Texas blues guitarist Johnny Winter once said, “I can tell if I like a man’s style after listening to his vibrato for ten seconds.”
Putting aside Winter’s inadvertent declaration that only men play electric guitar, he makes an excellent point. Vibrato is the raising and lowering of a note’s pitch by moving the string producing the note back and forth against an instrument’s fret- or fingerboard. Many guitarists believe vibrato tells you everything you need to know about a guitarist’s strength, taste, and musicality.
It’s not surprising that some of the widest and strongest vibratos among guitar players belong to blues guitarists. Blues guitar, like blues singing, was influenced by the fact that West Africans brought to the American colonies as slaves spoke tonal languages. When singing, they used variations of pitch and timbre to convey many shades of meaning, resulting in vibrato, tremolo, overtones, and hoarse-voiced and shouting techniques.
Although vibrato is a prominent feature of European classical music performances today, this was not always the case. Prior to the 19th century, vibrato was used sparingly, as ornamentation; in fact, Leopold Mozart criticized “performers there are who tremble consistently on each note as if they had the palsy” and recommended that players use vibrato only on sustained notes and at the end of phrases.
Early blues guitarists, in contrast, developed an unusually expressive, improvisational use of vibrato, not only to sustain notes on acoustic guitars, but also to mimic West African singing.
Listen to the slow back-and-forth moan of B.B. King’s vibrato. It is very challenging for guitarists to duplicate his vibrato properly. King steadily bends the string back and forth an entire half step to create a smooth wide vibrato. If you watch King play, you’ll see him shake his entire hand to create this vibrato. The fingers that aren’t pressing down the note are relaxed, and his hand flutters like a butterfly. King’s technique is called “butterfly vibrato.”
Listen to the opening lick from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s solo for “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Not only does he bend the note a whole step, he then moves it back and forth an entire half step to create vibrato at the top of the bend. This takes enough hand strength to crush a Volkswagen, plus a finely attenuated sense of pitch.
Sometimes a guitarist makes a conscious choice to use less or no vibrato. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s brother Jimmie Vaughan, another great Texas blues guitarist, distinguished himself both with The Fabulous Thunderbirds and in his solo career by developing a spare style with minimal vibrato.
Vaughan told me, “When I was very young I tried to play exactly like B.B. King. I’m pretty good at imitating him. But one day I realized that if I got in a room with Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy and each guy played a solo, well, when they got to me what the hell was I gonna do? You get on the stage with B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Eric Clapton and when it comes your turn, you can’t do what they do. If you do, you’re an idiot.”
“I realized,” Vaughan explained, “that you’ve got to start listening to what you want to do. They’re playing what they wanna hear and what they feel. What do you feel? What do you hear? At that point I started really playing different.”
Playing “different” made Jimmie worthy of his little brother Stevie’s oft-voiced idolatry. “You should see Jimmie play,” Stevie Ray Vaughan used to say when complimented.