Vibrato on the Classical Guitar

How to perform Vibrato on The Classical Guitar

What is Vibrato?

Vibrato is the periodic variation in the pitch (frequency) of a musical note.

Fiddle family and wind players are very particular about Vibrato and can derive intensity and frequency.

Intensity is the variations in pitch. For example, vibrato oscillating between around 80 cents may be classified as a high intensity vibrato and 10 cents as low intensity vibrato. (Note: 1 Octave are 1200 cents apart. Each 100 cents is a semitone. So 1 Octave 12 notes each 100 cents apart).

Frequency refers to the rate of oscalation (how many times) of a particular note is being altered in pitch while sustaining it. Skilled players are able to perform vibrato controlling the intensity dynamically at accelerating and decelerating rate.

Limitations on The Classical Guitar

Guitar players on the other hand are not so particular about Vibrato. Quick decay and inability to accentuate notes naturally becomes a deterance in development of vibrato for any Classical Guitarist. Nevertheless, we can still find pleasure in performing the technique for a variety of reasons dispite unable to fully exploit vibrato. Here are some suggestions why Guitarist employ vibrato in our performances.

  1. Add musical interest to your pieces.
  2. Gives the impression that you are a good player to some of your audiences.
  3. Relaxes your muscles and can help reflex.
  4. Activates overtones from other strings for sonal effects.
  5. Add sightly more sustain in some situations.
  6. Also act as a timer for the rate of rubato. Help some players to “feel” the sustain by holding on to an already fully decayed note for phrasing purposes.

How to perform Vibrato on the Classical Guitar

We will be discussing 2 ways to perform Vibrato on the Classical Guitar. Mainly the Vertical and Horizontal Vibrato. (We will leave methods like pushing and pulling of the guitar head, cover/open soundhole out of this discussion as these are more widely used on acoustic than on the Classical Guitars.)

Vertical Vibrato

Vertical Vibrato is executed by moving the distal and proximal interphalangeal joint of the finger while having the string pressed against the fret. The motion of the fingertips dragging the string parallel to the fret altering the pitch higher and back to the pitch. The thumb is usually attached to the neck of the guitar acting as counter force.

Horizontal Vibrato

Rest the weight of the arm on the fingertips depressed on the string maintaining the shape of your hands. The motion for Horizontal Vibrato is powered from the forearm fixing the elbow like a pivot. The motion is similar to glissandos but at a miniature scale. This vibrato varies the high and low of a pitch.

John Williams’ version of Prelude from BWV 1006a, Lute Suite No.4 Sheet Music Score and Guitar Tab PDF

Prelude in E from Lute Suite No. 4 BWV 1006a – John Williams version PDF

Click here to download a free sample of Prelude in E, BWV 1006a from Lute Suite No. 4 – John Williams version PDF


This is my maiden and ambitious attempt to notate John Williams‘ playing of the Prelude of Lute Suite No. 4, BWV 1006a by Johann Sebastian Bach.

It is common knowledge that John Williams did not publish his interpretation of this piece as he believed that music should be unfettered by rigid adherence to standardised expectations or draconian rules. However, to preserve and to detail his playing would add to our understanding of how brilliant interpretation can make Bach come alive and in a way handhold budding guitarists in the personal journey to discover his musical direction through building on existing techniques. Breaking down the piece to bitesize levels, we can appreciate and pick up carefully skills employed by John Williams as he plays the piece and hopefully enhance our own performance.

It appears to go against the grain to bypass Bach’s conception of the piece based on yesteryears’ cultural and societal settings. One cannot deny though the evolution of music through the passing of time and season. John Williams’ interpretation embodies his person and history. As a legend for classical guitar, unlocking the secrets in a clinical study would be a gainful platform for personal development and future self expression. Take for example, Michaelangelo’s bust of David, his interpretation of David’s beauty has been replicated by many and later improvised. In the same vein, what we are doing here is to learn from the master and develop a personal voice ultimately.


Frequently Asked Questions

1. Did you key in all the notes in this John Williams version of Prelude in E, BWV 1006a?
No. I already have the notes of BWV 1006a in softcopy. I edited and checked the notes from there.

2. How do you determine the position and/or string of the notes used?
Based on the video, note by note. When John Williams’ left hand is out of the camera frame, I’ll look at his right hand to determine the string used. If both hands are not visible, I can only make calculated guesses.

3. How are the hammer-on and pull-offs determined?
It is really hard to accurately determine the slurs used. I used the following clue during the making. LH: Slightly raised finger before the note played for hammer-on. Finger touching a higher string immediately after the execution for pull-off. RH: No obvious finger movement of playing when the next note sounds.

4. How accurate are the records?
I would say about 95% of the left hand. (Not inclusive of those notes played with his hands out of the camera frame.)

5. Why did you use B and N instead of the Barre indicators that are more widely used?
I think the Barre brackets/indicator makes the sheet music messy. Barring brackets/indicator is useful if the required Barre is within the same bar or line of staves. There is no way you can indicate the start of barring in situation when the notes continuing onto the next line of staff or are too far apart.

6. Did you do it looking at the video at full speed when you make this thing?
No. I slowed it down using video editing software such that each semiquaver is slightly less than half a second apart.

7. How are the dynamic markings determined?
I take reference from the audio sound wave of the video to identify the different volume levels. The expression markings are based on the audio levels. Relatively, as are dynamics in musical sense.