Butterfly Vibrato: What It Is and How to Do It (2023 Edition)

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If you’re interested in learning more about butterfly vibrato and how to do it, this is the post for you!

Even though I’ve played the guitar since 2003, I wasn’t familiar with butterfly vibrato till doing research for this post.

And I’m excited to share what I’ve learned with you here on the blog!

What Is Vibrato? Explaining the Musical Effect and Performing Technique

Pretty much all music genres feature vibrato. This is what gives music some of its character and identity. Without it, many songs would just feel too sterile. This is part of the reason why both vocalists and instrumentalists use it. 

But what actually is vibrato? Many describe it as an effect that includes the pulsating change of pitch. It consists of two elements. The first one is pitch variation or the depth of the vibrato. And the second one is the rate or speed at which this pitch variation occurs.

Although these are its two main elements, vibrato provides for a lot of expressive qualities. If you apply it in the right context, you can adapt to a certain musical style. Of course, it’s not something that completely defines a style. However, it’s an important element that can help define it.

Like many aspects of music, vibrato often doesn’t take long to learn but can take years to master. And in most cases, it’s not something that you practice directly. You adopt a certain style of vibrato after years of experience.

Vibrato on Guitar

Vibrato is an important skill for guitar players. Many use it as an indicator of one’s playing skills.

Now, it’s far from the only element that can help you sound good. However, it can help you identify experienced guitar players and help you level up your sound on the guitar.

You achieve vibrato with your fretting hand. The movement of the fingers and the hand will determine its speed and depth. What we refer to as a quality vibrato is the one with precise speed and depth.

Therefore, it’s a good indicator of one’s fretting hand control. Additionally, paired with proper dynamics, it’s also an indicator of your picking hand control.

However, vibratos on fretted instruments are a bit tricky. The problem is that you can only go up in pitch. There are some cases when you can slightly pull the string and also go just a little bit down in pitch. But it’s barely even noticeable.

Therefore, a guitar can’t achieve what we call a true vibrato. Fretless instruments, on the other hand, can. This goes for violins, cellos, double basses, and others.

You can achieve these true violin-like vibratos on a fretless guitar. The other solution is to use a floating tremolo bridge. However, this method is way more challenging. So you rarely ever hear the true vibrato on a guitar. 

But there’s another way to achieve a true vibrato on a regular fretted guitar. You can bend up to the desired note and then go above and below it in pitch. This can be challenging as well since you need to have a good sense of pitch to execute it properly.

Nonetheless, both acoustic and electric guitars still offer a lot of expressive qualities. Although going only up in pitch, you can do all sorts of vibrato on the instrument.

Butterfly Vibrato Explained

Now let’s discuss butterfly vibrato. In most modern music, it’s not that common. However, it’s still something that you occasionally hear guitar players use.

It comes from old-school blues music. In particular, it’s associated with the master himself, Mr. B.B. King.

B.B. King’s playing included a lot of string bending and staccato picking as well. However, his shimmering vibrato often took the spotlight.

Now, we discussed speed and depth as the two main elements of a vibrato. So when I say that it’s shimmering or butterfly vibrato, this means that the rate is fast and that the vibration depth is shallower.

Such vibrato is really fast yet mild and comes in shorter bursts.  Perhaps, it’s better to compare it to a mosquito than a butterfly.

Even though BB King played slow, his playing was very unique. In fact, only a handful of players could imitate him. This is especially the case with his butterfly vibrato.

Performing it properly is actually pretty tricky. But to understand it, we’ll look at how B.B. King does it. Here’s a video where he does a lot of these butterfly vibratos.

How to Do Butterfly Vibrato on Guitar

Now, King’s vibrato is a bit unconventional. He usually didn’t grab the neck too tightly. The secret is to have more control with a gentler approach.

First, start by using the index finger of your fretting hand for this. The first knuckle of your index finger should rest on the back of the neck. And it should be away from the fret that you’re aiming for by the finger’s length.

This means that your index finger, and the hand position, will be at about a 45-degree angle to the direction of the neck. As you can see, B.B. King had his fingers in this position.

Then choose a note somewhere in the middle of the neck on the top 3 strings. In almost all cases, B.B. King’s shimmering or butterfly vibratos are on the top 3 strings. Although he also does them on lower frets, it’s easier for you to start here.

While holding the string down with your index finger and laying the first knuckle on the back of the neck, open up the hand. The remaining 3 fingers should be spread out wide. Meanwhile, you can move the thumb slightly away from the neck. It should still be behind the neck though.

Sure, this is a pretty weird hand position. But this is usually required to make things work.

Up next, move your entire hand in a fast up-and-down motion. Don’t go too wide, but give yourself some freedom here.  However, the index finger’s knuckle should always be the center of motion. Just make sure to hold it against the neck while your other fingers move freely.

Give It Your Own Stamp and Don’t Ruin the Magic!

It’s hard to entirely define this vibrato. That said, you’ll have a lot of freedom for your own unique expression of this style. Just like with everything in blues music, you’re free to improvise. You can still keep the character of B.B. King’s butterfly vibrato while sounding unique.

The idea behind this vibrato is always the same. However, there are a lot of variations to it.

Check out this performance from the 1960s to hear more butterfly vibrato!

BB King on Ralph Gleason's Jazz Casual 1968 Part 1


I hope this article has helped you understand butterfly vibrato and how to use it on your guitar!

And as usual, feel free to message me in the comments below if you have questions!

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