Guitar Technique Tip of the Month
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It seems like almost everyone wants to master the tremolo. It's a wonderful effect, easy to do badly and difficult to do well. This is Part 1 of 4 of the most comprehensive instructions on mastering the tremolo that you will find anywhere. Over 100 pages with 35 videos shot close-up in high definition and over 70 musical examples.
This is only a sample. You can purchase the entire guide as a download. Or you can subscribe to my Technique Tip of the Month and have complete access to all four parts of the article directly on this website through the Subscribers Portal.
Either way, you will finally have the tools you need to master the tremolo.
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HOW TO MASTER THE TREMOLO Part 1
By Douglas Niedt
Copyright Douglas Niedt. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reprinted, but please be considerate and give credit to Douglas Niedt.
Laying the Foundation
One of the great mysteries of life for guitarists is how to develop a good tremolo. Many guitarists work at their tremolo for years and still can’t play it evenly. A guitarist should be able to develop an excellent tremolo in six months to one year if they practice at it for thirty to sixty minutes every day. Here are some tips to help you learn to play a good tremolo once and for all. What’s a good tremolo? I think a good tremolo technique encompasses these elements:
- 1. It’s rhythmically precise. Four even 16th, 32nd, or 64th notes.
- 2. The volume difference between the thumb and fingers can be controlled at will. Usually the fingers will be loudest because they usually play the melody.
- 3. It can be played at a variety of speeds.
- 4. It can be played at a variety of degrees of loudness and softness.
THE TRADITIONAL “pami” TREMOLO IS DEAD.
MAY IT REST IN PEACE!
Well, it’s not exactly dead, but using a different tremolo pattern may be the answer to all your troubles:
Eliminate the “a” finger and use pimi or pmim as your tremolo pattern.
Usually, the “a” finger is the source of most problems when trying to play an even tremolo. In order to play the traditional “pami” tremolo pattern evenly, one must have exceptional independence between the “m” and “a” fingers. The “m” and “a” fingers do not have the natural independence between them that “i” and “m” have, or “i” and “a”. Independence between “m” and “a” must be developed independently of working on the tremolo and usually takes many months to achieve. I will talk about that later.
By eliminating the “a” finger from the tremolo pattern, you are now using the strongest fingers on the right hand that already have very good independence between them from the get go.
I spoke with the outstanding guitarist, Ana Vidovic about her tremolo. She uses “pmim”. I asked her how she came to use that pattern. She told me that early in her studies she couldn’t get the traditional “pami” pattern to work for her. No one told her to try “pmim”. She just did it, it worked, and she has used it ever since. I told Ana that I used “pimi”. She thought that was odd. So I asked her, “If you had to choose, which of your fingers is strongest, “i” or “m”? At first, she didn’t want to admit that either one was stronger. After all, it’s kind of a badge of technical mastery to say that all of one’s fingers are equally strong and independent. But reluctantly, she finally admitted that “m” was stronger. I said, “Yes, that’s why I use ‘pimi’. The third note of the pattern should have a slight accent since metrically, the thumb is the downbeat and the third note is the upbeat in the 4-note group (I will explain this in detail later). Therefore, my pattern makes more sense since it puts the stronger “m” finger on that slightly accented third note.” She understood my point but thought her pattern felt more natural to play. It was a fun discussion and we both agreed to try each other’s pattern.
But, the point is that a “pimi” or “pmim” tremolo pattern, omitting the “a” finger, will inherently be more even and controllable than the traditional “pami” pattern. The downside of the “pimi” or “pmim” pattern is that some players may have difficulty playing them at fast speeds or may have problems with finger fatigue since one finger must be used twice in each cycle of the pattern.
I will speak more about mastering this pattern later in the article. First, let’s have a look at the traditional “pami” pattern.
THE PREREQUISITES TO MASTER ANY TREMOLO PATTERN
It is important that “ami” be in a perfect line in front of the string they are playing. To do this, some teachers recommend that the wrist be turned to the right. They further recommend that in order to do this, the player elevate the neck about ten degrees to help the wrist attain better flexibility and comfort. However, placing the wrist in this position tends to make the fingers strike the strings straight on to the fingernails producing a brighter and thinner tone. I personally don’t recommend this method. However, as I will say over and over about tremolo techniques, try it out and see what you think. What doesn’t work for others may work very well for you. You never know until you try it.
I prefer to find a hand position for a student that produces not only mechanical efficiency, but produces a beautiful tone. I want to hear “Recuerdos” played with a tone that is full and rich, not bright and thin.
Also be sure your fingers are not splayed apart. Splayed fingers are usually an indicator of dysfunctional tension. For most people, the fingers should hang together with minimal separation at the fingertips between “a” “m” and “i”. Monitor this at slow and fast speeds. Some players do fine at slow speeds, but as they play faster the fingers tense and begin to splay apart.
Watch this video on hand position. If you don't see a video, refresh your browser.
As in normal playing, fingernail noise should be minimal when playing the tremolo. Standard flesh/nail contact on the left side of the fingernails must be preserved. Because of the speed of tremolo execution, the fingers can err and miss that sweet spot, producing clicks or nail noises. The following discussion of finger and thumb movements should help increase your accuracy of fingernail and thumb contact with the strings and minimize extraneous noise. Not only that, greater awareness of and accuracy in hitting that sweet spot will also help maintain the same tone quality from note to note, producing a more even-sounding tremolo. When we practice tremolo exercises, we understandably tend to focus on rhythmic evenness and speed. But be sure to listen for extraneous fingernail and thumbnail noises and tone quality evenness as well.
No matter which tremolo pattern you use, one of the basic requirements to produce an effortless and accurate tremolo is to make small finger movements. The range of motion must be short. If your fingers make large follow through motions or begin their stokes far from the string or high above the string, you are asking for trouble. Obviously, the further the finger is from the string the greater the chance of missing the string entirely or not hitting the sweet
spot of flesh/nail contact. The greater the distance each finger has to travel, the more difficult it will be to play fast. The same holds true for the thumb. Although speed is not an issue for the thumb in the tremolo, accuracy and tone quality certainly are.
Watch this shocking video clip on fingers gone wild:
Watch this video on controlling wild finger movements. If you don't see a video, refresh your browser.
How to play a tremolo with small finger movements
1. Be sure to practice all tremolo exercises on the second string
Having the first string in front of the fingers and the third string behind them necessarily requires the use of smaller finger motions. Practicing on the first string is certainly much easier, but allows the fingers far more freedom to make large motions.
2. Use pluck-release strokes
I actually advocate this method for arpeggio playing as well. Other teachers do not.
The finger plucks the second string and the tension in the finger is immediately released (Pepe Romero describes it as emptying the finger of its tension). Then, the finger falls back to its position in front of the second string (by the force of gravity, not conscious effort) and remains there, ready to play again. Very little follow through exists in this stroke. Travel distance is minimized. The finger should not travel past the adjacent string. This results in excellent accuracy both in playing the correct string and hitting the precise flesh/nail contactpoint for best tone quality.
I use a little mental trick to help me execute this technique. I tell myself not to follow through at all with my finger stroke. Now, I know in the back of my mind I must follow through to pluck the string, but by telling myself “no follow through” it helps minimize the amount of finger travel. Here are detailed instructions and a video on how to use this technique.
- Line up “ami” in front of the second string as low above the string as you can. Keeping “i” and “m” stationary, pluck the second string with the “a” finger. It takes muscle power or muscle tension to pluck the string. Tell the “a” finger not to follow through. Try to move no further than slightly above the third string. Immediately relax the finger. Release the tension in the finger. Empty the finger of its tension. If the finger is truly relaxed, gravity will pull it back to its starting position in front of the second string. The “i” and “m” fingers should still be stationary in position in front of the second string.
- Keeping “i” and “a” stationary, pluck the second string with the “m” finger. Tell the finger not to follow through. Think small finger movement. Empty the “m” finger of its tension and it will fall back towards the floor. Stop it in front of the second string. The “i” and “a” fingers should still be stationary in position in front of the second string.
- Keeping “m” and “a” stationary, pluck the second string with the “i” finger. Tell the finger not to follow through. Think small finger movement. Release the tension in the finger and allow it to return to its position in front of the second string. The “m” and “a” fingers should still be stationary, precisely in position in front of the second string.
Watch this stunning video clip to see the pluck-release technique:
If you don't see a video, refresh your browser.
The thumb plays in a similar fashion. But its stroke is sometimes pluck-return rather than pluck-release. In example #1, let’s look at the first measure of Francisco Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra:
There is much more that follows. To read the rest of this article and read the other three parts (over 100 pages in all!)
you can purchase the entire guide as a download. Or you can subscribe to my Technique Tip of the Month and have complete access to all four parts of the article directly on this website through the Subscribers Portal.
Either way, you will finally have the tools you need to master the tremolo.