Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Every now and then I put up a post on one of those interesting little musical terms that reveal some things about music: like sprezzatura or appoggiatura. Vibrato is another one. Let me creep up on it by telling a joke. I heard this one from John Duarte the English composer, guitarist and critic (who wrote many excellent pieces for guitar and reviewed for Gramophone and many other publications). He had a great sense of humor and once told me there are five kinds of vibrato. This starts out as a guitar joke so I have to tell you that normally you do vibrato, which is an expressive wavering in the pitch of a note, by increasing and decreasing the string tension. For most of the length of the string this is easily done by rolling the finger back and forth with enough pressure so that you push and pull the string. This causes the string tension to vary, which changes the pitch. But if you are down near the nut, there is no slack to pull on, so you have to pull the string to one side for the same effect. So Jack (his friends always called him Jack) demonstrated these two kinds of vibrato. Thus far, you didn't realize it was a joke, of course! Then he demonstrated the third kind by plucking a note and shaking the whole guitar. Ok, still, sort-of, possible. For the fourth kind of vibrato, he just shook his head vigorously from side to side. "So what is the fifth kind," I asked. He replied, "You get the audience to shake their heads from side to side!"

Vibrato is one of those great expressive devices that the guitar is capable of. If not for this and things like portamento, pizzicato, rasgueado and other timbral effects, the guitar would be nothing more than a very limited keyboard instrument. But vibrato is a natural expressive device that guitarists share with bowed string instruments. It originates with the voice, of course, and when the guitar or the violin or cello does vibrato it is at least partly with the aim of suggesting the quality of vocal expressiveness. For this reason it is something you do primarily with melodic notes. The guitar can achieve some intriguing expressive effects by using vibrato on melodic notes combined with muffled or staccato notes in the accompaniment. Here is Segovia doing some nice vibrato in a short piece by Tárrega:

And here is some lovely, refined vibrato on violin in a piece by Eugène Ysaÿe:

There are a lot of things you can do with vibrato: it can be even or it can speed up or slow down. The width of the variation in pitch can be narrow or wide and this can change as well. Vibrato can be so individual that you can almost identify the player, just by the vibrato. Here are two guitarists with very distinctive vibratos. First, Julian Bream, who, you will notice, has a more agitated vibrato than Segovia:

And now Eric Clapton. In the first minute of this song, you will probably hear five different kinds of vibrato!

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