The T-word

…or perhaps I should call this some obligatory pedantry on the subject of tremolo.

Obligatory, because tremolo seems to be the one right hand technique that every classical guitarist thinks about, talks about, looks for in other guitarists, and – yes, I do mean everybody who runs up blogs, books, method books, papers etc with the intention of trying to help – writes about. Pedantry, with its associated cynicism aimed squarely at yours truly, because I recognize that my telling you about what works for me doesn’t guarantee it working for you. I don’t profess infallibility or an understanding of The One Right Technique, and my approach and suggestions here are not meant to particularly challenge any of the pedagogy that’s already out there. This is what works for me, after I learnt to play one way, then experimented with every other suggested approach out there, then came back to this, and in case you haven’t yet found what works for you, I submit that you give it a try.

Broadly Speaking
It’s important to first understand what tremolo is, and especially if you’re one of their number, why most listeners enjoy it particularly, and why so many developing guitarists work so hard at perfecting it. Beyond being a technique that plays four notes over and over in quick succession, tremolo on the classical guitar presents the listener with two distinct voices – the melody, which comes from the repetitive i-m-a, which could well be a voice or strings section in a larger arrangement, and the accompaniment, which comes from the ‘harmony’ notes played with the thumb. Or, as John Williams once put it, the effect of a mandolin playing melody with an accompanying bass instrument. This presents an auditory offering that is replete enough to be a basic melody-harmony duet, and yet simple enough for what amounts to easy listening, unlike a brilliant and substantial fugue, for example. Having that ‘duet effect’ as an objective helps to manage the music you’re making when you play tremolo. Depending on the piece, it’s possible to present the bass notes as the melody and the tremolo itself (the repetitive treble notes) as the accompaniment – but either way, it’s handy to remember that tremolo is the teaming up of one fairly constant voice played on the treble notes (and with the right hand’s fingers), with another voice played largely on the bass notes, with the thumb.

Biomechanically
In strictly physical terms, tremolo involves playing a note with the right thumb, then working each of your three relevant fingers in opposition to it, most often in the order a-m-i. Moreover, each of these fingers works independently of the one that went before it, even though they ideally follow each other at quite a clip. So m does not arc down with a, and slightly behind it, and all three fingers follow each other independently, and return to the starting positions that would optimize their playing if they were working without the other two. Also, each finger, and the right hand in general, must be relaxed. After all, one finger playing one note at a time doesn’t necessitate any great expense of power, and so should not occasion any tension in the hand, right? Further, the only way to execute a quick tremolo is to keep your fast-moving fingers relaxed and in control – with that objective in mind, training the right hand fingers to make small, fluid, relaxed plucking movements is essential. The foundation for a good tremolo is best laid in slow motion, playing one note per second, or even per two seconds at first, with especial attention paid to the elimination of any tension in the right hand, and to making sure that when a finger that has just played returns to its starting position, it doesn’t settle too far away from the strings.

Musically
The point of playing tremolo is to give your listener – yourself or anyone else – two smooth voices that accompany each other through one song.

There’s a lovely saying that could and should guide the practice of all music, and it is particularly applicable to training tremolo – slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Which could also be reduced to the simple maxim: legato rules. When practicing tremolo, it is important to listen for evenness in both tone and volume, and to work on getting each note to follow the other smoothly. This smoothness is possible at any speed, even at your initial learner’s one note per second. If at first you find yourself struggling to play smoothly, imagine that you’re in a video, and playing faster – and the video is being played back in slow motion. It follows, from what I have suggested, that all notes be played free stroke – no need to resort to rest stroke, planting, staccato, because when you speed things up, the pace of your playing – and each finger following the other on the same string – will leave you wanting more sustain if anything, not less. I’ll go a step further, too, and warn you off impatience in practice: it is a quirk peculiar to tremolo, that if you can’t play it smoothly slow, you won’t be able to play it smoothly fast.

Functionally
By many accounts, tremolo pieces often feature on the classical guitar student’s bucket list, partly because they are often very pretty pieces, and partly because the unique demands tremolo places on the right hand make them uniquely challenging until the technique is properly figured out. For those that have the basic technique down, but are yet uncertain in and about their execution of it when playing, either for themselves or for an audience, here are some suggestions:

– A successful tremolo may be fast or – who am I kidding here – faster, but it absolutely needs to be smooth and accurate to work. Each finger must follow the other, and must not ‘jostle’ the one ahead of it. The time spent working on right hand legato, tone, volume, and spacing in practice is what makes or breaks it when you play at speed. Remember to be smooth – slower smooth tremolos sound better than really fast choppy ones. The point is to create an effect for the listener – and you don’t have to tear through it at any great speed to do that, even though that seems to have become the fashion in the past few decades. (the classical guitar has also become less and less widely known in those decades…hm! You’ll find my pontifications on a general sacrifice of musicianship for technical accomplishment elsewhere.) As a guitarist as well as an avid yet exacting listener, take it from me that anything faster than andante in 3/4 with 6 bass quavers is really just for critics and other guitarists. (am I alluding to our dear yet often remarkably unloved ‘RDLA’? Yes, naturally.)

– When playing, pick one voice as dominant, and sing it in your head. Often, it’s the bass line that lends itself best to this. Following it along helps to give a flow and evenness to your playing.

– Actively work on relaxing your hand, particularly the a finger. Whenever you find your tremolo getting choppy, focus on eliminating the tension that you’ll doubtless find creeping into your hand via that finger.

-Lift your wrist up, so your hand angles in towards the strings a little. This will increase your hand’s stamina.

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