Ukulele Vibrato: A Quick Introduction

When I posted Diane Rubio’s version of Under Paris Skies it prompted some discussion of her vibrato technique (which she chipped in on). So I thought it was about time I put up a post about it.

Vibrato is making the note quiver by varying the pitch slightly. You hear it a lot in the big diva singers. They’ll hold a long, high note then make it wobble. Rather than singing the note straight they glide between singing slightly higher than the note to slightly lower than it. Recreating that effect on an instrument gives it a more expressive, human feel. One you’ll hear all the time in blues guitar solos. If you’re wanting to do any solo work on the ukulele, it’s well worth learning a couple of vibrato techniques.

Classical Style

Players of classical string instruments like cello and violin will create vibrato by moving back and forth slightly along the string – making the pitch go from slightly higher than the note to slightly lower than the note just like the vocal vibrato. It works very well on fretless instruments, but is also used on classical guitar and ukulele.

You do it by rocking your finger back and forth with the fret. Here’s the technique done slowly then more rapidly.

There are plenty of advantages to playing vibrato this way. It’s very suited to the uke’s nylon strings, it’s a subtle effect and it can be done with full chords like this:

Guitar Style

In guitar playing, vibrato is created by bending and releasing the string. You do it by pulling the string down (for the C-string – as in the video – or the g-string) or pushing it up (E- and A-strings). Here it is slow then fast:

This technique isn’t quite so friendly with the nylon strings. It creates a bit more noise. On the upside, you can get a much wider and wilder vibrato with it by doing larger bends more quickly. It’s also the ideal vibrato to use on bends like this:

When to Use Vibrato

Don’t go too overboard with the vibrato. Like most techniques, it’s most effective when you use it sparingly. The best place to bust it out is on the long notes at the end of a phrase. Also vary the speed and, with the guitar-style vibrato, width of the vibrato. You can do that even on one note. Try starting with a slow vibrato then speeding it up as the note fades.

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