All the things you never knew about putting flash wobbly bits into your guitar playing
Or a voyage around my finger. Jon Lewin introduces your digits to the concept of waggling, expressively, thus kicking (handing?) off Making Music's series of features for the ever improving guitarist.
So what's vibrato? Firstly, it's not strictly speaking that bendy bit of metal that sticks out of the bridge - that's the wang bar. Vibrato is the wiggly thing you do with your fingers on the strings which makes the pitch oscillate ever so slightly, giving notes a more natural sound and extra sustain.
Listen to any great guitarist - Clapton, Kossoff, Hendrix, or Van Halen, for instance - and you'll be able to distinguish particular personal techniques of finger vibrato; Clapton's is a typical grinding, bluesy sound learnt from listening to B B and Freddie (no relation) King. Kossoff's is a slower, more distinctive wailing, while Van Halen's is faster and altogether whackier.
There are a million other possible examples, as almost all guitarists use finger vibrato to some extent. Just apply your ears, and you'll hear how important it is. And interestingly enough, it is a relatively new technique, in that vibrato as we know it is widely held to have been invented by the blues guitarist, B B King.
"I won't say I invented it," Blues Boy told an American magazine, "but they weren't doing it before I started." Riley B King was born on 16 September 1925 in Itta Bena in the Mississippi Delta. Although he'd sung with a gospel group since the age of ten, it wasn't until 1942 that he bought his first guitar (for $2.50). While B B will admit that his main influences were guitarists like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Charlie Christian, and Django Reinhardt, it's obvious that the people he played and socialised with in the South were also important to his style.
Of the development of his unique finger vibrato, B B attributes it to his inability to master playing with a bottleneck. "I could never get my fingers to work like most of the guys who use a bottleneck," he told John Tobler in the Guitar Greats book. "I used to trill my hand after listening to Bukka (White, his cousin) and Robert Nighthawk, and a few of the other guys like Earl Hooker - I felt that when I trilled my hand, I got this sound that my ears said was similar to using a bottleneck. Like I say, I've got stupid fingers that just don't work."
Pick up your guitar, play an open G and listen to the note. Twang, says the string. Not the most pleasant of twangs though, is it? Sort of starts off sharp, then goes flat in an unattractive way. Try fretting the string at the twelfth and paying the octave G. That should be a bit better - the note doesn't seem to flatten, though it still sounds slightly lifeless. What that note needs to give it warmth/vibrancy/life is vibrato.
Try singing along with the note at the same time. Can you hear how your voice wobbles around the note that the guitar is sustaining? The idea behind vibrato is to imitate the natural fluctuations and inaccuracies of the voice, to give the guitar a warmer and more human feel.
But how do you do it?
There are two main techniques you can use. Firstly the less common, classically derived vertical method, which is best suited to guitars with high frets, as they leave more space between fret and fingerboard for your digits to work in.
Play that G-string halfway up the neck (vibrato gets harder the closer you play to the nut), and play the note. While the note is sustaining, wiggle your finger back and forth, pivoting it on the tip. This will move it slightly up and down the length of the string (rather than across it).
You'll find it easier to do this if your hand assumes a classical arched position, with the thumb at the centre of the back of the neck, and the fingers vertical to the fretboard. It's more effective if you wobble from the wrist, or even the elbow; if you feel confident you can keep your finger in place, try taking your thumb off the neck, and imagining that your arm has suddenly been struck by Parkinson's disease. You may look daft, you may get cramp, but the note will oscillate slightly. Subtle, isn't it?
But it's a lot of effort for little reward. If you should want to imitate Mr Van Halen, or even the late and great Paul Kossoff, you'll need to try the more famous (and more effective) horizontal vibrato. Grip the neck in any way you feel comfortable, and play a note somewhere on one of the upper strings. Pushing your finger tight up behind the fret, slide the string from side to side across the neck; just imagine that you're grinding the string against the fret.
Do it fast, do it slow, wobble the note a fraction, or slide it from one side of the neck to the other. Just experiment until it feels natural. Practice is easy, and can b done anywhere, even watching TV - you practise to make your fingers do it without thinking.
There are a lot of ways of applying this type of vibrato, but however you use it, you'll find it adds life to your guitar sound: single note runs are made more interesting, two or more notes can be vibratoed at the same time (it's even more effective if you can manage to wobble them at different rates), individual notes can be emphasised within chords by vibrato... it works.
Since you always bend upwards when you apply finger vibrato (the string is stretched, never slackened) any note you wobble will be sharpened slightly. If you're playing a blue note (that mainstay of Chuck Berry licks, also known as the minor third) on the G-string in the ordinary blues scale, the sharpened note will sound better than the plain unvibratoed one. This is because the blue note itself actually lies in between the pitches offered by the frets (see Karl E - we did not make this name up - Seashore's The Psychology Of Music for further information). Strange, but true, and useful to remember when playing solos with the blues scale. But what if you're not playing that minor third? The sharpened note will be out of tune.
Although the note you're bending isn't always far enough out to be noticeable, there is a simple way around this potential problem, which B B King sussed out early on.
Say you want to wobble the root, play and vibrato the actual note, it will be sharp, and will sound out of tune. But what if you fret the string a semitone (one fret) below, then bend up to the note! This gives you the opportunity of making the note you're playing wobble both above and below the one you're aiming for, which gives a more accurate vibrato effect. It sounds clever, and it's dead simple to do.
Practise this for a while and you'll find that the friction of the string against the fret while you're sliding it back and forth helps to prolong sustain. As your fingers get stronger, you'll find that you'll be able to hold notes almost indefinitely in this manner. It's a very seductive technique, so try not to overuse it once you've mastered it. Leslie West of Mountain says you should treat vibrato like an opera voice. "Some guys just turn it on - they push the string up and then start the vibrato," he told our editor last year. "If you listen to a singer, he builds up to full speed slowly, like a motor."
While we're talking of practice and the like, a word on the subject of strings: obviously lighter strings are easier to bend (B B King uses Gibson 740XLs which run .009, .0115, .0138, .022, .030, .039), but you will be better off learning on a heavier set, as these will strengthen your fingers, and help harden your fingertips - aside from arguments about the greater volume and fuller tone that heavier strings produce.
If you get heavily into vibrato, could follow in Ritchie Blackmore's fingerprints and have your neck scalloped; this involves no shellfish, but the removal of a quantity of wood from the fingerboard between the frets. John McLaughlin also went through a craze of having these dips built into his acoustics and electrics. They give even more room for vibrato freaks to wiggle their strings, since they give the option of greater up and down vibrato as well as side to side. But it's not recommended unless you really know what you're doing.
For a few final hints, we turned to zany guitar teacher Billy Jenkins of Woodwharf Studio and Trimmer & Jenkins fame. The best way of getting accurate vibrato, he quoth over the phone, is to hold your guitar high up in the classical position, with the wrist and forearm straight, and the hand balanced. This gives better momentum, and helps control over the note. "If you insist on playing in the sexual pose with the guitar around your waist or lower," he continued, "you won't get as fluid a response."
Exercises that Billy suggested included hammering-on and trilling - anything that would help build up the muscles in your fingers. "Strength and balance is what you need," he concluded. What more can we say?
If your guitar seems to get progressively more out of tune further up the neck you play, check the intonation: play a harmonic above the twelfth fret, then fret the string at that fret. Theoretically, the two should give exactly the same note.
If the fretted note is out of tune with the harmonic, you have to adjust the bridge. Set the guitar up as it would be for normal playing, with new strings (old or dirty strings can change the tuning). Check the fretted note. If the note is sharper than the harmonic, move the bridge saddle back, away from the neck. If the note is flat, move the saddle forwards (two Fs help remind which way to adjust). Slackening the strings can make this easier.
To get the intonation spot-on, you'll need a guitar tuner, and patience. If you think you've got it right, try playing an open chord (say C major) in the octave position; the fretted notes and open strings should sound perfectly in tune with each other.