A crucial element for phrasing is vibrato, but while you can notate a great number of things, you can't really notate vibrato. I know it's important. I know B.B. King's butterfly vibrato is a big reason why he's so loved and appreciated. So what are some techniques and exercises to expand and perfect my vibrato?
When I first started working on lead guitar, I spent a lot of time just listening to famous players phrasing and vibrato. I knew that an important part of playing lead was developing a "voice" for my guitar, that stood out, was pleasing, and sounded natural.
One of the attributes of vocalists who's style I like is a more relaxed vibrato. Some singers have a fast vibrato that sounds unnatural. Listen to Buffy Ste. Marie or Stevie Nicks for an example - yeah, they're good vocalists and have influenced music, but they're not my favorite singers because their vibrato is too fast and sounds unnatural to me.
So, I wanted to develop a slower, more natural sounding guitar voice, and part of that was a slower vibrato. "Languid" is a good word to describe it I guess: "slow and relaxed" and "pleasantly lazy and peaceful" are two definitions from the dictionary for it.
I took the time to learn to think sssslllloooowwww when it came time to use vibrato, and then practiced controlling it so I deliberately could speed it up if necessary and the music called for it.
There's a few different techniques for vibrato too: Most players anchor their thumb behind the neck, then rotate their hand across the axis created by their thumb and finger pressing the fret. B.B. King is a great example. Watch a video of him playing and you'll see an almost exaggerated hand movement, but that makes his style. Eric Clapton, who was across the Atlantic and trying to figure out how the blues players here got the sound of the slide guitar, started imitating the slide players by removing his thumb and using his whole hand to push and pull the string sideways along the fret. It's a very different motion than B.B. Kings, and sounds different, but it's equally effective.
Some players, instead of creating vibrato by moving across the neck, use a more classic violin approach, and alternately push and pull along the length of the string. This stretches and pulls the string, raising and lowering its pitch. A normal vibrato, moving across the neck, can only raise the pitch or leave it at its original note, so the more classical move has a small advantage. It's difficult to push and pull a string that way, so most people don't get as wide a pitch change, but it can be very effective.
Finally, I've also seen people use their tremolo bar for vibrato. Jeff Beck, Dave Gilmour and Scott Henderson do some things with their tremolos that most of us would use a regular vibrato move for, only the tremolo gives them a wider range of raising and lowering the pitch, similar to the violinist's move. It's easy to go too far with the tremolo but a gentle touch can be very nice.
So, mostly it's being aware of the different styles and ways of generating vibrato, then taking the time to master it so it fits into what your sound is. Then learn to do it the other ways so you can pick and choose on the fly, depending on whatever you want to express at that moment.
To me, Vibrato is divided into 2 parts:
Beginners usually get shown techniques where the string is moved laterally across the strings or in the same direction as the strings. What I end up seeing is a student who is confused as to what their hand and finger(s) are actually meant to do to the string to produce the desired vibrato effect.
I suggest this:
DO NOT ATTEMPT to perform vibrato until you have mastered STRING BENDING.
From a practical point of view, the student who can't perform vibrato usually does not have full command of their fingers or the strength in their fingers to control string bends.
By learning to bend the strings via both PUSH or a PULL action, the muscles and fingers learn to co-ordinate with the wrist and finger pressure.
Swapping fingers used for bending (ie. don't just use the 3rd/ring finger, use them ALL) can aid in increasing finger sensitivity and strength.
And of course, strength developed from full step bends (2 frets or more) needs to be balanced with the nuance of half-step bends (1 fret). And again, try and perform these on all fingers.
Now here's the key, once the execution of string bends starts to become second nature - if the player is bending the strings properly, they will be using the joint of the index finger as the Fulcrum point for the wrist pivot.
NOW YOU HAVE THE BASIS FOR GOOD VIBRATO
By oscillating the Bend movement into smaller and smaller bends - you will end up with a vibrato effect.
Of course, I don't want to neglect the vibrato in the parallel direction of string - this is usually done with the finger pressed down and the thumb NOT behind the neck. This technique generates the same effect but the movement is more natural for beginners (in fact all my beginners usually do this movement first instinctively). It's the "bend" vibrato that's harder to master and therefore warrants attention paid towards string bends.
This is the more difficult part of the topic because it implies taste, nuance, an informed mind and a keen ear. Listen to your favourite guitarists and study their phrasing. There is wide and slow vibrato - which I think is alot more sexy and emotional. Then there is the jagged edge rock vibrato that the mother of a neighbour once told me sounded like a cat on heat.
- try and oscillate the vibrato in time with the beat
- do fast vibrato during high climax phrases, do slow vibrato during slower phrases
- try including your vibrato in string bends (especially full step ones)
- try vibrato when performing chords! if you can.
- throw a vibrato note within a legato run!
Practice. I know it's a dumb answer but this is one of several guitar techniques where you can seemingly try the same thing again and again with no result and then, presto! vibrato!
The reason why is that you build hand strength and once you reach a certain point, you are able to blend your dexterity and strength to put a vibrato where you want it.
Pick a song that has vibrato on one note that really stands out to you. Say, "Crossroads" (Cream version) in the first turnaround, there is a short blues lick that pauses on a C (G string at the 5th fret). A really nice place to learn index finger vibrato. Learn the phrasing without the vibrato. Then try to sneak the vibrato in bit by bit.
Now, index finger vibrato is very different (for me) from pretty much every other finger, because the pivot axis is so different. I most often pick my thumb up off the neck for it. However, by sliding one finger back, I can use my middle finger, which is pretty much on axis with my arm and get a more rotating, bending vibrato. You can try them both and see what works best in each situation.
The other place you'll find vibrato changes is on the top and bottom E strings. You simply don't want to do a vibrato that bends off the fretboard, limiting the amount of bend you can apply to one direction. Again, practice and you'll know what to expect.
If you're not getting it right now, I hope it will make you feel better that nobody is born knowing how to get reliable vibrato. It's a learned technique. And for tomorrow... you learn pinch harmonics :)