little technique builders and exercises I post here, practice this slowly. In fact, the best way to do this is with a metronome, counting your number of cycles per beat of the metronome.

The Classical Guitarist's Vibrato

It's very similar to the vibrato you have observed the orchestral string players use. The hand rocks back and forth with the finger pad remaining within the fret, the string is not bent. A slight vibrato effect is generated, although on the guitar there should not be too much 'slop' in intonation available within a fret, wire to wire. The violinist can actually shift the tip of his finger enough to raise or lower the pitch because this player is not limited by fretwire. It's gonna look very similar to the picture directly above with the hand rocking in a parallel motion to the neck.

Make the motion with your wrist as large as possible to guarantee a nice, slow vibrato. Speed here will render the vibrato indistinguishable. Once again, the metronome will help. LISTEN and observe--then correct your motion until you make a musical sound. It's that simple. And that hard.

This vibrato works well with all fingers, pinky included. Why did I make a statement above that the classical guitarist can use a small amount of string bend to heighten his or her vibrato? It's because the violinist, not restricted by fretwire, can indeed raise and lower the pitch by wiggling the finger pad during the execution of vibrato. The guitarist is hindered by the fretwire and can't hope to generate the depth of vibrato the fiddler can. I have caught myself using a slight amount of actual pitch bending a la string bend on the classical guitar. It doesn't sound bad, but would have made my teacher cringe. My motto is 'Make Music and if you have to alter technique to do it, well, do it!'

That's it!

Enjoy these sessions of technique builders! Come back next week for more.

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