Vibrato is one of the most expressive techniques in music. Most notes you hear have a little bit of vibrato (intentional or not). Vibrato is when you vary of the pitch of a note. This is done on the ʻukulele by moving the string slightly. It isn’t hard to do and it sounds so good that it’s easy to get carried away with vibrato. Experiment and see how it applies to your music.
Bonus: Vibrato increases sustain!
Normal ‘Ukulele Vibrato
Normal vibrato is made by moving your fingers up and down with the ʻukulele frets, vertically. This is what you see most rock/blues guitarist use. The string moves up and down on the frets like a fast group of mini-bends. It is a pronounced vibrato and can be used to emulate the human voice.
Like most ʻukulele techniques, vibrato can be done a few different ways. Always fine-tune things so that they work best for you (keeping in mind the general technique so you aren’t going to hurt yourself of your playing potential). That said, here’s the approach that seems to be the most common:
Hold a note and lighten your grip on the neck considerably. You want things to float. Maybe try literally letting things float – remove your thumb from the back of the neck altogether. This will make your vibrato very loose (just be sure not to drop your ʻukulele)! Then pick the note and rock your wrist back and forth using it as the pivot point and power for moving your finger up and down. Let the neck move around a bit if it wants to.
Classical vibrato is created by moving your finger inside the ʻukulele fret horizontally – with the direction of the string. This is a more subtle vibrato and is probably harder to do than the normal kind. Brittni Paiva uses this kind of vibrato quite a bit.
Play a note and then move your whole hand back and forth parallel with the ʻukulele string. You are moving your hand around the fretting finger as it wiggles. The idea here is that when your hand goes towards the soundhole, you are in fact moving more of the string back over the fret, loosening the string and lowering the pitch. When your hand moves away from the soundhole, the string goes back to its original position or a bit sharp as you pull the string back over the fret, raising the pitch.
In ʻukulele tab vibrato looks like this (a curvy dash around the note: ~):
And in a full-staff tab it is a wavy line:
How to Play Vibrato Video Lesson:
It’s always good to have multiple opinions to draw from when attempting anything in life. Learning techniques is no exception. Here is my personal favorite take on the subject of vibrato. Of course, like many of my favorite things, it’s for guitar, but the principles are the same for ʻukulele. At the beginning he talks about normal vibrato and then towards the end (4:08) he talks about classical vibrato. If anybody in the world has perfect technique it’s probably Eric Johnson, so pay attention to the details of how he plays (easier said than done).