Guitar Technique Tip of the Month

Your Personal Guitar Lesson

Douglas Niedt




The pizzicato effect is a very interesting sonority that appears here and there in many classical guitar pieces. Most method books explain it in a paragraph or two. But there is a lot more to playing pizzicato than a paragraph or two. My technique tip includes 12 pages of detailed instructions, several musical examples, and 6 videos including one 30-minute video that shows every aspect (and then some) of playing pizzicato.

You will be a master of pizzicato in no time!

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PIZZICATO

By Douglas Niedt

Copyright Douglas Niedt. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reprinted, but please be considerate and give credit to Douglas Niedt.

I have always thought the word "pizzicato", (or "pits") when applied to the guitar, is somewhat of a misnomer. It comes from the Italian pizzicare, which means to pluck. But we guitarists always pluck the strings of our instrument don't we? But the meaning for guitarists is that much of the time we use this technique to imitate the pizzicato of the bowed-string family—violins, violas, cellos, basses. Amusingly, in many cases the bowed-string or orchestral string instruments use the pizzicato technique to imitate the lute or guitar. For instance, in Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol in the Scena e canto gitano, the violins and cellos are instructed to play pizzicato "quasi guitara". They actually hold their instruments like a guitar and strum the written three- and four-note chords. So ironically, when guitarists use the pizzicato technique, we are often imitating a bowed-string instrument imitating the guitar.

Technically, on bowed string instruments, the soundpost inhibits the vibration of the instrument top, producing a tone that is somewhat muffled. In effect, the soundpost filters out the high frequencies of the note and produces a quick decay of the pizzicato note.

To imitate this sound, most guitarists filter out the high frequencies and shorten the decay of the note by placing the right side (the side opposite the thumb) of the palm of the hand on the bridge and strings and plucking with the thumb or fingers. In fact, in the world of heavy metal guitar it is called "palm muting" not pizzicato. On the classical guitar, the hand must be placed just right. If placed too far forward (towards the soundhole), the pitch of the note will be sharpened or it will be so muffled as to not have a pitch at all. If placed too far back, the string will not be damped at all and will ring freely.

Watch this video to hear the violin pizzicato. First, the violinist will play with pizzicato and then without pizzicato. Next, he will play a passage pizzicato and I will play the same passage with pizzicato on the guitar.

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Fernando Sor's Ėtouffé

Fernando Sor prefers to produce a damped sonority by placing the pad of the left-hand finger directly on the fretwire. He uses light finger pressure, but not so light as to accidentally produce a natural harmonic:

Buffed (deadened) sounds, or sons étouffés, I rarely employ...To damp or check the sounds, I have never employed the right hand; but I have placed the fingers of the left and so as to take the string on the fret which determines the note, pressing it with less force than usual, but not so lightly as to make it yield a harmonic sound. This manner of damping, or buffing, requires great accuracy in the distances, but produces true suppressed sounds.

This is not easy to do on a modern guitar. Keep in mind that guitars of Sor's era were quite different from ours, especially with their gut strings and very different string tension. I'm guessing his method of producing damped notes was far easier to execute on his guitar than our modern guitars.

To me, this sonority sounds best when the note is played thumb all flesh. Whether rest stroke or free stroke will sound best is determined by the string you are playing and how high or low on the fretboard the note is. The technique can also be executed with the fingers. It also tends to sound better on the treble strings.

Watch the video towards the end of this article to see me demonstrate this technique.

Sor's étouffé technique is not always used to imitate a violin pizz. It is often more of a simple damped, muffled sound. Remember, he says he never employed the right hand to damp the strings. Poor Fernando, he would never have cut it as a heavy metal palm-muting guitarist!

Also, as we will see, even the common palm-mute pizzicato technique is used to produce a variety of sonorities, not just to imitate the violin pizzicato.

As we will see, even the common palm-mute pizzicato technique is used to produce a variety of sonorities, not just to imitate the violin pizzicato.

Emilio Pujol's Four Types of Pizzicato

Emilio Pujol, in his Escuela Razonada de la Guitarra (based upon the principles of the technique of Francisco Tárrega) describes four types of pizzicati:

  1. Apagado (damped) or étouffé (muted). This pizzicato is meant to imitate the sound of a mute placed on bowed string instruments.

  2. Normal. This corresponds to the short, staccato-like pizzicato of bowed instruments.

  3. Abierto (open). Similar to the normal pizz but only slightly muffled

  4. Estridente (strident or harsh). Used for certain "grotesque" passages or to imitate other instruments.

Here are Pujol's instructions for his four types of pizzicato (I will demonstrate each in the video that follows):

Pizzicato "apagado or étouffé" (both words mean muted, damped or muffled)

Turn the wrist clockwise and place your hand against the bridge so that its lateral edge rests diagonally across the six strings. The little finger is extended in the same direction, and rests on the soundboard to counteract the pressure of the hand on the strings. In this position the string is plucked with the side of the thumb, coming to rest on the next string.

Avoid all rigidity in the hand and try to obtain on each note, the same soft, muffled timbre that characterizes the color of this pizzicato.

Pizzicato "normal"

Position the hand on the strings against the bridge with the little finger resting on the soundboard. The hand should cover only the three bass strings with the soft, flabby part of the hand. Leave the rest of the fingers free to easily play the strings.

In this position, allow the hand to follow the movements of the thumb on the strings, deadening the basses like a mute and allowing the "i" and "m" fingers to lightly play the treble strings staccato.

For this effect lightly play the thumb free stroke alone or with "i" and "m" together or separately. Set the little finger on the soundboard playing lightly with "i" and "m" diagonally across the strings far from the bridge as possible. Pluck and follow through into the hand as in playing chords, obtaining clarity and equality in the notes. The "a" finger is rarely used except in chords of four or more notes.

Pizzicato "abierto" (open)

For this effect, place the hand like the pizzicato normal, but on the bridge so that the exterior base of the wrist establishes contact with the strings. In this manner, the "i" and "m" fingers lightly pluck the strings such that the sonority of the bass strings remains darkened or clouded.

Pizzicato "estridente" (strident or harsh)

Used occasionally in imitative passages or passages of grotesque character. In the mid 19th century, some guitarists described it as a horn effect, others as a bassoon, obviously for its resemblance to the timbre of these instruments. At higher pitches it could mimic the muted trumpet.

This effect is obtained by placing the hand in the same way as the pizzicato apagado, but between the bridge and the soundhole without pressure on the strings, so that the string vibrates against the edge of the hand. The vibrations are distorted and produce a twangy or strident sound.

I know it's difficult to figure out exactly what these descriptions mean. Don't worry, I will demonstrate each technique in the video that follows.

What's In A Name? The Carlevaro Pizzicato

To confuse things, Uruguayan guitar pedagogue Abel Carlevaro approaches pizzicato nomenclature from a unique perspective. Carlevaro says the pizz techniques we have discussed so far should not be termed pizzicato. He says they are sordino techniques. Understand that when a violin score indicates con sordino, the violinist puts a device called a mute on his instrument. Wikipedia explains:

A mute is a device attached to the bridge of the instrument, dampening vibrations and resulting in a "softer" sound. Usually this takes the form of a small three-prong implement which is attached to the top of the bridge with one prong between each pair of strings... The late Karl Haas told a story (supposedly true) about a violinist in an orchestra having a confectioner make him a mute entirely from candy, so that he could surprise his desk partner (the violinist sitting next to him sharing the same music stand) by eating the mute after finishing with it.

Carlevaro says that what all guitarists call pizzicato should be called sordino because the strings are damped BEFORE they are plucked, just like a violinist places the mute on his instrument before he plays the instrument. That sounds logical but my problem with it is that our palm-mute technique sounds nothing like the violin sordino sonority. And guitarists seldom have a need to imitate the sordino sound.

Watch this video to hear a violinist use a mute to play con sordino:

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Carlevaro goes on to argue that when the violinist plays pizzicato, all he does is pluck the string and because of the nature of his instrument, the note has a dampened, rather short sonority. Therefore Carlevaro says we guitarists must damp the string after we pluck it to play a true pizzicato. The problem is that even though this technique is useful, it sounds nothing like a violin pizzicato!

The Carlevaro pizzicato consists of two distinct phases: the attack and the dampening.

The Attack

The hand is in normal position. The thumb plucks the string (usually a bass string) with flesh or nail. As it plucks, the wrist bends and sinks inwards toward the guitar, bringing it very close to the soundboard.

The Dampening

The wrist turns so the right side (the side opposite the thumb) of the palm dampens the string or strings you just plucked. For most hands and guitars, this damp should be done about halfway between the soundhole and the bridge to achieve a totally muted note. Damping closer to the bridge results in the string continuing to ring a bit which Carlevaro describes as a halo effect. Because the hand is in normal position when the thumb plucks the string, it is very easy to vary the dynamics and color of the plucked note. Plus, the other fingers are free to play at liberty on other strings. The interval between the attack and the damp can be very short to produce a very short, dry note or lengthened. But again, don't expect this to sound like a bowed-string instrument pizzicato.

Watch Julian Bream play the opening of Enrique Granados' La Maja de Goya using the Carlevaro pizzicato technique. I will demonstrate the technique in the video coming up.

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Notation of the Pizzicato

Pizzicato is usually notated using the word itself or the abbreviation "pizz". Sometimes the word "Ėtouffé or "Ėtouffez" is used. The effect is canceled by using the word "normale" or "end pizz." Unfortunately, in some pieces it is difficult to tell which voice or voices are supposed to be pizzicato and which are not or when the pizzicato is supposed to end. No standardized notation exists to indicate what particular type of pizz is to be used. If a composer wants a particular sound, it must be carefully described in words and with diagrams.

How to Execute the Different Types of Pizzicato

How do you play a pizzicato? It all depends on the sound you want. The physical characteristics of the right hand of each player will greatly influence how each technique is executed. Adopt my instructions to your own hands.

Here is the mother of all pizzicato videos. This video runs over 30 minutes. I show you with great closeup shots (from the angle you would see your own hand) exactly how to execute a variety of pizzicato effects. Hit the pause button frequently and try out the effects as I explain them. Following the video is a list of topics covered with the corresponding time codes if you wish to see a segment again or study it later.

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Topics Covered in Previous Video (with time code)

00:00 The sonority of your pizzicato is determined by the placement of your hand: on the bridge, on the saddle, in front of the saddle, parallel with the bridge, diagonally across strings, mute trebles only, mute basses only.

01:06 The sonority of your pizzicato is also determined by the amount of downward pressure of the hand onto the strings. The pressure is exerted by the arm. The hand stays relaxed. The downward pressure must be constantly adjusted. Pujol recommends setting the little finger on the soundboard.

03:14 Pizzicato are often played by the side of the thumb (all flesh) rest stroke or free stroke. Fingers usually play pizzicati free stroke.

04:00 Only use the nail of the thumb if you want the southern California surf guitar sound ("Pipeline")

04:23 Thumb (all flesh rest or free stroke) produces a very good pizz sound on the treble strings. But the fingers may be used on the treble strings for fast pizz passages.

05:00 Emilio Pujol specifies four types of right-hand pizzicato. First, the apagado.

08:03 The second Pujol pizz is pizzicato normal

10:00 The third Pujol pizz is the pizzicato abierto (open pizzicato)

12:10 The fourth Pujol pizz is the pizzicato estridente (strident or harsh pizzicato). Imitates the bassoon or horn.

13:37 Doug thinks the pizzicato estridente is best used to imitate 1960's fuzz tone like that used on the Rolling Stones' guitar riff in "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction".

14:07 One of the best ways to learn to produce a good pizzicato sonority is to practice a three-octave G major scale. Learn to vary placement of hand on saddle and in front of saddle. Learn to slide hand towards floor, rock hand off basses as trebles are muted, and vary downward pressure onto strings.

19:21 Many guitarists make this common error.

20:33 The Jorge Morel pizzicato as used on Misionera by Fernando Bustamente.

22:24 The Abel Carlevaro pizzicato. This pizz technique is used by Julian Bream on the introduction to La Maja de Goya by Enrique Granados.

23:44 The "halo effect".

25:45 The Andrés Segovia bass string thumb damping technique (as used on the introduction to La Maja de Goya.

26:30 The Fernando Sor étouffé technique.

The Real World

When confronted by a passage in pizzicato, always learn the passage without the pizzicato first. Get the left and right-hand fingerings down and memorized. Then you will be able to fully focus on getting the exact pizzicato sonority you want. Let's look at a few examples from our repertoire.

In his Waltz in E Major Op. 32 No. 2, Fernando Sor writes the word "Etouffez" below a passage. However, in the Brian Jeffery early edition, Sor never cancels it out so we don't know precisely where it stops and starts:




Remember, Sor did not use right-hand pizzicato. Trying to play the 3rds and pulloffs in measures 26-28 with a left-hand on-the-fret pizzicato would be far too difficult for the student for whom this piece is intended. Therefore an educated guess says that it should be interpreted as follows. The octaves in measures 30-33 could be "normale" (without pizzicato) or with the on-the-fret pizzicato. Be sure to use all flesh when using the thumb to play the bottom note of the étouffé octaves. I demonstrated this passage in the full video at 26:30.






If you want to be "authentic" you can use the on-the-fret pizz. Or, use the right-hand pizz technique and call it a day.

Francisco Tárrega uses pizz at the end of Maria. For many, the way to play this passage is to place the hand slightly behind the saddle but allow a bit of flabby flesh (if you have any) to ooze on to the strings to damp them. Sounds like a scene from The Blob doesn't it? (That would be the 1958 American horror/sci-fi movie starring a slightly embarrassed Steve McQueen with the mega-talented Burt Bacharach and Hal David providing the score).






Watch me demonstrate:

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Two famous pizzicato passages make their appearance in Leyenda (Asturias) by Isaac Albéniz. The first occurs at the end of the first section:






This the Pujol pizzicato apagado. It is played all flesh rest stroke with the fleshy side of the thumb. However, nothing is incorrect about using free stroke. It is a slightly different sound and perhaps harder to get a good pizz on the high notes.

The second occurrence is in the coda at the very end of the piece:






The bass line should definitely be played pizz. Some players let the open B's ring non-pizz. Others like me, prefer the bass and the open B's to all be pizz. I like to use "pipipi..." in this passage. I also prefer the thumb free stroke this time rather than rest stroke. To each his own.

Watch me demonstrate both passages:

A somewhat different situation presents itself in the introduction to La Maja de Goya by Enrique Granados.






The notation is a little nebulous as to which notes are to be played pizzicato and which are not. If you listen to the piano perform this with voice, it is clear that Llobet (the transcriber) is trying to emulate the staccato of the piano. One could argue that the notes that are staccato in the piano score should all be pizzicato on the guitar. I like all the notes in the first eight measures pizzicato. Others play only the bass notes on the first beat of each measure pizzicato. Oddly enough, when Alicia de Larrocha performs this on the piano, those bass notes are a little longer. Listen:

La Maja de Goya (Alicia de Larrocha, piano)

Andrés Segovia and Julian Bream take a different approach from Llobet to the opening measures. Rather than using pizzicato, Segovia attacks the bass notes with strong thumb rest strokes and almost instantly damps them with the back of the thumb as I demonstrated in the main video. Listen to Christopher Parkening use the Segovia technique in the opening measures of La Maja de Goya:

La Maja de Goya (Christopher Parkening, guitar)

As mentioned earlier, Julian Bream uses the Carlevaro pizzicato technique in these opening measures.

Summary

The informed player can use many different types of pizzicato effects in many different ways to get just the right sonority for a particular passage. It is definitely not a one-size-fits-all technique. The variety of sonorities that can be produced is pretty amazing. And the fun part is that most of them can be executed very well with only a moderate amount of conscientious, focused practice.

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