Guitar Technique Tip of the Month

Your Personal Guitar Lesson With Douglas Niedt

Douglas Niedt

How to Practice

By Douglas Niedt

Copyright Niedt Publishing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.


Think of the tremolo as a four-note group

It is important not to think of the tremolo as a thumb pluck followed by “ami”. It is not 1+3. Instead, think of it as a four-note group played by four fingers playing consecutively. All the notes are of equal duration.

Practice a single-string tremolo on the second string

The first thing to remember is to practice your tremolo on the second string. As pointed out earlier, with the first string in front and the third string behind, the fingers must maintain small and precise movements. Practicing on the first string permits far too much finger movement.

To understand, hear, and feel the sensation of a group of four, begin your practice solely on the second string, including the thumb. Practice at a tempo at which you can play all four notes rhythmically evenly and at the same volume.

Many teachers recommend staccato practice, especially in the early stages of tremolo development:

Do slow-fast practice

Practice in alternating groups of slow and double-speed notes. The overall tempo and number of repeated fast groups can be increased as your proficiency improves. (If you are practicing with staccato, as the tempo is increased the amount of staccato is decreased.) Practice on various frets and at varying degrees of loud and soft as shown in example #19.

Watch me demonstrate in this next video:

Practice with a metronome

Practicing on a single string with a metronome, with or without slow-fast practice. As discussed above, start at a slow speed at which your fingers and hand are totally relaxed and no effort is required to stay with the metronome. Zero tension should be present in the fingers and hand. Gradually increase the speed over a thirty-minute practice session. Keep track of your starting speed and fastest speed. Write them down each day. Use Transcribe! to check that everything stays on track as you increase the speed. With the metronome ticking on each thumb stroke, your goal is to reach 144+ beats per minute.

Accent Individual Fingers

Having just emphasized the importance of thinking of the tremolo as a group of four equal notes, I am going to seemingly contradict myself with this practice strategy. The idea behind this type of practice is to purposely accent individual fingers as shown in example #20:

Or, some teachers recommend placing the accented finger on the beat as in example #21:

Another pattern some teachers recommend is this one shown in example #22 where the accents rotate within a triplet pattern:

Learning to accent the “i” and “a” fingers helps strengthen those fingers in the pattern, and increases the player’s awareness of those fingers. That can help even out an uneven tremolo. However, most players should not overdo practicing accenting the “a” finger. It’s hard to believe, but an accented “a” finger can make a perfect tremolo sound rhythmically uneven. Also, do not try to accent “i” or “a” at fast metronome speeds. Accent practice is more beneficial at slow to moderate speeds.

Watch this video clip:

Learning to accent “m” is important for the same reasons and one other extremely important reason. In the tremolo, if you think of the thumb as the downbeat, the “m” finger is the upbeat. Rhythmically, the third note of the pattern (which is plucked by “m”) is the halfway point of the pattern. If the downbeat (thumb) and upbeat (“m”) are placed rhythmically precisely, the entire tremolo pattern will tend to be even. Therefore I strongly recommend devoting time to accenting “m” in your practice. If you are working with a metronome, I would recommend you set the metronome so that it ticks on “p” and “m”:

Even when I play a tremolo up to tempo in performance, I feel a very slight accent on “m”—just enough that my ears and tactile sense still key in on “p-m-p-m-p-m”. Although I am not producing an audible accent on “m”, I am aware of and feeling the downbeat-upbeat pulse of p-m-p-m-p-m. This keeps the notes rhythmically even and precisely placed, but the accent is not enough that the evenness in volume between “ami” is affected. In fact, another excellent way to practice this is to alternate playing p-m-p-m-p-m with the full tremolo pattern as shown in example #24:

Now, watch the video:

Gradually Separate the Thumb from the Fingers

After getting a good feel for the tremolo pattern on a single string, it’s time to begin using the thumb on separate strings from the fingers. This can be done by alternating a single-string group with a two-string group (“ami” playing the second string and the thumb playing a different string). Be sure to practice in various areas of the neck. Practice at different volume levels. You can also practice these while accenting individual fingers as described above. Start with the second and third strings as shown in example #25.

If the two-string groups are as even as the single-string groups, gradually increase the repetitions of the two-string group. If the two-string group starts to feel or sound uneven, increase the repetitions of the single-string group to get back on track.

Using these same practice techniques, gradually increase the separation between the fingers and the thumb. Practice in various areas of the neck as shown in example #26.

Next, progress to alternating bass strings, all combinations as shown in example #27. Again, practice in all areas of the neck. Do slow-fast practice and metronome work.

As all these techniques are practiced, be sure to monitor the movements of your fingers and thumb. The fingers should be using small movements and the thumb should always be anticipating the string it is to play next.

Watch me demonstrate in this video clip:

Uneven or Lopsided Tremolos

Even after you have achieved excellent “ma” finger independence and you have practiced emphasizing the downbeat-upbeat of “p-m-p-m” it is possible that your tremolo may still be rhythmically uneven. Practicing the tremolo backwards may help (see Ancillary Exercises below).

The fastest, most reliable way to fix an uneven tremolo is to analyze your tremolo by recording it and listening back to it at very slow speed. Use a computer program such as Transcribe! that I described above. Practice the opposite of what you hear. Use example #28 as a guide.

Ancillary Exercises

These are non-tremolo pattern exercises. Some teachers believe these will help develop a good tremolo. In my opinion, it is questionable whether exercises other than “pami” are going to benefit your actual tremolo. However, I also have to say that whether an ancillary exercise aids your tremolo will be dependent upon your current overall right-hand technical development. In other words, if your right-hand technique is below average overall, almost any exercise that improves your right-hand finger independence and facility will improve your tremolo. On the other hand, if your right-hand technique is already above average, the benefits of practicing ancillary exercises will be minimal.

The tremolo is a very unique technique. By that I mean that the very specialized finger movements and control necessary to produce a good tremolo don’t correlate exactly with those required to play arpeggios, scales, or other right-hand techniques. The pattern is also very specific. Practicing other patterns leads mainly to mastering those other patterns, not the “pami” tremolo pattern.

Having said that, some teachers say that practicing the tremolo backwards (“pima”) helps to improve a rhythmically uneven tremolo. It can be practiced alone or in combination with the forward tremolo as shown in example #29:

Here is a collection of ancillary exercises in examples #30, 31, and 32. You may find some useful.

Playing the tremolo on different strings

Another step one must take toward mastering the tremolo is to practice playing the “ami” part of the tremolo on different strings. In most pieces in the repertoire, the tremolo doesn’t stay on one string the entire time. A few measures may be on the second string. Then, you may have a measure on the first string or third string. You may have to change strings within one measure.

Do not neglect practicing this step. I have heard many students develop a beautiful tremolo on their practice exercises on the second string. But when they begin to play a piece that contains string changes, it throws them off and their perfect tremolo begins to disintegrate.

To learn to switch strings without affecting your control, I would begin again with single-string tremolos. I think it’s sufficient to focus your practice on just the second and third strings as shown in example #33. Also, practice in various areas of the neck. Practice at varying volume levels. You can also practice accenting individual fingers.

Watch this astonishing video clip:

Next, practice switching strings with “ami” while the thumb plays on a separate but unchanging string. Practice changing the tremolo from higher string to lower string and lower string to higher string as shown in example #34. Practice in all areas of the neck.

Watch me demonstrate in this next video clip:

Next, practice with the thumb playing alternating but adjacent strings as in example #35.

Watch me demonstrate in the video:

Note that you should practice these specific four combinations:

  • 1. “ami” and “p” moving together to lower strings

  • 2. “ami” and “p” moving together to higher strings

  • 3. “p” moving to lower string while “ami” move to higher string

  • 4. “p moving to higher string while “ami” move to lower string.

Practice example #36 in all areas of the neck with varying degrees of volume.

Please watch this next video to observe this practice method:

Then, practice “ami” switching strings as the thumb plays alternating non-adjacent strings as in example #37. Practice in all areas of the neck.

Please watch me demonstrate in this next video:

Again, you should practice these specific four combinations.

Watch this video clip:

More About Speed

Some players develop a rhythmically even tremolo but can’t play it fast. They increase their speed on the metronome and then hit a wall. No matter how much they work at it, they can’t get past that tempo.

Several things could be the culprit. The range of motion of their finger movements may be too wide. They may have excessive tension in their hands or fingers. They may be trying to play too fast too quickly. Or, when they practice their exercises, they may begin at too fast a tempo.

Remedies include reining in the finger movements and practicing their exercises at starting tempos slow enough that zero tension is present in the fingers and hand. Planting may be helpful.

But, another cause of speed problems can be related to metronome practice itself. As much as I recommend the use of the metronome, some people have trouble getting past a certain tempo because they are trying too hard to keep up with the metronome. Or, they may be trying too hard to control each note of the tremolo and aren’t thinking of it in terms as a four-note group. The cure is to stop using the metronome. Instead, do the slow and meticulous practice. But alternate that with “letting it fly”. Let it happen. Try practicing on the first string so you don’t have to worry about hitting adjacent strings. Play in speed bursts of two, three, four, and more notes without trying to control the fingers or rhythmic precision. Let ‘em fly. It might be sloppy and uneven at first, but sometimes you must get that feeling of letting go in order to play fast.

Watch me in this stunning video explaining how to practice with speed bursts:

That was so good, people demanded a sequel. Here it is: Speed Bursts, Part 2:

Once you get past that mental barrier, using slow practice with the speed bursts may do the trick to produce a fast and rhythmically even tremolo. Or, you may have to return to metronome practice to work on evenness and control. But having experienced playing very fast with speed bursts, the metronome will no longer impede your ability to play fast. You won’t have to struggle to keep it with it. It will just be your scorekeeper.


(In this section I will reference the “pimi” pattern since I prefer it. But all information also applies to the “pmim” pattern.)

As described at the beginning of this article, the wonderful advantage of this pattern is that it does not include the “a” finger. Therefore, one of the big obstacles to tremolo mastery--“ma” finger independence--is eliminated.

Hand position considerations and thumb training/control will be the same as for the traditional “pami” pattern.

Because “im” are naturally strong and independent fingers, and because “i” is repeated, their movements will naturally tend to be small and they will stay closer to the string. If finger movement problems are present, “i” and “m” will respond more easily to correction than if “a” were involved.

Planting will not be used in this pattern for practice or performance. Because of the repeated “i” finger stroke, planting would create excessive finger tension.

The basic practice strategies of beginning on a single string, gradually separating the thumb from the fingers, slow-fast practice, metronome practice, etc. will remain the same. Therefore, you will practice almost all the previous exercises, but use “pimi” instead of “pami”. Practice in various areas of the fretboard and with varying levels of volume.

Feeling downbeat/upbeat will remain important. In regard to practicing the accentuation of individual fingers, it will only be necessary to practice accenting “m”.

Speed with the “pimi” pattern

The “im” fingers are naturally independent and fast. But, some guitarists may have trouble playing the “pimi” pattern with the fluidity and speed of the traditional “pami”. The primary reason is fatigue. In the “pimi” pattern, the “i” finger has to play twice in each four-note cycle. Therefore, it works twice as hard as the other fingers. Playing that cycle over and over can produce fatigue that builds up, causing the finger to tense up and slow down.

In this case, I find that practicing ancillary patterns is very helpful for building “pimi” tremolo speed. Practicing “pimi” and “pmim” arpeggio patterns is very beneficial. Practicing Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Etude No. 1 with “p”, “i”, and “m” (no “a” finger) helps increase the speed and decrease fatigue in the “pimi” tremolo pattern:

Also, please re-read the previous section about achieving speed with the “pami” pattern. Many of the points also apply to the “pimi” pattern. For example, don’t practice exercises at starting speeds that produce finger/hand tension. Practice with speed bursts. Allow your fingers to take off and “fly”. Don’t control. Let it happen.

END OF PART 2 of 4.

If you made it through Parts 1 and 2 without frying your brain cells, congratulations. Rest up, because...
I will show you how to incorporate your left hand into the development of your tremolo. I will also discuss additional tremolo techniques.