Andrés Segovia’s version of the iconic Tárrega piece “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” was love at first listen for me. Even with ears accustomed to the polyphony that abounds in classical guitar repertoire, I found the effect fascinating—not just for the clarity of the separate voices, but for the long, seemingly sustained melody notes accompanied by arpeggios in the lower and middle range.
The guitar doesn’t allow for sustained notes the way wind or bowed instruments do. We can’t increase the dynamic of a note once plucked, and sustaining a note is a delicate process that requires a host of other considerations to be effective: a certain amount of volume, often harmonic support through other strings in sympathetic vibration, and a lack of upstaging the sustained note through the plucking of other notes that divert the ear’s attention. Yet in “Recuerdos,” the melody grows and eases dynamically, taking on a characteristic that is outside what we expect to hear from a guitar.
This magic is the result of the tremolo technique—a rapid reattacking of a note to give the impression of a sustained voice. The result defies some of the inherent limitations of a plucked instrument. Though it is commonly associated with classical guitar, the technique can be used on steel-string acoustic or even electric guitar.
I am by no standards an expert at classical tremolo. What I am is an eager student who spends time working on the technique, and perhaps I can convey this first part of the path in a way that will be approachable for those curious to explore more.
What follows are some examples that I have been using to develop the technique. These are standard tremolo exercises, and I must give credit to my teacher and mentor, Phillip de Fremery, as well as two of my brilliant classical guitarist friends, Evan Taucher and Jiji, for some of these ideas and valuable instruction.
If you are new to tremolo, keep in mind this is an advanced technique that takes some time for even experienced players to develop. I recommend working very slowly and getting some real-time feedback from an knowledgeable instructor.
Nails or No Nails
Many have strong feelings about this dilemma. Those with nails insist they are an imperative part of their sound and technique. I am happy with the tone I get without them and am spared the stress and time of nail maintenance. Additionally, some of the tapping techniques I do on electric guitar don’t work with nails. You can find compelling arguments from both schools, though using nails is certainly more common today. I say do your thing—you don’t need to grow or cut your nails for this.
If you are new to classical guitar technique, the biggest issue I have seen for most steel-string or electric players is the origin of the movement—it should come from your first knuckle, in more of a sweeping than a pulling motion. It’s like waving, as I demonstrate in the accompanying video. To be sure, you don’t have to be a classical player to use tremolo, but as it is a classical technique, it is only logical to look there to examine how it works.
First try Example 1, which involves the ring, middle, and index fingers plucking the open high E string, and then Example 2, which enlists the thumb on the low E string. An important point is to relax after each movement—think of dumping any tension out of your hand as soon as you pluck the string.
After you’ve learned the first two examples as written, repeat Ex. 2 and try to prepare each finger: place the next one you are going to use on the string you are going to play immediately after the preceding note is played. This will give a staccato sound on the repeated notes. Go very slowly at first, aiming for balance of tone.
In order to achieve evenness of volume between each of the picking-hand fingers, it can be helpful to work with accents, as shown in Examples 3a–c, starting with the ring finger. Intentionally bringing out one note ensures deeper listening and hones your dynamic control. This then allows you to perceive when notes are unintentionally out of balance, thereby leading to more refined tremolo.
Once you’ve spent time working slowly through each of these examples, go back to Ex. 2 and listen more deeply, making tiny adjustments for balance of tone and dynamics so each finger produces a sound consistent with the others. The aim is to avoid a galloping effect that results from some notes being over- or underplayed relative to the others.
As for other tips, I was fortunate to get some words of wisdom from the phenomenal Jiji, who is an expert on tremolo. She suggested working in dotted rhythms, similar in principle to Exs. 3a–c, but rather than accenting a note dynamically, elongate one note while shortening others. The concept here is the same—by exaggerating unevenness, you build greater control and perception, which makes your tremolo more even.
Jiji did warn that overly metronomic tremolo can draw attention to itself, rather than give the desired impression of sustained notes. Therefore, work on fluidity, dynamics, and shape. She suggested enlisting a practice buddy who can speed up and slow down your metronome as you play, so you can work on a natural ebb and flow in your tremolo.
As a final word of caution, Jiji mentioned to watch out for the tendency to overplay notes with the thumb.
Tremolo in Context
Now let’s add some accompaniment. In Example 4, we are fretting an open A-minor chord, keeping the repeated notes on the high E string. Keep going with preparing the next fingers, and work to differentiate the two lines.
If you are new to tremolo, investing some real time through exercises like these is essential for cultivating a strong foundation. As with any practice, quality of time spent is what counts. In the early phases of developing a new technique, it is especially important to go very slowly, ensuring your perception stays ahead of your technical execution so you cultivate good habits. Proceeding slowly will expedite the learning process and perhaps save you from the immensely frustrating situation of realizing you’ve spent hours, days, weeks, or even months cementing a faulty technique.
I’ll leave you with an excerpt from an etude I composed for myself to work on this technique (Example 5). Though quite a jump in difficulty from the initial exercises, the same principles apply. I suggest working in very small sections, focusing on quality of tone, dynamic control, and consistency of the tremolo. Start by using a click at a very slow tempo, and once you achieve good tone quality and graceful, relaxed tremolo, increase the tempo slightly (only 1–5 bpm).
Stretch your ears so you perceive the separate voices, and make tiny adjustments to enhance them with subtleties in your playing. As Jiji advises, be careful not to exaggerate the bass notes. Once you are comfortable with the first arpeggio, work on a smooth transition between it and the second arpeggio. You’ll have no looming spirit of Segovia or Tárrega as you make your early attempts, as this piece is new and so far only played by me—again, a student of this technique. Consider me your study buddy.
Enjoy and work with fearless patience. Always wishing you my very best with all your musical studies and exploration.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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