Why Steve Vai’s vibrato is unlike any other guitar player’s – and how he came up with his innovative ‘circular’ approach

Steve Vai performs in concert during Noches del Botanico music festival at Real Jardín Botánico Alfonso XIII on July 18, 2022 in Madrid, Spain.
(Image credit: Mariano Regidor/Redferns)

Vibrato is, in essence, a guitar player’s calling card. It signifies the intent of the note, and indeed, the intensity, with players like Zakk Wylde and B.B. King shaping their entire careers around the distinctive way they wobble those strings.

Yet no vibrato is quite so technically unique as that of Steve Vai, who fashioned his own ‘circular’ style in order to manipulate the note’s pitch according to his own artistic vision.

Vai likens vibrato to “the soul of your note”, and in a 2018 masterclass with Guitar World, he demonstrated how he came up with his distinctive hybrid style.

Noting how conventional up-and-down rock vibrato only raises pitch, while the classical side-to-side method can make the note go slightly flat, Vai describes how he combined both styles.

“The vibrato I use is more like a circular vibrato,” he explains. “It’s a mixture between the two. The intonation is going to be there because I’m going around the note and also it gets a little flat. So I get a little flat-sharp, flat-sharp.”

The flattening of the pitch is subtle – a few cents at most – but it’s enough to give Vai a formidable command of his delivery that sets him apart from his virtuoso contemporaries. Unsurprisingly, he spent a lot of time honing the technique in all its manifestations, both physically and mentally.

“It’s very important to have a great control over your vibrato, so I would practice all the different varieties,” he explains.

“Having control of the speed of your vibrato is a delicious thing, but it takes practice. It’s more of a state of mind than it's a control of the muscles – you know that the muscles will react based on your state with it.”

During a live show, you’ll find Vai employing all styles of vibrato according to his melodic intent, but his circular style remains the approach he employs most.

The strength and character of his method is best demonstrated on 2021 track Knappsack, which the guitarist performed solely with his left hand while recovering from shoulder surgery, his trademark vibrato eking out the sustain that his right-hand picking might normally supply.

As a master of vibrato in its myriad forms, Vai has a few tips for developing the technique. For one, he recommends practicing vibrato across every area of the neck – noting it’s tougher on the B and high E strings given they’re nearer the edge of the fretboard – and experimenting with the way the pitch bends.

All that woodshedding on the building blocks of guitar playing will pay dividends when it comes to the overall delivery of each and every note, he concludes.

“Practice stretching notes and adding vibrato, and practice different speeds and different widths,” he advises. “If you focus on those, they naturally come out in your playing based on the intention of the melody.

“Ultimately, what you’re looking for is ease of control flowing, without thinking, and nice intonation, nice tone. And those simple techniques are very helpful.”

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month**

Join now for unlimited access

US pricing $3.99 per month or $39.00 per year

UK pricing £2.99 per month or £29.00 per year 

Europe pricing €3.49 per month or €34.00 per year

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Prices from £2.99/$3.99/€3.49

Michael Astley-Brown

Mike is Editor-in-Chief of GuitarWorld.com, in addition to being an offset fiend and recovering pedal addict. He has a master's degree in journalism from Cardiff University, and over a decade's experience writing and editing for guitar publications including MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitarist, as well as 20 years of recording and live experience in original and function bands. During his career, he has interviewed the likes of John Frusciante, Chris Cornell, Tom Morello, Matt Bellamy, Kirk Hammett, Jerry Cantrell, Joe Satriani, Tom DeLonge, Ed O'Brien, Polyphia, Tosin Abasi, Yvette Young and many more. In his free time, you'll find him making progressive instrumental rock under the nom de plume Maebe.