The vibrato is one of the most used and sought-after techniques in music. From a theoretical standpoint, vibrato is “a rapid, slight variation in pitch producing a stronger or richer tone”. As many guitar-toting tone-seekers will agree, the right vibrato can make the difference between a good guitarist and a legendary one. Many of us can play the right notes, in the right order, and at the right time, but the emotion and “voice” of a musician is what sets us apart from one another. The vibrato is in essence one of the more expressive techniques that one can use to develop their own “voice” on the instrument. While there are many great guitarists that have an effective and unique sounding vibrato, and lists of any kind are always subjective, here are 5 that are no doubt amongst the purveyors of fine vibrato technique.
Sadly, Mr. King left us recently, but he also left us with a vibrato that could make a single note sing longer and more eloquently than many of us can with an entire bar full of 32nd note runs. Using his prized Gibson ES-355 “Lucille”, Mr.King gave us scores and scores of fantastic music that was played and felt from the heart. A listen to “The Thrill Has Gone” is quite possibly the best vibrato “lesson” one can give to an aspiring guitar player. “Three O’Clock Blues”, “Sweet Sixteen”, and “You Upset Me Baby” are great places to look for more of King’s sultry, satisfying vibrato that is second to none.
It’s no coincidence that tone-chasers are often heard uttering phrases like “It had that David Gilmour vibe to it”, or “Wow, that amp paired with my new guitar really gets me close to that David Gilmour sound.” Gilmour’s guitar solos are the showcase spot for his vibrato technique. “Comfortably Numb” is essential listening if you’re after David’s sublime guitar sound, and you’ll notice that he focuses on playing the right note at the right time, with the right expression, not trying to fill the time and space with a shred-fest. This may come as a consolation to those of us whose hands can’t move as fast on the fretboard as we would like. For more examples of Gilmour’s technique, re-visit “Wish You Were Here”, “Time”, or “Dogs”. Gilmour asked Seymour Duncan to make him a pickup that was “hotter” than the usual single-coils the world was used to, and that’s how the SSL-5 was born. Check out Orpheo’s story about the SSL-5.
Yngwie’s neo-classical influence and style is not for everyone, but his vibrato technique is definitely something that we can all appreciate. Whether you have listened to “Black Star” or “Far Beyond The Sun” or you’ve seen Yngwie perform live, his wrist-shaking vibrato is a signature part of his sound. Yes, there is definitely a lot more notes in his playing than some of our other list-toppers, but Yngwie manages to somehow convey emotion and passion in his playing, and that’s one of the reasons we all refer to him as “the Maestro”. You can attempt your shot at nailing Yngwie’s tone by dropping his signature YJM Fury set or an Yngwie Loaded Pickguard into your guitar. A scalloped fretboard may help with swagger, but we can’t make any promises!
Like the others on the list, Lita’s vibrato is one of the qualities that makes her playing instantly recognizable. It has a wide, pronounced tone that has been a signature in her playing since she became a guitar hero at the age of 16 when she held down the lead guitarist role in The Runaways. I had the opportunity to ask the Queen of Heavy Metal herself about her signature vibrato sound and about any tips she has for players that want to further develop their own style.
“The vibrato isn’t something that happens right away when you’re learning how to play. Everyone has their own, like everyone has their own handwriting. No two vibratos are the same. For me, a vibrato has timing: a rhythm that goes with the beat to the song. It has a voicing that has highs and lows, like an emotion – screaming or crying. Vibrato also helps to sustain your notes, and a wah pedal helps for the attitude. I like the over bending of the strings. Don’t be afraid to over bend, just make sure your bend is in key/tune.”
Easier said than done right? You can check out some of Lita’s famous vibratos in songs like “Kiss Me Deadly”, “The Ripper”, and “Living Like A Runaway”. If you’d like to hear her earliest recorded vibratos, check out some of her work in The Runaways. The solos in “Born to Be Bad”, “Waiting For The Night”, and the opening riffs to “Wasted” will give you the idea. Lita uses a SH-6 Duncan Distortion pickup in the bridge and a SH-4 JB pickup in the neck of her B.C. Rich signature Warlock guitar.
I distinctly remember hearing Phil Colins’ song “I Wish It Would Rain Down” on the radio when it was first released, and even though I had no idea who the musicians were, the second I heard the guitar come in on the second bar of the song, I knew it was Eric Clapton. A glance at the liner notes in the record store the following week confirmed my hypothesis. That’s how distinctive his sound is. Clapton’s tone and vibrato has had a long time to make its impression on us, with songs like “White Room” by Cream, or his work together with Duane Allman on “Layla”. Otherwise known as “Slowhand”, Eric Clapton started his career with The Yardbirds and has played on hundreds of records. While he is most associated with his Fender Stratocaster, “Blackie”, no matter what guitar he picks up, the second he plays a note and holds it with his vibrato, you know it’
s him. If you want to hear more of Clapton’s finest vibrato work, check out “Strange Brew” and “Crossroads” by Cream, “Lay Down Sally”, or the solo in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. You can also check out Seymour Duncan talking about his experience working on Clapton’s “Blackie” below.