Vibrato–the Final Condition

What Really Makes the Vibrato Sound?

Sometimes teaching  is, for me, a learning moment at the same time it is for a student. Case in point: I was showing an adult fiddle student, Shirley, how to do vibrato. In the process of demonstrating how it’s done I focused on the movement of the finger tip pressing the string.

We got to the final condition of vibrato to begin with, rather than at the end as I have often taught it. That’s the movement back and forth of the finger tip. This slightly alters the point of contact on the string, making it longer and shorter. Thue, the pitch changes slightly as the string length changes.

This motion has no effect on a fretted instrument. The fret stops the string at a certain length. You can move your finger closer to the fret or further away without changing the pitch. With a fretted instrument you must pull or push the string to the side, increasing the tension. That’s what raises the pitch. Going side to side quickly creates vibrato.

Discussing this final condition of the finger tip movement, we looked at our violins in front of us, held like a ukelele. You can clearly see the movement this way. And the arm is more relaxed, which might make it easier to do.

The bottom line was that Shirley just started doing vibrato without further struggle. I was surprised and pleased at how quickly the vibrato began sounding like a normal one. So was she.


Refer to the images for the point of view. The image on the left shows the finger rocked back, away from the bridge. In the middle the finger is in its normal position. On the right the finger is rolled forward a little bit. These series of snapshots show the finger in its final condition to produce a vibrato.

Start Your Vibrato

So, how do you get there? Well, let’s back up. If your finger is moving back and forth, your hand is also moving back and forth. The hand is connected at the wrist to the forarm. Does the forearm also move back and forth?

If you are just getting involved with vibrato you should know that there are two main approaches to make the finger do what it has to do. One is a wrist vibrato, and the other is an arm vibrato.

Sometimes beginners will try to get going by wiggling the finger alone. This does not work very well. I’ve never heard a good sound from this. Here’s what you have to do.

In the case of the wrist vibrato, your hand will move back and forth, pivoting from the wrist. The wrist is the anchor. The forearm does not move.

If the back of the hand remains aligned with the forearm and both are moving together, you have an arm vibrato.

I teach what I do, the arm vibrato. More violinists do this than the wrist vibrato. I don’t know if the 80/20 rule applies, but I suspect it does, just from casual observation.

Only a few years ago I was convinced that the arm vibrato was the only rational approach. Now I don’t think that way. I’ve heard good sound coming from wrist vibrato players.

Really, it’s not how you get to the finger tip, it’s what happens at the finger tip that gives you a good sound. That’s the final condition of vibrato.