In Thomas Viloteau’s lesson on tremolo, he describes his method for working on and identifying irregularities in your tremolo. Your tremolo must serve the music you are playing and go beyond a technique. Otherwise, what should sound like beautiful music will instead sound like an exercise.
“The music is the most important thing. If you practice your tremolo as a technical thing, when you go to an actual piece it’s either not going to work or it’s going to make your music completely flat and lifeless.” – Thomas Viloteau
What is a good tremolo?
A good tremolo allows for three things:
A wide range of dynamics (pianissimo to fortissimo)
A range of different tempos (accelerando, ritardando, rubato…)
How to spot problems in your tremolo?
Get a smartphone or device that can film video at a high frame rate and play it back in slow motion. It’s the only way to SEE what your fingers are doing at such a high speed and HEAR if you are actually picking as regularly as the beat of the metronome. This will help you learn what you are doing wrong.
Once you know what to fix, practice on open strings with a metronome. Make sure the technique you are practicing at a slow speed is not just “good enough” to pass at a slow tempo – it needs to work at full speed. Try experimenting with expressive variations to test your control over the technique. As soon as your technique is ready, start practicing your tremolo within the piece and NOT in isolation, as just a tremolo exercise. It will only be great if it is MUSICAL and works within the piece!
What are the different types of tremolo?
These three approaches offer different qualities and fit different musical contexts. Experiment to find more. For all the exercises below, use a p-a-m-i plucking pattern, though in some situations a two-finger tremolo may be preferable.
Basic – Resting (a) ring finger on the string before plucking it to create stability for the hand and tell your fingers where the string is. Free stroke all the way through the string.
Legato – Never resting (a) ring finger on the string. Works well for piano sections and when the accompaniment is on the top. It also works well for portamento because it doesn’t silence the string.
Detached – Planting each finger firmly on the string before it plays. Mostly for use on the second or third strings. The finger comes more from ABOVE the string, in this technique, and may jump a little rather than remaining totally steady.
Tremolo is much easier on the first string than the second because there is more range of motion for your fingers. Take advantage of this when you make your fingering
Your forearm must be super relaxed and your hand very stable.
To minimize the sound of your nail hitting the string, you must make sure that your flesh is hitting the string before the nail.
It is easy for the middle finger to fall out of time. If this is happening, accent the middle finger’s plucking.
Though there is no shortage of ways to practice and develop tremolo, every now and then I’ll bump across another exercise that is worthwhile or ask a colleague to share insight especially if it sounds like they figured it out. So here are two great ways to practice your tremolo when you are feel like you are not progressing.
This first one helps develop both the independence of the right hand fingers and the evenness of the attack. I like to mess around a bit with a simple left hand addition once everything feels comfortable.
This second exercise comes from the wonderful Vietnamese guitarist. Thu Le. It is a great way to sync up both hands once the right hand is warmed up. I’ve placed it on the fifth and second strings to develop accuracy. As you improve, work on minimizing squeaks. You can also use fingers 2 and 4 to mix it up.
For a multitude of methods to work on tremolo with detailed explanations, please check out Six String Journal’s publication Mastering Tremolo. It’s available on Amazon or on Podia.
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Happy New Year! If your New Year’s resolution is to improve your tremolo, you are in luck!
The Bolton Guitar Series just posted its workshop on tremolo with David Russell. Before summarizing it for those of you who like to see the main points listed as a reference, I thought I’d repeat what I expressed in the recent post about David Russell’s ornamentation workshop: the generosity in sharing absolutely everything he knows about his journey with guitar in such an enthusiastic and articulate way is extremely inspiring. David Russell is a great teacher, even through zoom!
Here is the video of the tremolo workshop:
David Russell Tremolo Workshop Main Points
Each finger/nail should feel and sound the same.
Tremolo is a good diagnostic technique for other technical issues.
Maintain a regular rhythm.
Bass should be balanced. Gentle bass/medium or strong treble.
Stiffness in the right hand fingers makes noise. Looseness in the right hand equals a less “clickly” sound. Straighter fingers also help with lessening the “clicky” sound of nails.
The a finger introduces a new tremolo/melodic note and requires attention.
Sympathetic motion between a and m can lead to rhythmic irregularities. Lengthen a finger duration to insure full value of note.
Shift metronome beats to each finger when practicing to “think” with each finger and especially a.
What you do musically with tremolo is at least as important as mechanical perfection.
Practice contrasting Slow/fast, dark/bright, soft/loud practice.
Certain pieces require slow tremolo, some require faster tremolo.
Recuerdos de la Alhambra and Sueño (Francisco Tárrega)
Zafra and Simancas from Castillos de España (Federico Moreno Torroba)
Una limosna por el amor de Diós, Un sueño en la floresta, Contemplación, Canción de la Hilandera (Agustín Barrios Mangoré)
Invocación y danza and Junto al Generalife (Joaquín Rodrigo)
Reverie and Air Varié (Giulio Regondi)
Now and Ever (Bejamin Verdery)
Shenandoah (Robert Beaser)
Capricho Diabolico (Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco)
Variations on Las Folias (Manuel Maria Ponce)
Campanas del Alba (Regino Sainz de la Maza)
Tips from Questions and Answers:
Play with energy and the necessary tension but more than that is wasted energy and effort. Poise and posture to maximize energy.
Practice tremolo with two fingers (pimi, pmim, pama, pmam, etc…)
Do not bounce hand!
Planting a stops the tremolo. Join all the notes for a better tremolo.
Try playing paaa tremolo to assess tone, movement of a.
Finger movement remains mostly within the span of string space (i.e for tremolo on string 2, a, m and i do not extend beyond strings 1 or 3).
Raise your expectations of yourself. Do not accept bad playing!
Here is a recent home recording I did at the end of a practice day last week. The songs I have been revisiting these last six months all have the theme of conjuring places far away – in both geography and time. The great Spanish guitarist, Francisco Tárrega’s (1852-1909) wonderful tremolo piece, Recuerdos de la Alhambra, is magical in so many ways. It conjures the great fortress overlooking Granada with the illusion of a sung melody and it reminds me of its infinite mosaics, fountains, streams, and trickles of water echoing everywhere throughout.