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Thread: vibrato

  1. #1
    Registered User jimc8p's Avatar
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    vibrato

    Hi...I've been thinking about vibrato recently - what exactly is it for, fundamentally?

    Some instruments do it, some don't, and the instruments that do it do it differently. The vibrato most guitarists are familiar with only oscillates the pitch sharp of the nominal note, whereas violins etc will always oscillate the pitch in both directions evenly. Many instruments use tremolo, substituting pitch for amplitude, or other techniques to create similar effects. The basic intention seems to be that of creating a trembling, shimmering note for some sort of emphasis.

    ..so is that what vibrato is - an aesthetic timbral effect, a simple ornament or something? The one thing that always comes up in its descriptions and definitions is 'expressiveness' or similarity to the human voice. It's true that all instruments capable of vibrato are commonly used as solo instruments, ie those taking the lead role in 'expressing'. It's also interesting to listen to something like Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech for the huge amount of expressive vibrato in his voice. So could vibrato/tremolo or anything similar be based on really fundamental vocal tools for emotional emphasis, indicating more emotional conviction in musical metaphor? You can probably tell I've bought into this already.

    The other thing I've been wondering is guitar-specific. How much do people use each type of vibrato on general guitar? The obvious one is string bending which only sharpens (mostly)...do many people here often use the other - 'axial'? - that oscillates pitch up and down? The first is obviously associated with electric and the latter with classical. Do you treat them as mutually exclusive? Does the context really matter? Is bending somehow inferior despite its advantages? Any thoughts really..

  2. #2
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    I agree with you, of course. I doubt you'll get much of an argument from anybody. The periodicity of vibrato compels one to listen when it separates itself from the background.

    As far as thoughts on guitar vibrato go, I do the B.B. King method of twisting rapidly. If I am playing a non-blues-based song, I will do it horizontally. I have never played a fretless guitar, so I have never done the oscillating sharp/flat/sharp/flat.

    But for me, context does matter, I suppose. I have never really thought about it until your post. Thanks a lot. But I do use two different types of vibrato, depending on what I am playing.
    "If a child learns which is jay and which is sparrow, he'll no longer see birds nor hear them sing."

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    Starting with a truism: ultimately, this is a tool to be used as you see fit. So whether you want to convey feeling, emphasis, just decorate, it's up to you. Music is a creative activity.
    However, based on my limited experience, the acoustics/tone of individual instruments, as well as habits and cultural expectations, indeed mean that each of those tools will lend itself more easily to specific uses. An opera singer may use tremolos vibratos to artistically decorate. An orator may use that to increase the emotional appeal.
    And assuming that by "vibrato" you refer to a back-and-forth move between one pitch and the closest one above or below, then for me, it's also more appropriate to convey additional "lightness" in guitar, breaking the tension normally felt when you maintain a note for a long period.

  4. #4
    Registered User jimc8p's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mr JJB
    Starting with a truism: ultimately, this is a tool to be used as you see fit. So whether you want to convey feeling, emphasis, just decorate, it's up to you. Music is a creative activity.
    An opera singer may use tremolos vibratos to artistically decorate. An orator may use that to increase the emotional appeal.
    Very good point. I guess I like avoiding hazy conclusions about combinations of causes, but this makes sense. Although there could be a singular underlying source? I mean, most world music has vibrato or something like it.

    Quote Originally Posted by Mr JJB
    it's also more appropriate to convey additional "lightness" in guitar, breaking the tension normally felt when you maintain a note for a long period.
    I hadn't thought of that but it makes perfect sense...in fact, I can feel that my own urge to use vibrato is caused by the tension of a long straight note.

    Quote Originally Posted by Blutwulf
    I have never played a fretless guitar, so I have never done the oscillating sharp/flat/sharp/flat.
    Actually, this is what I found suprising - when you use classical/axial/horizontal vibrato the pitch does oscillate flat as well. Kind of perversely, as you shift tension towards the nut the pitch sharpens and towards the body it flattens. This made me wonder whether vertical/string-bending vibrato is classically considered as inferior, as it does seem to be a little flawed in comparison.

  5. #5
    He's dark. He's a man. Darkman's Avatar
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    Interesting thread. IMO vibrato *must* be used. It's not a technique like sweeping or tapping that you can pick and choose. Vibrato is integral to making an instrument really sing. Listening to some kids "shred" but not use any vibrato is a little sad, because it shows they were never properly taught to play their instrument. I'm a fan of distorted guitars, but without vibrato they sound horrible.

  6. #6
    Registered User ragasaraswati's Avatar
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    The classical vibrato is in fact only going between the actual note and a slightly flatter note, NOT going flatter AND sharper while having the intended note in the center. The same holds true for singing, especially in opera where they use a very wide vibrato, called warbling, that often goes as much as a tone back and forth but always going flatter and then returning to the main note.

    The case with the electric guitar is that it's the only instrument that I know of that the main type of vibrato is the opposite of the classical and natural singing vibrato. Played using distortion this reverse warbling vibrato gives the metal guitar its edge and powerfull sound. I have come to the conclusion that the sharp vibrato that we guitarists use is in fact ,if you look it cold, a legato or slurred trill between two notes, the main one and a sharper one, done repeatedly.

    Quote Originally Posted by Mr JJB
    And assuming that by "vibrato" you refer to a back-and-forth move between one pitch and the closest one above or below, then for me, it's also more appropriate to convey additional "lightness" in guitar, breaking the tension normally felt when you maintain a note for a long period.
    I agree. I'd like to add that this urge to use vibrato is hightened by the very nature of the decaying volume of the note in guitar. The same would't apply to let's say the organ where the note is constant. A dying note attracts more attention than a steady one and if you just let it die it is not so appealing whereas vibrating it creates both the illusion of sustain and a nice ending.
    Last edited by ragasaraswati; 03-22-2009 at 11:07 AM.

  7. #7
    Registered User jimc8p's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ragasaraswati
    The classical vibrato is in fact only going between the actual note and a slightly flatter note, NOT going flatter AND sharper while having the intended note in the center.
    Are you talking about classical guitar vibrato, as in horizontal/axial? If so, I'm pretty certain it goes flat and sharp.

  8. #8
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ragasaraswati
    The classical vibrato is in fact only going between the actual note and a slightly flatter note, NOT going flatter AND sharper while having the intended note in the center. The same holds true for singing, especially in opera where they use a very wide vibrato, called warbling, that often goes as much as a tone back and forth but always going flatter and then returning to the main note.
    Hmm. What evidence do you have for that?
    I just examined one classical performance -
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2uYrm...eature=related
    - and Pavarotti wobbles either side of the home pitch, in fact seems to move more above it than below it. I'd say that was standard classical vibrato (fairly narrow in range, and not "warbling", obviously).
    Can you post some examples of warbling, or of any vibrato that only goes below the target pitch?

  9. #9
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jimc8p
    Hi...I've been thinking about vibrato recently - what exactly is it for, fundamentally?
    There is interesting stuff here on the history of its use:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vibrato
    It's by no means "natural", and is an applied technique designed (apparently) to enrich tone.
    My view is it became more popular as equal temperament became widespread, because the way it blurs pitches makes the out-of-tuneness of equal temperament more bearable. I think that is what it is "for".
    Wiki points out that it's use in the baroque and classical eras was frequently controversial, and (in some circles) remains so. It was probably not used in Renaissance music or earlier (when just intonations were in use, and pitches didn't need to be blurred).

    Personally I hate the sound of vocal vibrato in classical music, and think it's overused generally.
    I really like the sound of the Bulgarian traditional singers who don't use it (except as an occasional fruity effect, when they exaggerate it).
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdqjc...x=0&playnext=1
    - the soloist uses a fair amount of ornamentation (proper to that genre), but very little vibrato (eg briefly at 0:29, which may even have been accidental).

    If you want to hear hilariously outrageous vibrato, listen to Shirley Bassey. I was transcribing Goldfinger and noticed on one of her last "gold"s, she was wobbling almost a semitone either side of the target pitch. When you slow the music down it sounds comically awful, like a police siren . (I looked for a youtube live version and found her vibratoing between the target pitch and a semitone above. I guess that's what makes her voice stand out as "brash", poking you in the ear by averaging out as sharp.)
    And the speed is an important point. I read somewhere that the ideal frequency for vibrato is around 6 cycles per second. Any slower and it sounds like an out-of-tune warble (or siren as I said). Any faster and it's more like a shimmer, an unnatural effect.

    Certainly it's "cool" to play without vibrato, as Miles Davis did. It's significant that early jazz players used quite a lot, and it adds a definite fruitiness to their sound. It defines the vintage sax sound, eg., different from the drier, post-bebop sound.

    With string instruments like guitar, vibrato assists in sustain (not an issue for horns or voice of course, where sustain depends purely on lung power). In transverse vibrato (B B King style), scratching the string across the fret helps keep the note going.
    Of course, it emulates vocal vibrato, but vocal vibrato is a cultural habit, not a (totally) natural phenomenon.
    A lot of rock players like vibrato because of its emotional intensity. It's "expressive", but without actually expressing anything other than its own expressiveness. But that's rock guitar in a nutshell... (Like rock singers like to scream "woooaaaaahh!" for no reason other than it makes them sound like they're feeling something, anything. Listeners can then impute any feeling they want to it.)

    (Of course, I'm only jealous because I can't do B B King style vibrato... )

  10. #10
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    http://www.vai.com/LittleBlackDots/84/vibrato.html this is a cool take on Vibrato. or should I say vaibrato?

  11. #11
    bitter old fool Jed's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by metaljustice83
    http://www.vai.com/LittleBlackDots/84/vibrato.html this is a cool take on Vibrato. or should I say vaibrato?
    WTF ??
    A whole site dedicated the to the Black Dots of Doom?
    . . . . all hope is lost . . .

  12. #12
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    Apart from notes which specifically call for vibrato (eg as specified in the notation), Iíve deliberately picked up the habit of using slight vibrato on almost everything I play.

    I did that because I noticed that many of my favourite players do it ... they almost never play a plain note.

    If you listen to Scott Henderson, then it seems to me that every single note has got some vibrato on it ... ranging from almost imperceptible to really quite noticeable...and then of course to very obvious where the vibrato is specifically intended from the notation.

    Playing with very heavy or very wide vibrato does seem a bit an art form to me though, ie I find it hard to get the effect as strongly and clearly as some players do.

    Jon mentioned BB King, and of course heís quite famous as an example of vibrato in blues playing. But the wide aggressive vibrato used by some neo-classical players, is also attractive to me ... Wolf Marshall has some great examples on his little-known Malmsteen-style DVD ... eg here if you can stand the hair style & posing etc. , not the best example but itís all I could find from that DVD (you have to scroll down and click where it says ďTrack 1Ē http://www.musicroom.com/se/ID_No/076581/details.html

    Ian.

  13. #13
    Registered User jimc8p's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JonR
    My view is it became more popular as equal temperament became widespread, because the way it blurs pitches makes the out-of-tuneness of equal temperament more bearable. I think that is what it is "for".
    That's an interesting idea. I have definitely noticed that vibrato covers a multitude of sins (iow when your guitar's a little out). Although there is something like vibrato in many other cultures too. What would tremelo be for?

    Quote Originally Posted by JonR
    Personally I hate the sound of vocal vibrato in classical music, and think it's overused generally.
    Ditto. No classical instrument other than the human voice is abused like that! It's almost as if because vibrato is the benchmark of a good singer, it's always cranked up to full wobble!

    Quote Originally Posted by JonR
    I really like the sound of the Bulgarian traditional singers who don't use it (except as an occasional fruity effect, when they exaggerate it).
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdqjc...x=0&playnext=1
    - the soloist uses a fair amount of ornamentation (proper to that genre), but very little vibrato (eg briefly at 0:29, which may even have been accidental).
    She is using tremelo a fair bit though?

    Quote Originally Posted by JonR
    If you want to hear hilariously outrageous vibrato, listen to Shirley Bassey. I was transcribing Goldfinger and noticed on one of her last "gold"s, she was wobbling almost a semitone either side of the target pitch. When you slow the music down it sounds comically awful, like a police siren . (I looked for a youtube live version and found her vibratoing between the target pitch and a semitone above. I guess that's what makes her voice stand out as "brash", poking you in the ear by averaging out as sharp.)
    A lot of guitarists (Malmsteen etc) vibrato up to a whole-step. (I hate all that stuff.)

    Quote Originally Posted by JonR
    And the speed is an important point. I read somewhere that the ideal frequency for vibrato is around 6 cycles per second. Any slower and it sounds like an out-of-tune warble (or siren as I said). Any faster and it's more like a shimmer, an unnatural effect.
    Couple of examples I've noticed - Leona Lewis vibratos too slow, sounds like a siren as you said (I'll find a link at some point). Another one- Joni Mitchell often vibratos in time with the music (impressive but off-putting).

    Quote Originally Posted by JonR
    Certainly it's "cool" to play without vibrato, as Miles Davis did. It's significant that early jazz players used quite a lot, and it adds a definite fruitiness to their sound. It defines the vintage sax sound, eg., different from the drier, post-bebop sound.
    Vibrato is definitely "fruity"! Miles Davis's stuff is very straight lined with simple colours giving it a cool/dry/masculine feel. I think vibrato expresses in a more emotionally raw (heart-on-your-sleeve) kind of way. It's second nature to me (conditioned by guitar)...this is pretty dumb, but when I started to try improvising on piano, I couldn't stop myself wobbling my fingers on some of the keys! (on either hand!)

    Quote Originally Posted by JonR
    With string instruments like guitar, vibrato assists in sustain (not an issue for horns or voice of course, where sustain depends purely on lung power). In transverse vibrato (B B King style), scratching the string across the fret helps keep the note going.
    Of course, it emulates vocal vibrato, but vocal vibrato is a cultural habit, not a (totally) natural phenomenon.
    A lot of rock players like vibrato because of its emotional intensity. It's "expressive", but without actually expressing anything other than its own expressiveness.
    Do you really think that BB was using his vibrato for sustain?? It certainly expresses a lot to me!

  14. #14
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jimc8p
    That's an interesting idea. I have definitely noticed that vibrato covers a multitude of sins (iow when your guitar's a little out). Although there is something like vibrato in many other cultures too. What would tremelo be for?
    Tremelo is an oscillation in volume, or a single note repeated. I guess (as the former) it would be for similar reasons to vibrato: to add emotive expression.
    As the latter, it's what instruments like mandolin do to sustain a pitch.
    Quote Originally Posted by jimc8p
    She is using tremelo a fair bit though?
    Not that I noticed - I need to give it another listen...
    The choir as whole don't, though. It's that smooth sound I like. (Only a matter of taste I guess...)
    Quote Originally Posted by jimc8p
    A lot of guitarists (Malmsteen etc) vibrato up to a whole-step. (I hate all that stuff.)
    Yes, I woudn't call that vibrato, it's more like a trill (at least if it's achieved by sliding up and down rather than bending). It's just another way to add "wow" factor. (Or "yawn" factor in my case .)
    [QUOTE=jimc8p]
    Couple of examples I've noticed - Leona Lewis vibratos too slow, sounds like a siren as you said (I'll find a link at some point). Another one- Joni Mitchell often vibratos in time with the music (impressive but off-putting).[/quote[Yes, some singers control their vibrato in very careful ways. I'm a huge fan of Joni (as composer and guitarist), but her voice is not one of my favourites. To be honest, I hadn't noticed how she uses vibrato.
    Quote Originally Posted by jimc8p
    I think vibrato expresses in a more emotionally raw (heart-on-your-sleeve) kind of way. It's second nature to me (conditioned by guitar)...this is pretty dumb, but when I started to try improvising on piano, I couldn't stop myself wobbling my fingers on some of the keys! (on either hand!)
    LOL. I've seen some pianists (who ought to know better) who seem to believe that piano keys have aftertouch (like synths); who think that how smoothly or gracefully they lift their hands from the keys makes any difference at all to the notes. (I suppose a lot of that is showmanship, the equivalent of a guitarist posing.)
    Quote Originally Posted by jimc8p
    Do you really think that BB was using his vibrato for sustain?? It certainly expresses a lot to me!
    I'm sure sustain was part of it. But of course it makes the notes fuller and richer too.

  15. #15
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    Quote Originally Posted by jimc8p

    A lot of guitarists (Malmsteen etc) vibrato up to a whole-step. (I hate all that stuff.)

    Quote Originally Posted by JonR
    Yes, I woudn't call that vibrato, it's more like a trill (at least if it's achieved by sliding up and down rather than bending). It's just another way to add "wow" factor. (Or "yawn" factor in my case .)
    They are not sliding the notes. It's just the normal guitarists vibrato technique of bending the note up and down, but the bends are very wide and aggressively executed. Eg as Jim says, through a whole step. Of course it's a matter personal taste whether people like that sound or not. But it is another variation on the typical bending vibrato used by electric guitar players.

    If itís true, as I suggested above, that some players use small amounts of vibrato on almost every note, ie as a basic playing style, then I think maybe that is being done to characterise and define a personal playing style.

    Afaik, classical guitarists execute vibrato simply by a slide or slur of the fretting finger up and down a little within a single fret position, ie along the length of the string and without deliberately bending the string across the width of the fretboard. That gives a very subtle vibrato, which most electric players regard as too weak. No doubt others have described that above.

    Of course, vibrato is achieved in the same way on classical violin, ie by slurring/sliding rather than deliberately bending, but afaik the vibrato effect is often much stronger than on classical guitar. On violin I think many classical players deliberately make those small vibrato slurs on almost every single note, ie as a means of developing a personalised "singing" quality to their general playing ... historically I think that's often been encouraged as a means of musical expression.

    When neo-classical guitarists play that very wide aggressive vibrato, then afaik the original intention of that was/is to emulate the more dramatic vibrato produced by classical violin.

    Whether people like that effect or not, is of course a matter of personal taste. I like it (as far as I've heard it used within the context of neo-classical rock), but I can appreciate why others think it's crude or whatever (perhaps many guys just donĎt like neo-classical rock stuff anyway lol).

    Anyway, thatís just addressing Jimís original question - ď Vibrato, what is it for exactly? Ē .

    Ian.

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