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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10 Comments

  1. Alec April 20th, 2011 8:17 pm

    Haven’t finished reading, but you’re missing a verb in the second paragraph.

  2. Woodshed April 20th, 2011 8:42 pm

    Alec: Thanks. Fixed it.

  3. Craig Robertson April 21st, 2011 4:12 am

    This is good shit, Al; and, more than that, it’s actually useful.

  4. Lizzie April 21st, 2011 9:28 am

    Ooo! That’s nice! I do bends on some songs but I have never tried rocking up or down rather than sideways – have to give it a go :-) Thanks Al.

  5. Phredd April 21st, 2011 10:41 am

    Great post Al. This kind of nuance, to me, is the difference between a good player and a great player. Thanks.

  6. Woodshed April 21st, 2011 11:11 am

    Craig: Thanks!

    Lizzie: Have fun with it.

    Phredd: Definitely. When a player has a good vibrato down it makes a big difference.

  7. Scott Spiegler April 21st, 2011 1:00 pm

    Can you post some comments on how to practice this technique from the beginning?

  8. Kempo April 21st, 2011 5:57 pm

    I must be doing something wrong cos when I try it, the uke wiggles about but the pitch stays still…

    :P

  9. Woodshed April 22nd, 2011 8:36 am

    Scott: I’m not sure what more to add. Watch the video, try to recreate it, practice until you like the sound of it.

    Kempo: So long as your string stays still when the uke wiggles it should have the same effect.

  10. Diane Rubio May 18th, 2012 8:02 am

    A bit late to join the party here, but thanks Uke Hunt for mentioning me in the discussion of vibrato .. again. Because I am also a classical cellist, I have that … perspective about the vibrato. Now with the cello because it’s fretless, like the voice, you can play with the pitch. But vibrato, in my experience is a debate … I think some people think of vibrato as going from under pitch to pitch–some people would argue this is correct vibrato. Some people look at vibrato as .. say the note is a point of light, like a laser beam and your vibrato just … emanates around that center. Now on a fretted instrument we can’t have this debate because the fret gives you the pitch … we can only manipulate the note higher. So you’ll vibrato the note and higher. Which isn’t really like how it’s done on a cello or a voice :-/ nevertheless … this is what we do. Mhm. Also another point about vibrato, it seems almost like a knee-jerk reaction sort of habit on my playing by now (because of studying classical style where some aesthetics require vibrato ALL THE TIME OR ELSE :-S). Then when it was Baroque, they never even used vibrato–it wasn’t part of the aesthetic at all. So nowadays I just use vibrato as I see fit. I personally don’t like to machine gun it, but I certainly love to use it as an -effect- and I love pitch bends.

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