How To Play Barrés Without The Pain!

Firstly thank you to those of you who’ve sent me emails or dropped me a line via the comments box on your classical guitar questions. It’s really good to hear from you out there! And it means I can really tailor what I’m writing for you guys to cover off those burning issues for you and offer a little help, if I’m able. Do keep them coming.

So, today’s post relates to what seems to be a particularly hot topic for a number of you out there judging by the number of questions I’ve had on this issue.

What issue is that?

The humble, oh so useful, but oft troublesome barré.

Is that sore, hot, burning, achey feeling in the ball of your left thumb (or right thumb for left handed guitarists) familiar? Extreme tension, achey? Hate barrés?

Well, I sympathise. I’ve been there before in my formative years as a guitarist. I thought if I just press harder, just squeeze a bit harder the barré will sound, no buzzes, no dead thunking strings. Sound familiar? Well, all I got was a sore hand, and at some points a cramping, twitching thumb! Does that also sound familiar?

If it does, well it’s highly likely that just like I was, you’re thinking about the approach to the barré in completely the wrong way.

It seems to make sense that if one squeezes very hard with thumb behind the guitar neck and forefinger across the strings that this will achieve the desired result, right?  Incorrect. This squeezing and pressure creates a bad tension which is not only bad for you physically but makes it difficult to play.

But if you think about this away from the guitar, just looking at your hand right now as if you have your hand in a sock puppet, there’s not actually that much force that can be generated by such a small set of muscles is there? These muscles are really about refined movement. The end of a job that needs to be carried out by larger muscles.

Don’t think about squeezing, pressure and tension, particularly in the hand, thumb and fingers.

No, to play beautiful tension-free barrés all day long you need to think about weight, gravity, and using your bigger levers to do the bulk of the work for you.

Instead of pressing hard between finger and thumb, actually remove your thumb from the guitar neck and think about moving your hand in toward the neck of the guitar. The motion is kind of like you’d be patting yourself on the shoulder if there were no guitar there.

When doing this you need to be using primarily the muscles in your arm (your biceps should be doing most of the work), drawing your arm backward. And the weight of your arm should be assisting you in this with gravity drawing your below towards the ground. Use that gravitational force to assist you in hand and fingers into the soundboard. Always make sure your shoulders are not up around your ears, that they’re nice and relaxed.

It’s kind of hard to describe in words! And each one of you will, I’m sure, play in slightly different positions and approach this slightly differently.

If you have a teacher I strongly encourage you to work on this with them, or at least have someone that can watch you and provide pointers.

If not, just experiment with it. Either way I actively encourage you to play around with this and experiment with different angles of the guitar, neck, your arm and hand.

Yes, it will feel weird and completely strange to begin with. I can pretty much promise you that! But do persevere with it as the alternative is not a great option! This is just the beginning of a good barré technique – there are other elements to this technique which I can delve into in further blog posts. Try this for now though.

Once you feel like you’re getting your barré under control a little a great exercise to try is Sor’s Study in B Flat Major. A beautiful little piece that’s a great exercise for developing barrés.


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!