How to Move Your Hand to Play a Vibrato on the Fiddle

By Michael John Sanchez

The first thing you need to understand with vibrato on the fiddle is that it’s all about consistency. This means that every movement that you make with your hand back and forth should be exactly the same, with no variation in the distance or speed. Listen here to understand consistency versus inconsistency on the fiddle.

One problem you’ll face is that you’ll want to move your hand too quickly, which is the worst thing you can do. Although vibrato sounds best when you master a quick movement, it’s virtually impossible to do at first. You need to make slow consistent movements, and over time, the speed of the vibrato will increase. Forcing the speed is not good.

Choosing your wrist or forearm to create the vibrato movement

There are two different ways to create vibrato movements:

  • Using your left-hand wrist

  • Using your left forearm

Which one you choose is totally up to you; some people find one way easier than the other. Forearm vibrato is easier to do consistently than wrist vibrato. Forearm vibrato is safer if you want to develop a consistent, beautiful vibrato, but either one takes time and practice.

Whatever method you choose, never combine the movements of both the forearm and the wrist — it’s either one or the other.

There are multiple views on vibrato. Some of the best fiddle players in the world do wrist vibrato, but keep in mind that they’ve spent a lot of time mastering the movements with the wrist. You can be successful with either one, but not forcing the speed too soon and maintaining consistency is key in both types of vibrato.

Don’t choose wrist vibrato just because you can move your wrist faster — choose whichever one comes naturally to you, and stick to it.

Laying a foundation with proper arm movement

A good way to start with the forearm vibrato is to shake someone’s hand. When you do this, you don’t move your wrist or fingers, do you? It would be a little creepy if you were to move your fingers in a handshake! The movement you make with your forearm and hand during a handshake is very similar to the movement of vibrato, only your arm is vertical instead of horizontal.

Now follow these steps to help lay the foundation for forearm vibrato. This process doesn’t add the bow into the equation yet — doing too much at first can be too challenging.

  1. Set up your left hand properly by putting your thumb in the proper spot on the fingerboard, positioning your hand in a high position, and turning your hand so that it’s an inch away from the neck.

    Take a look at this hand position.

    [Credit: Figure by Rashell Smith]
    Credit: Figure by Rashell Smith
  2. With a loose hold on the fingerboard, move your hand toward you and away from you very slightly but don’t slide your thumb — only rock your thumb.

    Make sure you maintain your hand position. Each movement back and forth should go about a centimeter and should go at the same speed forward and back. A good speed to start with is to complete two movements in one second. This is probably a lot slower than you’ll want to go, but try it anyway!

    If you’re holding the fingerboard too tight, you’ll have a hard time moving your hand for vibrato. It’s important to have a loose hold, so make sure you’re holding the fiddle correctly with your chin and shoulder. Otherwise, you may rely too much on your hand to hold the fiddle, which can restrict movement of the vibrato.

  3. Look at your hand and try to bring it directly toward you back and forth.

    The incorrect movement is opening up your hand instead, which will seem more natural to you. This is the hardest and most awkward movement, and it takes time to master.

  4. When you feel like you’ve mastered the proper movement of your hand, put a finger down on the fingerboard while doing the same movement as described in the previous steps.

    The finger that you just put down should rock back and forth like a rocking chair. Make sure the finger never slides, but only rocks. Because your forearm is moving, your finger moves along with it. You should never force your finger to move.

Was that process confusing? If so, watch this fiddle playing vibrato to guide you through the steps one by one. This is the first part on learning how to master vibrato. Next, you will need to learn how to play vibrato with the bow. Developing a consistent vibrato takes a lot of patience and practice.

Work through this process for a week or two minimum, before and after each practice session for about five minutes. Don’t move on until you really feel you have the proper movements, which takes time. Take a look at this checklist of things you should be thinking about when doing the first steps of vibrato:

  • Is my hand relaxed?

  • Is my hand in the proper position, including my thumb and knuckles up high?

  • Am I holding the fiddle properly with my chin and shoulder?

  • Am I going slow enough so that I’m able to create consistent movements?

  • Are my fingers rocking instead of sliding?

  • Am I being patient and understanding the process?