Sustain and Vibrato

Fretless 6-String Guitar Technique – Tim Donahue

III. Sustain / Vibrato

The mastery of a controllable vibrato will determine how well a note will sound and sustain. Even when chording, the control and usage of vibrato can be useful for those notes within the chord that are weak and need bringing out, vibrato can be subtle or drastic, but in either case, it is the very lifeblood of your sound. Consequently, the sound you develop is very personalized as vibrato and its usage differs from player to player.

Since no string bending is utilized in fretless technique, the up and down vibrato most commonly associated with blues players such as B.B. King and Albert King will not be discussed. Rather, the more classically orientated “stationary” and more eastern orientated “moving” vibratos will be discussed. Note that neither one is used as a substitute to cover up one’s intonation difficulties – vibrato merely gives life to a note. The goal of this chapter is to produce enough sustain through vibrato in order to move on to the rest of the book.

Stationary vibrato – Without sliding, the fingertip is “pivoted” around the note, back and forth, with the finger and wrist moving as one.

Fig. 4

If never seen done before, observation of a good cellist is recommended.

Moving vibrato – Involves actually sliding the finger back and forth over the intonation point. Much like using a vibrato-arm, the pitch can be drastically altered above and below the intonation point and therefore, a strong sense of where that point is, is essential.

Fig. 5

The speed and depth of the vibrato will depend on the piece or passage of music being played (which concerns “taste” and will be discussed in later books). For studying purposes here, try to attain a relaxed vibrato that is not too drastic in depth or speed, but long on sustain.


1a Playing chromatically in one position with the purpose of achieving identical sustain for each note using all the fingers (except thumb) of the left hand is a good warm-up. Remember: keep tempo slow and even, coaxing the most sound out of each note through a stationary vibrato. Starting with the 1st string, move through all six strings.


1b On one string, play up the neck chromatically shifting position. Repeat on all strings.


1c At a very slow tempo play chromatically on one string, this time by shifting position (in a classical fashion) and maintaining long, even tones all the way. Repeat on all strings.


Repeat all exercises using a moving vibrato, keeping tempo slow.

By using harmonics on open bass strings, good intonation can be maintained by first letting the harmonic ring, and then practicing the following exercises. One should actually try to remember the pitch of the harmonic as it will easily be overpowered by the fingered notes of the exercise. So even though it may not be heard throughout the exercise, one should get used to implanting the harmonic in one’s mind once it is struck. This “implanting” technique can be developed much further to the point of being able to pick out and remember notes that are definitely in tune during the performance of a piece of music. Play the following at a slow tempo:

1d In tempo, a G can be played on both 1st and 2nd strings, played against the harmonic at the 12th fret, 3rd string.


Note how the note is fingered with a different finger each time. Gradually increase speed maintaining a consistent pitch, doing the same for the following:

1e Harmonic is at the 7th fret, 4th string or 5th fret, 5th string.


1f Harmonic is at the 7th fret, 6th string.


1g Harmonic is at the 7th fret, 5th string or 5th fret, 6th string.


1h Harmonic is at the 12th fret, 4th string.


There are many possibilities, look for your own. Any note, whether available as a harmonic or not, should be practiced in this way maintaining consistent pitch and long sustain. Give special attention to the upper register as here is where the notes die away quickly. “Work” them out.

A word on right hand technique – to take advantage of the tonal possibilities of plucking at various places along the string’s length, usage of the right hand fingers is recommended. I use the fingernails and care is needed (much like classical guitarists) to keep them at a length that will produce good tone.

One should note the variations in tone that occur by plucking the string at places between the bridge and fingerboard and especially over the fingerboard, here is where we will direct our attention. Cellists and bassists use a similar technique of plucking over the fingerboard with the side of the fingertip, but the string height is high on these instruments when compared with that of fretless guitar, so concentrate on using the fingertip and part of the fingernail in attacking the string over the 15th – 20th fret area.

Try exercises 1a-1h using reststrokes and freestrokes over the fingerboard.

…section ends

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