Vibrato: a very difficult yet overlooked skill. You all probably know the importance of this technique while playing lead. A sustained note without vibrato can often sound bland and tasteless. On the other hand, a poorly executed vibrato can sound harsh and sloppy. There are many styles of vibrato, each of them reflecting the personality of the player. Slow, fast, wide, narrow…
SD note: I once read somewhere that vibrato tells the boys from the men. I didn’t care about this definition at first, but in time, my mind went back to it and I now believe this is accurate. It sounds harsh and snob – and somehow it is, like many things written on the internet – but I see its inner meaning as, it separates the soulful musicians from the others, or it separates the serious musicians from the others, etc. But… Is there a general rule of how a hand-vibrato should sound? Probably not. But it’s easy to spot a vibrato that doesn’t sound good at all (SD note: too fast, too weak – when your hand is not trained or it is fatigued, or going out of pitch, not reaching pitch, for example). What we’ll do here is simply write our thoughts on this subject, to begin with. This article is not meant to be taken as the “only” truth. But it may be taken as a starting point for you to reflect on.
Let’s start with the concept of vibrato. When you play a single note on the guitar, it has a certain pitch. Sometimes, by merely holding the string with too much pressure, you can make the pitch go off, making it sound out of tune. Instead, when you pick that note and start to “modulate” it, causing the pitch to go up and down in a rhythmic way, it creates a rather “pleasing” effect to the ear, because you can’t really tell if that note is out of tune, since the pitch is varying all the time, and if the vibrato is being don well, the pitch is varying of musically good, controlled and predictable amounts. Now, with this in mind, we can get a little further. If you ask me (and many others) who is the player wiith the most intense vibrato in Rock and Blues, you would probably get (Angus Young!) as an answer. Well… Interestingly enough, Mr. Young’s vibrato actually is the spitting image of one produced by another legendary UK guitarrist: Paul Kossoff, of FREE. If you don’t know him by the name, perhaps the song “All Right Now” might ring a bell. This young man had the most intense and perfect sounding vibrato you can ever image, when he was healthy enough. Please have a listen here: httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xz29Nc4ubz8 httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mFO8KmbTdsc [JP] I spent months trying to figure out how in the world he could do THAT vibrato and, after watching a few live videos, I started to notice important details. Sadly, the short-lived Free didn’t leave many official recordings of their gigs. But what there is out there is enough to show how good they were. (Look for the “Free Forever” DVD. A really fantastic collection). So, now it’s time to watch and learn!
These are the videos that have the best available footage of Koss doing his thing. Let’s take a closer look now.
1 – The first thing you probably noticed is that Kossoff always tried to use all his fingers to hold the string. He did this to get as much strength as possible (especially when bending). [SD] It’s interesting to note the same behavior here from Angus. All fingers are used to bend and then, vibrate. Why this? Strength. It is HARD, in all ways, to do so. It is physically demanding. Many wrongly use bigger strings, but very few really can and should (Stevie Ray Vaughan comes to mind). Most of us could be well set with 009s, to get THIS type of vibrato. Not only all fingers are used for strength; it is also a force momentum thing. In fact, to get the fingers push well, they will have to have a solid grip
2 – Look with attention to the angle of his hand. It was either on a somewhat sharp angle (For example at 1:52 and quick ones at 1:55, 2:00 and 2:03 in the first video) or a high angle (at 2:03, 2:08, 2:12 on the first video). You will find either of these two variations in all the other videos you watch. The first way was usually used with the lower strings, on a non-bended note or when performing a vibrato with the middle finger. The second variation was more common when doing a vibrato on a bended note and on the higher strings. One exception is when Koss played a bend with his pinky finger. It is, in a way, a mix of the two. The index and middle fingers are in a high angle, while the ring and pinky fingers are in a sharp angle (look at 2:06 on the “Fire and Water” video and 2:31 on the last “Mr. Big” performance).
3 – Watching the second “Mr. Big” performance (last video), we can see how his fingers are angled against the fretboard. Right at the beginning of the solo, we see a few “sharp angled” vibratos. If you look with attention, you will also notice that the finger that is holding the note itself is in an almost 90 degrees angle (2:26, 2:30 and 2:40). Instead, on all the bending-vibratos you’ll see that the last finger (usually his ring or pinky finger) is almost parallel to the fretboard. After trying it myself, I realized that this angle provided a bigger room for movements and more strenght (since you also has to keep the string bended).
4 – There’s a small detail that you will see in all the videos. And… It’s not about his hands or fingers this time. Do you know what it is? NO? Look again. You’ll see it more clearly in the second video. Watch his arm with more attention. Every time he performs a stronger vibrato, he actually lifts his whole arm! While it may not seem like an important movement, it actually is, because it works like a lever, making it easier to move your hand (the wrist muscles seem to be the ones that work the most). At least I think it feels more comfortable.
5 – Now I want to talk about something that you can’t get by just watching the videos. Especially on bended-note vibratos, it is important to highlight the “real” note itself before you start “shaking it”. If you start the vibrato too early, it will sound out of control. You have to bend, reach the note you want and just then do the vibrato. This way, you will convince everyone that you know exactly what you are doing and that you have full control of your vibrato. Plus, it sounds just beautiful when you have a stable pitch for one second or less before the thing goes wild (the 2:31 bend on the last video is the perfect example of this).
6 - The vibrato has to sound rhythmic and stable. If you start it at a certain rate, try to keep it like that, both in frequency and amplitude. If you want to stop the vibrato, do it gradually.
7 – Vibrato is a technique that requires TIME and PRACTICE. You only learn it by doing it. There’s no escaping. This is what Kossoff himself said in an interview (1976. The year of his death): “I think my sound, especially my vibrato, has taken a long time to sound mature, and it’s taken a long time to reach the speed of vibrato that I now have. I trill with my first, middle, and ring fingers and bend chiefly with my small finger. I’ll use my index finger when I’m using vibrato. (…) I think there’s still more room to develop in the way I’m playing. My vibrato is finally starting to grow up.”
8 – The most important thing is: you have to feel comfortable. It is, after all, a really personal skill. Most of the things I pointed out here are not supposed to be repeated over and over on your head like something you HAVE to do. It’s a thing that must happen naturally, with the instinct. You have to clear your mind, erase all the words and concentrate only on sounds. Play the sound you want to hear mentally in your head and just then let your body do the rest. NOW…
Now tell us…. Doesn’t Angus use similar techniques? He also lifts his arm for stronger vibratos, just for a start.