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Improving Vibrato Control: A Guide for Bassists

Double bass
Photo by Squeezyboy

If the first step in acquiring control of our vibrato is to obtain a smooth motion that we can turn on or off at will, then the next step is to gain control over the speed and width of the vibrato. Being able to adjust the speed and width of a vibrato is indeed a valuable skill. Having this kind of control enables us to present a more subtle and artistic performance than we could without such control.

There are four basic types of vibrato, which we should be able to control:

  1. Fast and narrow
  2. Fast and wide
  3. Slow and narrow
  4. Slow and wide

I suggest the following simple exercise to gain control over these four types:

  • Pick a scale
  • Pick a vibrato type from the list above
  • Play the entire scale at a slow tempo, using multiple bows per note, while keeping the vibrato exactly the same throughout the entire scale. For example:
    1. Play a 3 octave F major scale
    2. At 60 bpm
    3. Four whole notes per pitch
    4. Using a slow and wide vibrato
    5. Keeping the vibrato the same width and speed in the upper register as you had in the low register
    6. Yes… it may sound awkward and/humorous at times
  • Repeat using another vibrato type
  • Repeat using another vibrato type
  • Repeat using the remaining vibrato type
  • Do this for at least one week, or until it is easy for you

There are two goals this exercise. First is to gain physical control over your vibrato motion throughout the entire range of the bass. Second is to open your ears to how various vibrato types sound in different registers.

As you work through the previous exercise, you will hopefully discover that each vibrato type has a unique effect on the listener, and that it varies based on the pitch level. In general, you will likely find, among other things, the following to be true:

  1. Fast and narrow vibrato sounds better in the upper ranges
  2. Slow and wide sounds better in the lower ranges
  3. Slow and narrow is more subtle
  4. Fast and wide is more intense

Once you can perform the four types of vibrato in all areas of the bass easily, start mixing it up. Using a slow scale (as in the exercise above), vary the vibrato type randomly. Play one note with a fast/narrow vibrato and the next with a slow/wide vibrato, etc. Work on this until you can switch between the vibrato types with ease.

After you have mastered this, start experimenting with your vibrato speed in your repertory. You have a new tool of expression.