Badass Bends and Vicious Vibrato—Greg Koch Reverse Engineers the Gristly String Yanks of Blues and Rock Legends

Bends and vibrato are mirrors of the soul. That’s why some guitarists have this queer, quivering little vibrato that makes you think to yourself, “This person is deeply troubled and perhaps in need of counseling or hugs—not from me personally, but perhaps from a medically trained professional.” Good vibrato, on the other hand, is why a guy with only a five-note vocabulary can be an absolute demon on the guitar. One thing that always makes ol’ Eric Clapton such a savage beast is his vibrato. That wail he had going is why people were calling him “God.” Of course, Clapton still bends with great savagery, but, needless to say, he played with a little bit more knife-to-the-throatedness back in the Cream days. He was really, as I like to say, pummeling the gristle with great vehemence.
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If you want to achieve a similar vibrato yourself, the first thing to do is bust out your trusty E minor pentatonic scale [Ex. 1] and work on developing a solid 1st-finger vibrato, which can be a pain in the buttocks to get dialed in right. Clapton would really make this note [Ex. 2] sing, as his 1st finger sat on the string, floating first up and then down undefined repeatedly to create vibrato. The tone gets extra gristly, of course, when you add a little paste—that is, overdrive—by kicking on your favorite stompbox of destruction. Next, you need to expand into more complete phrases. Here’s a classic E pentatonic Claptonism that ends with the first-string, 1st-finger vibrato we’ve been talking about [Ex. 3]. Try other Clapton moves, such as this one in the key of A [Ex. 4]. It’s hard to get a good vibrato like Clapton’s going. It takes lots of playing and lots of listening.