Learn the vibrato styles of 5 giants of the blues

B.B. King
(Image credit: Rick Diamond/WireImage)

One of the most distinctive features of any electric guitar player is their vibrato. We’re dealing with finger vibrato rather than whammy bar, inspired by players such as Paul Kossoff, Peter Green, Stevie Ray Vaughan and B.B. King, whose vibratos differ greatly in terms of speed and depth.

In another case, that of Gary Moore, this can also stretch to how long you might sustain a note before introducing the vibrato gradually. As a starting point, I’m identifying some distinct elements of this technique that have been helpful to recognise over many years – and explaining them as coherently as I can! 

The permutations are obviously huge, but we can zone in on details such as raising a note momentarily sharp, then releasing it back to the original pitch, or partially releasing a string bend then returning it up to pitch in a ‘down-and-back’ pattern (think Peter Green). We can also combine both above and below the central pitch of a bend, like Paul Kossoff.

There are tell-tale hand positions that go with certain vibrato styles, so it’s worth searching out whatever video footage you can of players whose vibrato you admire. B.B. King and Eric Clapton favour lifting the fretting hand thumb away from the back of the neck and rocking the whole wrist and forearm to add vibrato to static (namely, not bent) notes.

For vibrato on string bends, there is a similar rocking motion but with the thumb anchored over the top of the fretboard. The fretting fingers remain locked in position, with the wrist and forearm muscles providing the movement – the same muscles we use when turning a key or opening a door.

To get the full effect of these examples, you’ll need to hear the audio in addition to the transcription here. Hope you enjoy these ideas and see you next time!

Example 1

(Image credit: Future)

This first example is inspired by Peter Green. A ‘down-and-back’ vibrato is generated by partially releasing a string bend then returning to the target pitch, which gives a very distinctive effect, which you’ll also hear in Gary Moore’s playing sometimes. 

This approach seems to be most effective when added to a pre-bent note. After holding still for a second, you can increase the vibrato gradually or dive straight in. These subtleties are what makes this technique so personal and distinctive.

Example 2

(Image credit: Future)

Adding vibrato to static (non-bent) notes like this means going slightly up in pitch then releasing to the original note. This can be done quickly or slowly according to taste, with B.B. King erring on the faster side and Eric Clapton slightly slower and more subtle. 

In both cases, the fretting hand thumb is lifted away from the back of the neck to allow the wrist and forearm to rock to and fro. The fretting fingers are kept relatively rigid.

Example 3

(Image credit: Future)

In this example, I'm adding vibrato to a string bend going above then returning to the target pitch in an ‘up-and-back’ pattern. It gives a different quality and emotional impact and was favoured very much by Gary Moore. 

The fretting hand thumb is clamped over the top of the neck to give leverage and the fingers are held pretty rigidly while the wrist and forearm adopt a rocking motion, similar to twisting a door knob. It is this that generates the vibrato, rather than the fingers themselves.

Example 4

(Image credit: Future)

Paul Kossoff and Angus Young have a very distinctive vibrato – which is very difficult to copy! In this example, I’ve tried to highlight how a wider ‘above and below’ vibrato can give us another option.

Different speeds will give different results, and it’s sometimes fun to go over the top then rein it back in for dramatic effect. Ideally, I would like to have wobbled that last note a bit wider and quicker, but you get the idea!

Example 5

(Image credit: Future)

This slower, wider vibrato is most distinctive on static notes, but as you’ll hear I’ve applied it to a bend near the end of the phrase. Jimi Hendrix, SRV and Zakk Wylde are great examples of players who employ what can be quite an aggressive-sounding vibrato.

Though the static notes limit us to ‘up-and-back’, I’ve gone a little above and below on the bends. The best way to assess how you’re doing with all this is to record yourself and listen back.

Hear it here

Peter Green – The Best of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac

Starting with Albatross, you can hear the rapid ‘down-and-back’ vibrato in Peter Green and Danny Kirwan’s super-accurate harmony guitars. It’s also on Black Magic Woman, but like many of the finer things in this world, it’s subtle, so listen closely.

Finally, you’ll hear it through the layers of guitars on The Green Manalishi, though some of the older tracks such as Stop Messin’ Round showcase a fine B.B. King-style vibrato, too.

Free – Fire and Water

It would be easiest just to cite every track on here, but some particular highlights are the title track, featuring almost endless sustain and vibrato. Also, check out Oh I Wept and Mr Big

As well as Paul Kossoff’s famous vibrato, there are some unusual and very effective chord voicings. It’s also quite educational to hear how much power and drama they were able to create with a bare minimum of overdubbing or effects from the recording studio.

Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble – Pride & Joy

Another case of being able to recommend the whole album: this posthumous release from 1990 pulls in material from a variety of sources, including live recordings.

At certain points you can hear SRV mixing and matching pretty much all the techniques we’ve looked at here; Texas Flood is a great example, as is You Better Leave My Gal Alone. Perhaps the ultimate display of his prowess is the blistering cover of Voodoo Chile.

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As well as a longtime contributor to Guitarist and Guitar Techniques, Richard is Tony Hadley’s longstanding guitarist, and has worked with everyone from Roger Daltrey to Ronan Keating.