From the May/June 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Greg Ruby

THE PROBLEM

You don’t know how to fill the space during a long note or extended rest during a chord-melody arrangement.

THE SOLUTION

Use tremolo picking on long notes and passing chords over multiple measures of rest. Try applying this approach on an arrangement of the New Orleans jazz standard “Careless Love Blues.” 

GET INTO TREMOLO

Tremolo picking is a plectrum technique that uses repetitious down/up strokes on a single note. Because a note on the guitar begins to decay almost instantly after it is struck, using tremolo allows for a sense of sustain of a single note over a longer duration of time.

At moderate tempos, tremolo picking is often subdivided as a sextuplet on a single note. Example 1 illustrates this picking on the note A. The subdivision of six notes in one beat can also be written as a quarter note with three lines through it. (Note: In classical music this symbol refers to an unmeasured tremolo, but for our purposes we will treat it as a sextuplet subdivision.)


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 It is important to accurately subdivide your tremolo. A helpful practice technique is to set a metronome to a slow tempo (60 bpm or so) and play a quarter note followed by a sextuplet, etc., as illustrated in Example 2. When the tempo is brisk, it often becomes necessary to decrease the subdivision to either 16th notes or triplets in order to stay in time. Example 3 provides an opportunity to practice different subdivisions.It is helpful to know which ones you can handle at any given tempo. 

Example 4 integrates the sextuplet subdivision into an F major scale (F G A Bb C D E) on the first string. Practice this technique slowly and accurately at a consistent tempo; once you achieve a sense of relaxation and ease, gradually increase the tempo. Remember, speed is a byproduct of slow, focused practice, not the other way around. 

Once you have control over the tremolo, you can add it to the top note of a chord voicing. Example 5 uses tremolo on the top note of an F major triad. Hold the chord down while playing tremolo on the highest note. In this example, play the tremolo over two beats and then release to two quarter notes. This can be applied to any chord. 

PASS THE TIME

Another way to fill in the empty space of a chord melody is to strum chords during periods of rest. I like to think of myself as returning to the rhythm section, so to speak, for those measures and when playing lower-voiced rhythm chords. A passing chord is one that connects two diatonic chords (those within the key), and using passing chords is a great way to create harmonic movement during rests. Example 6 sets up a situation where A is the melody note on beat one while the chord progression is moving from F major to C7 to F major. This issue is solved by using lower-voiced rhythm guitar chords with the Abdim7 functioning as a passing chord.

PLAY “CARELESS LOVE BLUES”

In Example 7 (p. 46), tremolo picking and passing chords are applied in “Careless Love Blues,” a great standard that includes notable recordings by Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Lead Belly, and a modern vocal interpretation by Madeleine Peyroux. My favorite is Danny Barker’s six-string banjo version. You will find many of his embellishments included in this arrangement. If you are not aware of Barker, read up on his history and check out the album The Fabulous Banjo of Danny Barker


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This arrangement starts with a series of eighth notes that lead into an F chord with the A note as the melody. Hold the chord for the entire measure while using tremolo picking for the first two beats. Exit the tremolo on beat three with a downstroke. This beat shouldn’t sound like a separate quarter note, but instead part of the tremolo. 

It is helpful to plan your exits for the tremolo. Remember to keep the tremolo picking in time. In measure 2, the melody is harmonized with a C7 chord switching on every beat. In last issue’s lesson [March/April 2021], we discussed utilizing a rest stroke to bring out the melody and to prevent your pick from accidently striking the first string. Be sure and use the rest stroke on measure 2 as you change between the different inversions.

After the F chord on beat one of measure 3, start playing rhythm guitar by strumming the same chord with downstroke eight notes for beat two through measure 5. Use the tremolo again and then hold the D7 for two beats on measure 6, while striking the top note of the chord twice as a quarter using an upstroke on the second beat. 

Play the “fill” chords on measures 7 and 8 using triplets. On each beat, try the strumming pattern down-up-down, as the first downstroke will help you keep time. End the rhythm passage with a firm downstroke on beat four of measure 8. Bar 11 uses an inversion of Bb descending the fretboard until it changes to a Bbm at the first fret on measure 12. Bars 13 and 14 are identical to measures 1 and 2 and the song concludes with a quick I–IV–iv–I (F–Bb6–Bbm6–F) turnaround. 


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When you integrate the tremolo technique into your playing, whether on “Careless Love Blues” or any other tune, make sure that your timing is always accurate. If the sextuplet subdivision is too difficult to achieve at a given tempo, try a smaller subdivision in its place. This can achieve the same desired result, especially at brisker tempos.  

Greg Ruby is a guitarist, composer, historian, and teacher specializing in jazz from the first half of the 20th century. His latest book is The Oscar Alemán Play-Along Songbook Vol. 1. Ruby teaches Zoom lessons and classes. For more information, visit gregrubymusic.com


This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.