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The Tremolo tricks the ear, but how exactly?

New approach to the Tremolo Technique

I usually teach every day for several hours while I practice – this means the following: When I practice repertoire I discuss all the details that I can think of with my Ghost-Student. He is patient and eager to learn, so sometimes I can explain very complex matter for over one hour and my Ghost-Student is always very focused.
Of course we know that this type of students are very rare; but for me it is very helpful in order to look deeper into the music and of course talk about technical issues.

Most of the young guitar players get really exited when it comes to the Tremolo technique. Tremolo is a very unique technique for the guitar, and most musicians and of course the audience are usually very impressed by this wonderful sound effect.
There are so many ideas on how to practice the Tremolo, that you could actually write a separate article just on the different methods.

I believe we need first to understand what actually the Tremolo is, before we take the guitar in our hands. The Tremolo is an acoustical effect that tricks the ear, and this is actually quiet simple to understand.

Continuous line:
When you hear a tremolo composition, then you are impressed by the continuous sounding upper line - it sounds like a mandolin. Together with the thumb it creates the impression like two instruments performing together.
Musically speaking the ear follows the upper line and it sounds like 4 notes flowing over the baseline. But of course we know this is not the case.
There are 3 attacks for the upper line, after the thumb attack (The Flamenco style has 4 Attacks).

Well, so far there is nothing new…right?

But if you have 3 attacks and the thumb attacks in between why does it sound as a continuous line?
Well, the ear realizes 3 notes from the fingers a-m-i and one additional "note" that is hidden behind the attack of the thumb, so the thumb is responsible for the cover-up of the 4th note in the upper line!

And now the important thing is: THE TIDE NOTE.

You have to let the 3rd note of the tremolo, which is being attacked by the index finger (i), ring over the thumb attack creating a 4th “tide note”.

Here lies the problem:


The upper system in the above image, is the usual writing of the Tremolo (in this case it is the beginning of “Recuerdos de Alhambra”by Francisco Tárrega).
The second system shows what your ears are actually hearing. There is a tied note sounding behind the thumb attack; and this is exactly what most teachers mean when they say: “You have to connect better the melodic line!”

You can see in the second system, at the end of the measure, the spot where you have to anticipate the change of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd left hand fingers, but the 4th finger stays just a little longer holding  the tied note. This means that your left hand fingers have to become more independent from each other in order to be able to move the 2nd and 3rd finger ahead of time.
The technique of holding the “tied note” is of course not always possible. Specially when you have big jumps, but most of the time it is possible to hold the 4th note. Keeping the left hand finger who has the tremolo note, planted as long as possible thus holding the sound of the 4th note, creates the tied note. The base note attacked by the thumb is always very important. It is usually very hard to keep the 4th note also during the low base note; but the beauty of practicing the tremolo is exactly when you have to think in these details and try to elaborate your own interpretation.

Now the hard part is of course to separate the fingers movements, because we usually learn the tremolo piece as it should be played with sequence of chord blocks – placing and changing all fingers together as a chord. The chord changes always create a gap in the Tremolo line.

When you have big jumps or very awkward changes there is no chance you can apply the anticipation idea, but then you have to cover up the gap of the missing "tide" note with a full sound of the thumb attack, so that the ear does to realizes that there was a gap in the tremolo line.
The best example for this is when you observe Celin Romero or Pepe Romero performing the Tremolo. I have been privileged to have studied with Celin Romero in Del Mar/San Diego; but you can watch videos of Pepe Romero performing Tremolo technique. You can see very clearly that he uses nearly always the “Apoyado”-attack for the thumb. This gives the lower line a full sound and covers up the little gap of sound in the tremolo line.

So for me the big difference between “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” by Tarrega and “Una limosna por el Amor de Dios” by Barrios, is not that Barrios uses mostly the high e-string for the Tremolo (there shouldn’t be a difference on what string you play the Tremolo – I will talk another time about this topic).
The problem is that Barrios makes large jumps over the fret-board and this makes it impossible to apply the anticipation idea for the upper line in order to maintain the “tied note” and connect the melodic line. I try as much as possible to use the anticipation but when you have big changes of position you have to focus on the thumb – the thumb has all the responsibility in order to coverup the gap in the Tremolo line that are created by the big jumps of the left hand. For this you have to be able to perform the Tremolo playing the thumb with “Apoyado” technique. The "Apoyado" technique for the thumb allows you also to have richer sound of the bass-line, and combining with your regular thumb attack it results in a variety of colors which you can use in your phrasing.

Which finger attacks first during the Tremolo - thumb (p) or ring-finger (a)?

There is lots of discussions out there about the placement of the p- or a-finger in the Tremolo…. which finger has to be placed first.
Well, I guess this discussion is solved, because if you place the a-finger to early – either before or together with the thumb – you cut off the sound of the Tremolo line – you loose the tied note!
It means the a-finger attacks the string after the thumb allowing the note that was attacked by the i-finger to sound as long as possible.

Combining both ideas that we have talked about - not using a block chord for the left hand, and right hand attack sequence in the right hand - will result in a well connected upper melodic line of the tremolo composition.

This is of course not everything about Tremolo but it is a start.
I hope I could add some little knowledge to your Tremolo technique.

The next essay will be about how to train your Tremolo, having 4 independent attacks, and being able to put different accents in each note of your Tremolo line.

Thanks for reading.