Almost every music enthusiast who takes up a guitar is inspired by some of the famous guitar heroes. Some may not admit it, we all played in our bedrooms imagining that we’re playing in front of thousands. And we’ve all imitated the movements of our favorite guitar players one way or another. Pete Townshend has his “windmill” move, Angus Young has his “duckwalk,” Hendrix played behind his head, and so on. But have you ever wondered: why do guitarists shake their guitar?

Whether they’re crazy like Yngwie Malmsteen or are standing firmly like Tony Iommi, almost everyone shakes their instrument. Is there a secret behind this? Does it affect the tone?

Well, there are actually a few reasons why guitarists shake their guitars. Some of them are practical and impact the music itself. And some of them are more aesthetical in nature and are a part of showmanship. Sure, it might seem like a gimmick, but stage performance is still a huge part of rock ‘n’ roll.

And now you’re probably wondering “Should I shake my guitar while playing?” It’s certainly not mandatory and you’re free to do so. However, I’ve decided to dive deeper into this phenomenon and explain why guitarists tend to shake their guitars.

Practical Use of Guitar-Shaking

When we’re talking about practical reasons, shaking your guitar can help you achieve different effects. This comes down to subtle or not-so-subtle vibratos.

Vibrato

You’ve noticed that almost all guitar players implement vibrato in their lead sections (sometimes even rhythm parts). In fact, this is one of the elements that will help you sound unique. It gives character to your music and you’ll often need to implement it when you’re trying to imitate different styles. And remember – there are as many vibrato types as there are guitar players.

With that said, shaking your guitar can help you achieve the proper vibrato that you’re looking for. Even the subtlest form of vibrato can include some movement. And everyone from casual players and up to virtuoso shredders does it.

But we can differentiate the two kinds of vibrato, according to how they’re achieved:

  • You shake your guitar up and down, ultimately bending the strings as you would with your fingers only
  • Shaking the neck back and forth, which twists the neck a little and adds some vibrato

One thing that you need to bear in mind is that can’t easily achieve a true vibrato on a guitar. This means that the note can go up in pitch and back to its original pitch. The main reason behind this is the fact that guitars are fretted instruments. One way to go around it is to bend the string up to the desired note and then go up and down. Aside from having an actual fretless guitar, a dual-action tremolo bridge can help you go above and below the note.

Aggressive Vibrato

Then we have guitar players with a more aggressive vibrato. In such cases, you can notice guitar players shaking them more rapidly. One of the best examples is Zakk Wylde. Although you can see him doing most of the work with his fingers, the guitar also shakes up and down in the process.

Shaking your guitar can actually be very beneficial for an aggressive vibrato. It gives you more control, plus it adds the visual aspect that you might like. A more “aggressive” vibrato refers to going up and down with a bigger amplitude and more rapidly.

Bending a Guitar’s Neck

It may seem weird, but some guitar players also like to shake and bend their necks. In this case, they’re literally bending the construction of the instrument. According to some experiences, this is easier, and safer, to do with bolt-on necks. When you have a guitar with set-in or neck-thru construction, it might get a bit more difficult.

In some cases, guitar players can hold a note and grab the headstock, pulling it towards the strings. This way, you can go down in pitch a little. However, bear in mind that some guitars might be a bit fragile. This is especially the case with Gibsons as they have an angled headstock. Plus, their headstock construction makes them easier to break.

But pulling a neck subtly back and forth can add a subtle vibrato. Just make sure that your guitar can handle it.

Alternatives to Guitar-Shaking

Of course, shaking your guitar or its neck isn’t the only way to achieve a vibrato. There are suitable alternatives to consider here.

Let Your Fingers Do All the Work

While it might be a bit trickier to keep your guitar completely still, you can achieve a vibrato using only your fingers. For this, you’ll need a firm grip and proper technique to pull the string up and down. It might get a bit easier if you grab the neck with your thumb going over it.

Guitarist playing a black Fender Stratocaster on stage

You can also achieve vibrato by shaking your hand left and right. This literally pulls the string on both sides, which alters its pitch. This technique can help you take the pitch both up and down, turning it into a true vibrato. However, the pitch movements are much more subtle and way less noticeable compared to the conventional guitar vibrato approach.

Using a Tremolo Bridge

Another way to do it is to implement a tremolo bridge if you have one on your guitar. We can divide tremolo bridges into two groups – the classic one-way and “floating.”

The one-way tremolo bridge is what you have on most of Fender Stratocasters and its copies. These can only go down in pitch, which makes the process trickier.

The two-way or a “floating” tremolo bridge can go both ways. The most common example is the Floyd Rose tremolo or any of its licensed alternatives. With such a bridge, you can do pretty much anything you want, although it takes a lot of practice to get ahold of them.

We also have vintage-oriented Bigsby-style tremolo systems. While they operate differently and can achieve different sounds, Bigsby-style tremolos can only go down in pitch.

The Art of Showmanship: Shaking Your Guitar During Live Performances

There’s one thing that you need to remember here. Famous guitar players that you like to watch are what you’d refer to as “rockstars.” And, for better or for worse, they do like attention. Therefore, guitar-shaking is a part of their performance routine or just a way for them to play their part.

Sometimes, the whole guitar shaking thing is the result of their onstage antics and signature moves. Being within their stereotypical “rockstar” personas, they also often lived very fast lives, so to speak. Unfortunately, they weren’t strangers to substance abuse, often consuming a thing or two before the show.

As a result, some of our guitar heroes have acted a bit over-the-top on the stage, ultimately shaking their instruments. Breaking stuff wasn’t also uncommon. But all of these things are, unfortunately, due to stress they felt with excessive work and touring.

Should I Shake My Guitar Then?

So should you shake your guitar when you perform? Well, it’s definitely not a mandatory “technique,” but it can come in handy. At the end of the day, just like most of the stuff, it comes down to your personal preferences. Once again, we come down to the main two reasons why you should do it: practical implementation and showmanship.

If You Want to Do It, Keep Your Guitar (and Everyone Else Around You) Safe

Shaking and throwing your guitar around is all fun and games until you break something. And you don’t want to break your guitar (at least I hope so). If, for any reason, you feel like you want to do it, just make sure that your instrument is safe.

Sure, just some mild shaking for a subtle vibrato won’t do any damage. But imagine yourself stuffed with your band on a small stage at your local club. If you start shaking it all over the place, you risk hitting your bandmates, the drum set, or anything and anyone else near you. Not only can you damage your and everyone else’s gear, but you’ll risk injuring someone.

If you’re really keen on doing it, practice shaking your guitar at home. And if there’s anything else involved, like doing guitar spins, make sure to have a quality strap and quality strap buttons. For this purpose, strap locks, along with a quality strap, are the safest way to go.

Music Is Art, and Art Is All About Expression

Although there seem to be so many rules about techniques and music theory, music is all about your personal experience. Sure, you should learn all of these basic rules and spend time implementing them in practice. However, it’s up to you to implement them the way you want to and the way it fits your music.

The same thing goes about shaking your guitar. If it feels natural, helps you produce the sounds you want, and reflects your image – go for it! If you have other solutions for your vibrato and don’t feel like shaking your instrument – then don’t do it!

It’s all up to you and what you want to do. I’d advise that you play around and give it a try. After all, this is one of the methods for exploring your instrument and finding out what it can do. It’s better to know more about something than to never give it a go, right? Just make sure to keep your guitar safe.