Finding the right nail shape to express yourself on the guitar is an elusive science. To make the puzzle more complicated are the facts that nails are organic, are continuously growing, and are affected by variables like weather and diet. Because everyone attacks the strings with variable angles and tensions in the fingertips and because we all have an ideal sound we are after one shape may not be as effective as another. Some guitarists have a “sound” with little sonic variance while some use color and gradations of timbre to interpret their music. So, whether you are a beginner starting to experiment or an advanced player looking to expand your knowledge, the following videos are the best I’ve found so far to see exactly what the pros do and how they approach nail shape.
In french with subtitles, Six String Journal favorite Thomas Viloteau shows an ingenious method for adapting the shape of the nail to your stroke.
Here is a screen shot from a video of Spanish guitarist Ricardo Gallén checking his nails before his recording of the Bach lute works.
Last but not least, Cuban virtuoso Marco Tamayo details the steps he uses to shape his nails.
Years ago, when Marco was visiting he drew this diagram out when I asked about nails.
If there ever was an argument for practicing rest stroke scales, I think Marco Tamayo would settle it. Though the video below is casually shot by a student asking about fingering solutions to Joaquín Rodrigo’s Aranjuez and Joaquín Turina’s Soleares, there is gold in it. Just observing the complete ease and extreme mastery of Marco’s approach reveals how much care and thought has gone into every single action.
Here is another valuable video where Marco gives us details on nail shaping and filing. Again, probably one of a handful of videos that are worth watching on the subject.
The option to slow youtube videos to half speed may come handy on this video of uber-virtuoso, Marco Tamayo, demonstrating some solutions to difficult parts in two of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concertos for Guitar and Orchestra: Fantasia para un Gentilhombre and Concierto de Aranjuez.
Over the years, I have never regretted working on tremolo pieces and technique. From early recordings of John Williams playing Barrios’ Una limosna por el amor de Diós and Un Sueño en la floresta to Pepe Romero playing Francisco Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra and Sueño, these pieces are not only special but evocative in ways other instruments cannot replicate. The greatest players manage to give the illusion of an unbroken melodic line while maintaining a well-controlled accompaniment.
There are many skills that must come together to achieve a beautiful sounding tremolo. The most important ones are rhythm precision, consistent intensity from note to note, uniform tone, and speed. One of my favorite guitarists and dear friend, Marco Tamayo, once mentioned that the result of rhythmic regularity and precision created the illusion of speed. I’ll post various ways of working on some of these skills but we’ll look at rhythmic precision first.
The following set of exercises help develop rhythmic control by practicing the tremolo pattern (pami) precisely within the whole of the main beat. When going through the exercises try to remember the inherent hierarchy of the meter and aim to feel p as the main beat. Start slowly with your metronome set to the sixteenth or eighth note. One way to truly feel “in the pocket” with the rhythmic subdivisions is to say the rhythmic breakdown aloud as you play (tee-ka-tee-ka, one-ee-and-ah, etc…). Spend a lot more than one repetition on each pattern. Remember, even Steven!
After spending a lot of time on the above exercises, you can expand them by varying the string and displacing the thumb onto adjacent or distant strings.
The next set of exercises help develop uniform intensity by changing the initial finger of the tremolo so that every right hand finger within the pattern has a moment to shine in the downbeat spotlight. Think of it like shifting accents in a subtle way.
Again, vary the thumb’s string as you start to gain proficiency and spend lots of time on the weaker patterns. Good luck!
Yesterday I was working on Julio Sagreras’ super fun El Colibri (The Hummingbird) with my son which made it twice the super fun. He’s at the point where he can play through the entire piece, correct fingerings in both hands, smoothly. His lofty goal is 180bpm. Yikes! I explained to him that lofty goals are the best because he may get closer than if setting a lesser goal. And, who knows, maybe he will be the first : ).
In an effort to support this enthusiasm, we went through the piece again in an effort to discover ways to help him make both hands more efficient and relaxed. The one principle which really translated into faster and better looking hands almost immediately was shifting without finger contraction (or extension) and maintaining a relaxed left hand position.
If you are trying to squeeze every last drop of tension out of your hands in order to speed things up, do not contract the left hand fingers into each other (and, of course, do not extend the fingers away from each other).
The temptation to contract to prepare finger 4 is overwhelming but it is not the finger to focus on. Instead focus on using finger 1 to shift and as a result yank finger 4 into place. This reduces our mind’s focus to one movement: the shift. Otherwise, we focus our attention on placing finger 4 and then shifting. I don’t know about you all, but I’d rather have less to think of when playing quickly. It makes the piece feel slower.
And, now, for my first instructional video:
And, if you want to see the absolute finest and scariest rendition of this, check out the great Cuban guitarist Marco Tamayo:
By the way, he has a hyper-detailed edition of El colibri available from his website. Wait, is that 180bpm?
The great Cuban guitarist Marco Tamayo reminded me that all shifts should occur with guide fingers lightly gliding on the strings, preferably the treble strings to avoid unnecessary noise. If you observe any great guitarist’s left hand, like Marco’s, you will witness a great left hand choreography – smooth, soft, efficient, relaxed. One of the key elements in building an effective left hand choreography is a thorough understanding of how to use guide fingers to bridge and connect movements that may seem unrelated. Think of guide fingers as fingers that remain in passive contact with the string while shifting.
See if you can find guides in the next passage.
Excerpt from J. S. Bach’s Double from BWV997
Did you find them all?
Try to locate all and label all the guides in your repertoire. You’ll find that it not only improves left hand fluidity but it also deepens your physical understanding of the piece you are working on and in turn can help your memory.
Stay tuned for ghost guide fingers and changing guide fingers…