Why do guitarists shake fingers? This technique is known as the finger vibrato, and musicians often do this when playing a long note on their instruments. This technique is used to create a warbling, fluctuating sound effect with your hands.
If you’ve watched performances by B. B. King, John Mayer, Eric Clapton, Slash, and basically every other guitarist worth their salt, you may notice that there are times when they shake their fingers while pressing on the strings and playing a long note.
What is the purpose of this? How does this affect the note being played? Is it necessary? Are there other special effects needed to do this? Is there a method or technique to do this on your own guitar?
We’ll try to answer these questions for you in this article.
What is the Finger Vibrato?
For a more technical definition, finger vibrato is a technique used by musicians, not just guitarists alone, on their string instruments using cyclic movements on their hands. Despite the term “finger vibrato,” it’s not just the finger that moves or vibrates but rather the entire hand, wrist, or arm of the player.
The finger vibrato technique was first used in other string instruments like the violin and cello. However, it has been a huge part of the guitar music industry as well, especially the blues and rock genres.
The basic principle of this technique is to press on the string and move it up and/or down with your fingers. You will often see classical guitarists use this technique. However, it’s much more effective in electric guitars since the pickups on this instrument are much more sensitive to vibrations.
How to Do a Finger Vibrato on Guitars
There is no such thing as a “correct” vibrato. However, there are vibrato notes or techniques that sound good, and there are those that don’t. To do a finger vibrato like a pro, you want to press on the string first and let it hold for a while before proceeding with the vibrations.
It’s kind of like when somebody’s singing. When the singer immediately proceeds with the vibrato, the entire note would just sound off or funny. However, when the note is held for a second or two before adding the vibrato, the technique starts to sound better.
The same thing can be said with guitar vibratos. Even if you bend the string right away, you want to let the note sustain for a second.
So, how can you do a finger vibrato on your guitar? Here are three techniques you can use with your index finger. The best part is that even beginners will not have a hard time doing this.
Three Index Finger Vibrato Techniques
Some advanced guitarists use pinky fingers to create vibratos on the strings. However, this is often a problem for beginners since their pinky fingers aren’t often as flexible yet when they first start playing.
That’s why the index finger is a more effective option for those who have just begun their musical journey.
The “Hang Loose” Technique
The “hang loose” technique is popularized by guitar legend BB King. This technique got its name from the popular “hang loose” hand sign back in the early 2000s. It’s from the Hawaiian culture that means hello or “aloha.”
Basically, you extend your thumb and pinky finger while folding the others. When you apply this to your guitar, your index finger should press on the string. The rest, especially the pinky and thumb, should be extended.
After plucking the string, sustain the note for a second before swinging your hand from the wrist. This should pull the string back and forth as your index finger presses on it.
The main advantage of this technique is that the main pivot point is your wrist. This means you can be subtle or erratic with your vibrato. Twisting your wrist subtly will produce slow vibratos while twisting it erratically will produce faster vibratos.
The “Floating” Technique
The next method is called the “floating” technique, and it’s mainly popularized by Eric Clapton. As the name suggests, your entire hand and palm are mostly floating over the fretboard. Only your index finger should be in contact with the string and fretboard, which means your palm and thumb shouldn’t be touching the back of it.
While you press the string with your index finger, keep your other fingers close to it, so it’s easier to control your hand. Be sure to keep your index finger stiff since it’s not your finger that will make most of the movement but your hand.
Upon fretting the string with your index finger and plucking the string, move your hand up and down to bend the string. You can also decide how fast or slow you wish to move your hand to produce different vibrato tempos.
The “Circular” Technique
The last method is called the “circular” technique. Steve Vai is the most popular guitarist to use this technique. Despite the name, this technique does not require you to literally make a full circle with your index finger. Instead, it’s actually a half-circle.
The main difference this has from the other techniques is that instead of pulling the strings up and down from their original position, the circular technique only pulls it down and brings it back to the original position.
To do this, press the string with your index finger and use your thumb as a lever to press the back of the fretboard. The rest of your fingers should extend outwards, be bent, or you can also place your middle finger beside your index for more control.
While pressing the string, make a half-circle with your index finger by pulling or bending the string down and bringing it back in the middle. One advantage of this technique is that the vibrato is more even.
The other techniques tend to be more erratic because of the upward movement of the string. However, since the circular technique only pulls the string downward, the vibrato is more controlled. That’s why this technique works well with ballads or slow songs.
Other Guitar Vibrato Techniques
Aside from pulling the strings up and down, there are also other methods to create vibratos on your guitar. The best part about these vibrato techniques is that you don’t have to bend just one string but can actually be used with a full chord.
One method is by using the tremolo or “whammy” bar. This is a stainless-steel bar that’s connected to the bridge. After playing a chord or note, you can hold onto the tremolo bar and pull it away from the guitar and back. This will pull the entire bridge a bit, therefore producing vibratos on all of the strings.
Another method is by shaking the guitar itself. Some guitarists wiggle their instruments from side to side. While this may not be as effective as the other techniques, doing so will still produce subtle vibratos.
An electric guitar is one of the most versatile musical instruments you can use as a musician. It is Tom Petty who once said, “no matter how long you play the guitar, there’s always something else to learn.”
For today, we hope that the vibrato technique, or “shaking the finger,” is the one thing you learned. Keep on practicing your instrument, and let us know if you develop new techniques to share with the world!
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.