The Subversive Guitarist: Mindful Vibrato

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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.

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