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Vibrato

By Jeff Treadwell

At some point we all ask ourselves: "Okay, I'm playing the same notes as this guitar player, BUT WHY DOES HE SOUND SO MUCH BETTER THAN ME?!" Well, most people I think would assume that he sounds better because of all his expensive equipment, but the truth is, the reason why he sounds better is probably because of his superior vibrato technique.

I am sure you have heard the phrase "the tone is in the fingers" right? Well that is what it means! Vibrato is the art of pulsating the pitch of a note to make it sound more dramatic. In guitar terms, that would be bending the note back in forth in order to make it sound more expressive. So why is this important? Simply put, most guitar players do not understand the importance of having a good vibrato.

When I began playing guitar, I had a fender strat and a fender amp with about half the gain of your average practice amp. Since such a tone is so unforgiving, I hard to work extra hard to make things sound "right." I also had an older brother who kept telling me that everything I was playing was crap, and that I had to work on my bends and my vibrato.

I have seen players on You Tube that can sweep up and down the neck, but when they bend that note at the end, it sounds like a cat dying. You want to sound like you are in control of your instrument because you want to sound GOOD. No matter how fast you can shred or sweep, if you cannot make that last note scream, you are not in control. If you do not have control of the notes, no matter how insane your chops are, your playing will still come across as "amateur-ish."

Before we go further, lets examine some of the technical aspects of performing vibrato. First of all, many people have asked me which direction you should bend the strings. Generally, I have found that it is easiest to bend the string 'down' (toward from your palm) on the low E, A, D, and G strings, and to bend the string 'up' (away from your palm) on the B and high e strings. I have, however, seen many players bend the G string 'up' instead of 'down', so that's a matter of what works for you. But the reason why you'd want to bend the B and high e strings 'up' is because you wont have to worry about pulling the strings off of the fretboard. Another thing to keep in mind, is that the vibrato motion should be done with the wrist, not the fingers. This will give you more control of the motion.

Another question I am asked often is how much should you bend the note during vibrato. Up until I was first asked this I never really though about this, I just let my ears guide me. After close examination though, I have generally found that most the time I bend the notes a half step. However, you will want to vary the pitch and speed of the vibrato depending on how you want your phrases to speak. So I guess my answer to this question is: You got ears, use 'em.

First lets look at the right way to do vibrato, and the ways people do it wrong. Generally, I have found that vibrato sounds best when it is done slow and wide. The most common error players make when performing vibrato is that they do it way to narrow, and way to fast. Also, when your bending the note, make sure you bend it at an even pitch and an even rate. Also, make sure to return to the original pitch of the note after each bend, or else it will sound out of tune. This can be especially difficult when performing Bend-Vibratos. (That is when you bend the note, say a full step, and then apply vibrato with the note still bent), but with enough practice and dedication, it because part of your fingers muscle memory and is second nature.

First lets look at an example of good vibrato vs. bad vibrato with an 'A' note on the G string

Example 1 (.wma)

To begin with this sounds terrible, and if you walk into a guitar center, I guarantee you'll hear someone doing this. This is far from musical because the vibrato is too fast, narrow, and is out of tune. The second half is much better, listen to how this note "sings" compared to the other example.

To further clarify this, I will play an entire melody line. First it will performed poorly, then it will be performed well.

Example 2 (.wma)

Now I will demonstrate a bend-vibrato with a D note (bent up a whole step to an E) on the B string.

Example 3 (.wma)

The most important thing to keep in mind while applying vibrato to bent notes is that you return to the original pitch of the bent note after every bend in the vibrato. Also, notice how the vibrato was gradually sped up to add intensity.

Now lets try a "Zakk Wylde" style pich harmonic on the 5th fret of the low E string

Example 4 (.wma)

Notice how much better is sound when you shake the string nice and wide. It really carries the harmonic and gives it attitude. If you play this riff without the killer vibrato the harmonic just sounds like a lifeless out of key note.

When you first start to practice your vibrato you will notice that it actually takes a lot of strength to do. Here are a couple tips I have that can help you build your strength. If you have two guitars, try putting thicker string gauges on one of them and practice your vibrato on that one. I remember I had a friend with 11 gauge strings on his guitar, and every time I saw him I'd take his guitar and practice some bends on it. Once I played my own guitar a while later, bending strings felt effortless. Of course, if you do not have another guitar handy, I would recommend detuning the guitar a semitone and work on getting the vibrato motion down.

Also, learning when to perform vibrato it is equally as important as knowing when not to perform vibrato. Using vibrato too much will make your phrases sound like a mess while using it too little will make your phrases sound to dull. The best way to improve at this is to experiment and to examine the playing of other players with good vibratos. In the end, however, the best way to learn how to do a good vibrato is to learn from other players who already have it! For starters, here is a list of my personal favorites:

Adrian Smith from Iron Maiden
Gus G from Firewind
Michael and Chris Amott from Arch Enemy (Check out their Live Apocalypse DVD for the ultimate lesson on vibrato)
Mikael Åkerfeldt from Opeth (listen to his solos in The Grand Conjuration and The Baying of the Hounds, this guy's the master)
Jeff Loomis from Nevermore
Yngwie Malmsteen
Jason Becker
Gary Moore
Glen Drover from Megadeth
George Lynch.

Just look for any of these guys in You Tube or look for their band's DVD's and watch their technique, that is how I learned. Also, you do not have to limit yourself to guitar players, many vocalists and other instrumentalists (such as violin and cello players) have amazing vibratos. For example, check out Kamelot's vocalist Roy Khan, he has amazing vibrato. Try to learn from as many different sources as you can, and find what works best for you.

Jeff Treadwell
jefftreadwellguitarist@yahoo.com
© Jeff Treadwell. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

 


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