String Bending (vibrato)

I saw Queen in Philadelphia last night and it was absolutely fantastic. Over the top sonically, emotionally and visually. I wouldn’t expect anything less from them actually. Brian May, did one of his time stopping, gripping guitar hero style solo features. It got me thinking about the vibrato technique. Where did it come from? Who was the first to use it effectively? Why does it exist? Before i go on, i just have to say that Brian May’s is amongst the best of all time at this technique. No one knows exactly where it originated, but its clear that it eminated from the blues. You can hear it amongst some of the delta blues players like Robert Johnson and Son House. Later on in the late 1940’s and 50’s, that sound travelled to Chicago and got amplified. Players like Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, and Otis Rush were all very much using string bending and the vibrato technique by then. What is vibrato? Wikipedia defines it as “a technique produced on a string instrument by cyclic hand movements. Despite the name, normally the entire hand moves, and sometimes the entire upper arm.” Think of it as a singing lyrical quality. Picture those fantastic sustained runs towards the end of a song like “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and how they just sort of seem to float and linger forever, that’s vibrato in action. There are stories that B.B. King was one of the first guitarists to make string bending acceptable to modern blues and rock guitarists. His older cousin, Bukka White, was an accomplished blues guitarist himself. B.B. used to sit and listen to him play slide guitar and was trying to emulate that vibration he heard from the slide moving back and forth quickly over one note. Surely, others came up with string bending on electric guitar around the same time. A well known blues player, Mike Bloomfield was known for his copious amounts of string bending and affinity for blues guitar styles in general. He played on Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.” Before the session Dylan turned to him and said “Just play it staright, i don’t want to hear any of that B.B. King shit.” I hope this post inspires you to go home and pull out your favorite Blues and Rock albums and go hunting for some more examples of that great technique, “vibrato.” -Daniel