Getting To Grips With Classical Guitar Tremolo For The First Time

There comes a time in every guitarists life when they really, really, really want to play that stalwart of the classical guitar repertoire Recuerdos de la Alhambra. Yes, we’ve all been there. And if you’ve not yet, well the desire will probably overcome you at some point, like the pull of The Ring to Frodo’s finger. Hah hah! Soundhole B&W

But before you can even think of tackling such a piece, you’ve got to get your fingers around the technique known as tremolo. It’s a pretty impressive sounding technique – a rapid flurry of notes with a supporting melody playing above or underneath.

I’ve had a couple of students recently looking at tremolo for the first time and a couple of you have written to me asking for my advice, so I thought a good topic for today would be getting to grips with tremolo for the first time (this could also be useful for getting back to basics and rebuilding an iffy technique!).

Before we take a closer look at the technique it helps to understand why we use tremolo (and I’m talking purely about classical tremolo here and not flamenco tremolo). Yes, it sounds kind of cool – which can be a good enough reason on its own, I admit! – but the tremolo technique is often used as a device to replace longer, sustained notes that other instruments can more easily achieve. Think of a piano with its greater power to strike a note and it’s large body to help sustain it or a violin or other orchestral stringed instrument that can sustain a note pretty much indefinitely through the bowing action.

This is the kind of thing we’re often seeking to evoke with the tremolo technique. So before cracking on into developing the technique think about what sound it is you’re aiming for – that sound akin to a very smooth continuous note, not just a whole bunch of really fast notes for their own sake!

So how do we approach learning tremolo?

This is my approach to teaching the technique:

(1) Place your a, m and i fingers on strings 1 (E), 2 (B) and 3 (G) respectively and your thumb (p) on the 4th string (D) and play a wee arpeggio through the open strings down from E through to D (a-m-i-p). Make sure the fingers don’t come up too far away from the strings and that they reflex back toward the string once played. Run that a few times.

Then perhaps change things up slightly – same right hand fingers on the same strings, but start with p this time instead of a so you’re playing p-a-m-i.

Easy enough? If you’ve been playing a little while then I dare say it would be.

Well, this action is, more or less, the same action as that used for tremolo just that a, m and i are playing all on the same string. p may be used on the same string too, but this often moves around the strings more as we find we generate the melody, more often than not in a tremolo piece, with our thumb.

(2) So take this concept, not speeding up any, just the same tempo as you were playing previously, but this time play with a, m and i all on the same string (1st string). You can play p on the first string too or keep it on, for example, the 4th string. This may feel a little strange a first because you’re probably not used to the sensation of the fingers in that position relative to one another, so sit with this for a little to get the feel of those three fingers playing in close proximity.

(3) The key to a good tremolo is to keep the right hand nice and light and keeping each of the notes evenly spaced. These ideas should take precedence over the idea of speed each and every time we play tremolo, or begin to work on the technique:

  1. Lightness of touch – don’t let yourself get bogged down in trying to squeeze the life out of the technique. Speed will come when it’s ready, so keep aiming for lightness of touch;
  1. Even spacing – this is all about control. Control of each finger, control of the thumb (it should be no heavier, or lighter, than the other digits), and control of the movements between digits. The movement from p to a, should sound and feel the same as that of the movements between a and m, m and i, i and p.

So now, do what you were doing as per item (2), but really pay attention to the control of the notes – eveness of tempo, eveness of dynamics (no one note sticking out louder or softer than the others), and of course, a nice, light touch. Keeping a light touch will really pay dividends when you start to ramp the tempo up. Playing like this is also programming into the brain and muscles of the hand and the fingers the movements that need to occur, in the way they need to occur, to produce the sound you’re after.

(4) Once you’re satisfied that you’re getting to grips with a SLOW, evenly played tremolo, then – and only then – this is the time to start building up speed. A good way of building up the tempo is to incorporate small bursts of speed into the playing – playing SLOWLY, then a wee speed burst, then back to SLOW playing.

An introduction to this idea is to play three sets of p-i-m-a as quavers (at whatever tempo feels comfortable to you) then add two further sets of p-i-m-a as semiquavers, followed by a final set of p-i-m-a as quavers.

I can highly recommend Scott Tennants book Pumping Nylon for his exercises on tremolo technique. The exercises on p.57 are great for first timers to tremolo.

I’ll follow this post up with another in the near future on taking your nascent tremolo technique to the next level. One step at a time though!

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3 thoughts on “Getting To Grips With Classical Guitar Tremolo For The First Time

  1. Thanks for such a great post. As an electric guitarist I have tremolos really easy so I’d never really thought much about how it would be done when finger picking.

    I was pleased to notice that it ends up being extremely similar to tremolo on the piano, though – even the preparation exercise is the same as the three or four note scales I used to practise to get the idea for the movement on a single note.

  2. A nice transition from the p-a-m-i descending arpeggio on the top 4 strings to playing ami on the first string is to go from the first descending arpeggio on four strings to a on 1 and m and i on 2 (p stays on 4 throughout) then progress to a and m on 1 and i on 2, then finally transitioning to a,m, and i on 1. I like to do about three reps at each position starting at a very slow tempo and gradually building from there. I’ve found this to be a quick and easy way to include tremolo practice in my daily warm-up routine. Thanks Nicole!

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