Video Lesson: 5 Steps to Learning Tremolo Picking and Vibrato

Try these picking and exercises to improve your picking technique and precision and make your notes sustain and vibrate.

You want to develop a machine-gun–like attack with your picking, as heard in tunes like “Minor Swing” by Django Reinhardt and, um, “Sudden Death” by Megadeth, but don’t know where to start. At the same time, you want to make your notes sustain and vibrate like a singer—think Willie Nelson’s interpretation of “Georgia on My Mind” or Maria Callas doing “Ave Maria.”

Focus on repetition, with an emphasis on technique and precision in each hand. Ideally, you’ll acquire new techniques for playing the guitar and immediately put them to use making music by the end of this lesson. But first: technique!

Work on Pick Control
The pick is where your tone begins. Working on tremolo picking—a repeated articulation of the string(s), usually done very fast—is a great way to develop pick control, which translates to good tone. The ability to play one note repeatedly with rhythmic precision will also help you play faster and louder. Both of these acquired skills are part of a musical bag of tricks that will allow you to more freely express yourself.

Ease into tremolo picking with the three picking variations shown in Examples 1a–c. Start with your metronome set at 60 bpm and gradually increase the setting to 120 bpm or higher. (If this is challenging, refer to some of my earlier articles, as well as my Homespun DVD Pick Power.) Use a super-loose wrist and a relaxed pick grip in playing these examples, and remember to concentrate on rhythmic precision. You really want the metronome’s beats to disappear under your guitar’s sound.

You might have noticed that most of the examples in this lesson are based on a single pitch—the 12th-fret G—but you should obviously try each exercise in a variety of other locations. Thoroughness will keep you from becoming bored with the exercises and, more important, will best prepare you to use the techniques in context.


guitarist Paul Mehling demonstrates tremolo picking

Focus on Vibrato
Even if you’re not familiar with the term vibrato—the manipulation of a tone, usually done with rapid changes in pitch—you’ve no doubt heard this technique, which can add great emotion to music. Just about any kind of musician, whether it’s an operatic singer, violin soloist, or blues guitarist, relies on vibrato to connect with listeners.

There are essentially two ways to play vibrato on guitar: 1) horizontally (like a violinist), where the fretting hand swings back and forth in line with the string, and 2) perpendicularly, where the fretting finger(s) bends and releases the string repeatedly.

Classical guitarists tend to favor the horizontal type of vibrato for its subtlety, while blues and rock guitarists prefer the perpendicular for its power and urgency, as do gypsy-style players. Most gypsy guitarists follow the lead—no pun intended—of Django Reinhardt, whose vocal-like vibrato is one of the things that made him so very different from his contemporaries.

Vibrato is highly personal: some musicians prefer a wild, fast vibrato, while others favor a subtle, slow vibrato. But vibrato is perhaps most effective at moving the listener when its speed matches the tempo of the tune being played. These exercises are done in tempo at various speeds/note values so that you’ll be prepared for any musical situation.

Now get started with that vibrato. Try Example 2a, in which you bend the string slightly, not more than a half step, picking each beat. Note: Generally, in bending, guitarists pull the wound strings downward with the fretting hand, while pushing the unwound strings upward. Try pulling the high-E string downward and you’ll probably pull it right off of the fingerboard! Your fingers shouldn’t actually do the pulling; that should be done with your hand and arm, as it’s best to use bigger muscles whenever possible.

Experiment with using different fretting fingers when playing with vibrato. You may find that certain fingers are stronger or better at vibrating than others. For me, the first finger—the one I can always rely on to be the fastest/strongest/most accurate finger is not the best for vibrato. So I work on that finger—a lot. Next play Example 2b, picking the string every other beat.

closeup photo of a guitarist bending the high E string with their fretting hand index finger


Triple Down
In Examples 3a–b, return to the picking exercises, now with eighth-note triplets—three evenly spaced notes per beat. (Try saying, “trip – ah – let” to get the feel.) Guitarists generally tend to play the first note in a triplet with a downstroke and use an alternate picking pattern. But, when there are two groups of triplets in a row, playing them that way makes the second group sound a little weak since it starts with an upstroke, like in Example 3a. To address this problem, gypsy guitarists often use the picking strategy shown in Example 3b, hitting the first beat of the triplet with a downstroke, no matter what. This may require a bit of relearning, which is great—you’re becoming not just a gypsy-jazz master but a more fluid guitarist all round.

Bring Back Vibrato
The current thinking is that multitasking does not work—that you cheat one thing when you try to two things at once. But as a guitar player, you don’t have the luxury of focusing on just one thing—you’ve got to play with both hands and they’re doing two radically different things.

Start with Example 4—an exercise with vibrato and eighth-note triplets. Play those triplets with alternating downstrokes and upstrokes. Remember: as with learning any new music, if you cannot cleanly play a given exercise, slow it down. If an exercise is too difficult, drop back to the preceding example. There’s no use trying to put more tea in your cup than it can hold. Don’t try to learn too much too soon. It’s better to fully master a concept; even if it’s only mastered at a slow tempo, it’s still mastered!

Now try Example 5, with tremolo picking in the first bar and a long vibrato-inflected note in the second measure. As with all the exercises, aim for precision—make sure that the note values are equal (no loud/soft notes popping out), and try to match the sound of the vibrato to the sound of the tremolo.

Don’t try to learn too much too soon. It’s better to fully master a concept; even if it’s only mastered at a slow tempo, it’s still mastered!

It’s All About Context
Once you can play all of the exercises above accurately and at tempos above 100 bpm, you can start applying the techniques to anything you play—scales, arpeggios, melodies, and more. Example 6a adds vibrato to a scalar phrase. Notice that the vibrato is indicated not as a series of bends, but with a squiggly horizontal line. Remember to do that vibrato as before, in a rhythmic way.


Example 6b is the same idea, but with eighth-note triplets. After you’ve played Examples 6a and b, try them again but with tremolo picking in the second half of each measure instead of vibrato.

Your last and most difficult exercises, Examples 7a–b, have a series of chromatic eighth-note triplets, punctuated with vibrato and tremolo picking. In the last measure of Example 7b you’ll find the sign for tremolo picking—the slanted parallel lines in notation and tablature. Again, play these in a measured way and be careful not to drop the time when you switch between the triplets and the tremolo or vibrato.

Working on techniques like these can be frustrating as you try to grind off the rough edges of your playing—it can illuminate various things you need work on, and that can be an ego-killer. But don’t lose hope. Remember that the better connected you are to the instrument, the more satisfying it will be to play.


5 Steps to Learning Tremolo Picking and Vibrato musical notation and  guitar tablature, Examples 1- 7b

Acoustic Guitar magazine's September 2017 cover

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Paul Mehling
Paul Mehling

Paul Mehling is the founder of the Hot Club of San Francisco and is often referred to as the godfather of American gypsy jazz.

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