As a bassist, I spent a lot of time with music teachers who told me I took too long to start vibrating. The example they gave (Jeff Bradetich, UNT) was of opera singers who begin vibrating immediately. But I always waited a few milliseconds after the attack to begin vibrato, which this slide guitar player (Matt Smith) says is an "opera style"

On the trombone, I executed lung vibrato, but in jazz I often used the slide, and in either case it's almost impossible to start your vibrato before the attack (you can do the slide vibrato before you start blowing but that usually winds up being bad).

On tinwhistle and other wind/woodwind instruments, I always used the lung vibrato which again can't really start until the attack.

My jazz private lesson teacher actually explained that you NEVER start your vibrato before an attack because the intonation doesn't settle until after you have attacked the pitch (this was on alto sax and other instruments).

So I know this is a pretty subjective question, but it seems like there's an authority somewhere about this, especially when multiple teachers I've had have not agreed about whether operatic vibrato starts with the attack or after.

  • "As a bassist" -- string bassist, or bass voice?
    – NReilingh
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 22:00
  • 1) It depends on what instrument you are playing
    – user1044
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 16:18
  • @NReilingh I apologize: a string bassist. I would have used the term "bass voice." In choral studies I was a high baritone/low tenor (aka not a vocalist, my range sucks).
    – NateDSaint
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 20:12
  • Oh! I was confused by your initial anecdote about opera singers... I'm not sure why your string teacher brought that up. Here's a much better example: Yo Yo Ma - Elgar Cello Concerto.
    – NReilingh
    Commented Nov 21, 2013 at 6:13

3 Answers 3


Vocal style

I think the confusion here is that there are many different kinds of vibrato, with playing techniques that differ from instrument to instrument and a style and nature that relates both to the instrument and the style of music you are playing.

In general, the "classical voice" has a wide unconstrained vibrato, while the "jazz/pop" voice has a straight tone over which a more constrained, tighter vibrato is layered for musical effect.

Your classical voice teachers are going to expect a wide vibrato that comes from the overall timbre of your voice -- not something that you think about delaying or constraining. The rationale for this is that if you are actively controlling your vibrato, you are compromising on your breath support or your tone in order to exert that control (or causing tension somewhere you don't want it).

The fact that Matt Smith calls a particular style of guitar vibrato "opera style" is pretty irrelevant to this issue, because he's not an opera singer--that's just what he likes to call a guitar technique that reminds him of opera. As your classical teachers have shown you, real opera singers are pretty much always in the "on" position (at least for the classical repertoire).

It sounds like you gravitate toward more of a jazz voice style of vibrato, where you establish the pitch first and then apply vibrato in a musical way.

It's important to note that "classical voice" is a very specific type of singing, that comes from a need for the human voice to compete with an entire orchestra. When doing choral singing, I greatly prefer a lighter tone and almost no vibrato, especially for harmonically complex music. But then again, if you are singing an opera chorus, I would expect to hear a great amount of vibrato from everybody. Lots of new/contemporary music requires light and nimble straight tone voices because of the harmonic and rhythmic complexity--trying to sing new music with a "classical" voice would be like trying to navigate a freight train through a minefield.

So basically, you should learn how to execute all types of vibrato, and also know when to use one style of singing vs. another.

Instrumental technique

You mentioned lung vibrato on wind instruments -- this is an option, but the "standard" technique will often vary from instrument to instrument. To my recollection, flute and oboe are the only instruments I would recommend using lung vibrato as a primary technique. As a trombonist, I will most often use jaw vibrato in both classical and jazz contexts, and occasionally add slide vibrato as another option for jazz playing. Jaw vibrato would also be used on other brass instruments, and on the saxophone (particularly for jazz) and bassoon.

Different instruments also apply classical vibrato differently. Oboe and flute will generally vibrate at the beginning of the note when playing loudly, whereas brass instruments will establish (very) loud notes with constant pitch, and then add vibrato as they decrescendo--or when playing soft and lyrically, use vibrato everywhere. (Interestingly, clarinets and french horns are almost never expected to vibrate in common technique.) Sometimes, styles of vibrato use may even vary from a "European school" to an "American school."

So, to try to draw some generalizations here, one of the main functional purposes of classical vibrato is to make something heard that would otherwise not be. Naturally soft woodwind instruments playing forte, or the human voice competing with an orchestra, need to be as loud as possible, so wide and fast vibrato is applied at the beginning of the note. At lower dynamic levels, vibrato can be reigned in and used differently. Naturally loud instruments like the trombone and trumpet compete with an orchestra best -without- vibrato, so they too use it differently. And lastly, all bets are off for contemporary or pop music.


Not an expert on this, but I think part of the answer would be deciding first what kind of effect are you trying to achieve with the vibrato. I'm a classical and fingerstyle guitarist, and I use different types of vibrato depending on the context of the music and musical effect that I need. Delaying the vibrato after the attack has the effect of "swelling" the note and gives the impression of longer sustain. Immediate vibrato gives a more intense fiery effect in my opinion. Other factors play come into play such as the musical style, tempo of music and length of note.

  • I agree. It depends all on the style. One of my jazz singing teachers characterized opera vibrato as a large, constant vibrato that starts immediately, while jazz vibrato should kick in fairly late in the note, increase in depth, and stay more moderate. But of course, in jazz, all sorts of different styles are found in practice. Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 20:54

I do not believe there is a universal answer.

1) It depends on what instrument you are playing.

2) It depends on the style of music you are playing on that instrument, and its time in music history.

Certain styles of music at certain points in history used vibrato in a certain way, and others differently.

In some styles of musical performance, vibrato is more or less constantly used. I've been to see a very well-regarded cellist in a chamber ensemble that plays predominantly 19th and 20th-century music, and he uses a heavy vibrato all the time on everything, even when he is playing Mozart or Bach. This is in keeping with the contemporary tradition of chamber music. However, other performers and groups would use very little or no vibrato when performing Bach or Mozart, which is in keeping with the way that it was performed in Mozart or Bach's own time.

Some styles of music use vibrato sparingly, only as an expressive effect or ornament, if it is used at all.

Of course you are familiar with the contrast between operatic singing, jazz singing, or perhaps bluegrass or American folk music singing, which use varying degrees of vibrato, or lack of it, in varying ways.

I admire the fact that you have studied so many different instruments and techniques. I think my best advice would be to learn to control the production of vibrato on your instruments, and then study each style of music that you are performing and decide where and when to apply that vibrato. I expect that a successful musician would be one that is versatile enough to produce whatever kind of or degree of vibrato that the conductor or director wants them to produce in any given situation.

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