Part One: The Basics
Tremolo is one of the most beautiful and sometimes the most impressive technical elements on guitar. It creates the impression that there are two people playing the instrument. It allows guitarists to overcome the natural sonic decay of the instrument and finally gives us a chance to sustain tones! That said, it can be one of the most difficult technical elements to achieve in terms of evenness, fluidity, and effortlessness. The biggest complaint guitarists have about tremolo is “why does my tremolo sound uneven?” There are two things that are absolutely necessary in order to achieve even tremolo: a sense of rhythm to tell each finger to play at equal intervals and the physical ability of individual fingers to execute what the brain dictates.
The sense of rhythm comes from practicing with a metronome until the beats are ingrained in us and the sense of evenness becomes second nature. The metronome is unforgiving, and forces us to play when it beats, therefore exposing all our weaknesses. When practicing any tremolo piece, I start with a very slow tempo and subdivide the beat so that each beat gets two notes. For even more fundamental control, I would suggest an even greater subdivision: one beat per note. This way there is no room for error. As I get more comfortable with each tempo, I increase it and eventually remove the subdivisions. Once the rhythm of the tremolo is instilled in us, then we still have to train our fingers to physically execute the move with control and evenness.
More often than not, it is the fingers’ lack of physical ability to play in time that effects our tremolo. Because of human anatomy, m and a, or rather the middle and ring fingers of both of our hands, are interdependent and it takes training to develop their independence. In the traditional p, a, m, i (thumb, ring, middle, index) pattern that most classical guitarists use to play tremolo, a and m follow each other on the same string, making it very obvious if they are not played evenly. To develop even tremolo we need to train our right hand from different directions. It is not enough to merely practice tremolo and hope that it will become even.
Considering that we keep our hands in general shape with regular arpeggio and scale practice, there are a few exercises that should not be overlooked when trying to improve our tremolo. I like to think of tremolo as a sort of combination of arpeggio and scale; an arpeggio, because of the overall pattern and the inclusion of the thumb, and a scale because, unlike arpeggios, a, m, and i play on the same string. To start working on the independence of fingers m and a, I would highly suggest practicing scales with m and a, rest stroke as well as free stroke. This trains those two fingers to work independently, especially making a work independently from m. Study no. 1, by Heitor Villa-Lobos is also a great way to work on the independence of m and a, because of the repeated appearance of m and a in the middle of the pattern used in that study. That said, just working on technical elements outside of tremolo will only have limited effect when playing the actual tremolo pattern.
When practicing a newly learned tremolo piece, I always use a metronome on a very slow setting, where I can comfortably play the entire piece and have control over both hands. I subdivide the beats as mentioned earlier. Then I gradually increase the speed and eventually remove the subdivisions. My following step is to break down the tremolo. I practice the same piece slowly by playing the tremolo with p, a, m, a, p, a, m, a… and gradually increase the tempo. This makes the a finger work overtime and trains it to follow p in a controlled manner and eventually builds its stamina. Use caution when practicing p, a, m, a because it can tire out the hand, since a is not used to playing that much. Make sure to take breaks and do not push too hard if your hand is not yet ready. I do the same with p, m, a, m, then p, m, i, m, and p, i, m, i, hence working every combination of the p, a, m, i pattern that includes the m finger. After working on these patters, I go back to the regular p, a, m, i and work up to the final tempo.
Part Two: Other Influences
Achieving even tremolo on one piece does not guarantee that the success will carry to another tremolo piece. Though the pattern and the technical element is the same, every tremolo piece will have its unique challenge. The difficulty of the left hand, the pattern of the thumb in the bass line, the string on which the tremolo is played, the distance between the strings of the bass note and the tremolo, as well as many other variables, will play an important role in the evenness and the fluidity of our tremolo. Each tremolo piece should get its due practice.
After working on the actual tremolo technique of the right hand and getting a good handle on it, we should work on the synchronization of the left and right hands for each individual chord and note switch. The idea of tremolo is to create an uninterrupted sound in the melody line that will give the illusion of sustain. However the pattern itself already has an interruption built into it when we play the bass with our thumb. When we change chords, we often change on the downbeat, cutting the last note of the previous chord short, creating a broken effect and interrupting the fluidity. To minimize this I train my left hand, whenever possible, to switch the tremolo note after I play the bass note of the next chord. The following example is a segment from Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Invocación y Danza.”
The melody appears in the tremolo (F#, A, G#, A, B, G#, A, F#…). It needs to sound as legato as humanly possible on the guitar, as if it was sung. Therefore, when changing my left hand fingers, I would make sure to place the 4th finger on the A in the melody, only after I play the D in the bass Thus, allowing F# to ring to its fullest capacity before covering it with the 4th finger. Now, if we look carefully, this goes against the notation, because there is a rest between all the tremolo notes. However, those rests are for notation purpose only, it does not mean that we need to cut the sound. The same thing would apply for the following notes. I would not take off the 4th finger from the A, until I play the A in the bass and it is time to play the G# in the tremolo, allowing the A on the 1st string to last as long as it can, etc… The challenge here is that the left hand fingers for the tremolo note do not change on the beat, but are delayed by a 32nd note, synchronizing the left hand change with the a finger of the right hand, rather than the downbeat. The result allows for the melody to be fluid and effortless. This will not always be possible because of switches in position or bass notes that are unreachable without taking the tremolo note off, but whenever possible we should hang on to that last tremolo note of the previous chord as long as possible.
Another aspect that makes tremolo tricky is the movement of the thumb from various bass notes. The more the thumb jumps around, for example from the 6th string to the 2nd, back to the 5th, etc… the more difficult it is to control the evenness of the tremolo. When p plays on the 6th string and the tremolo, for instance, is on the 1st string, the distance between p and the rest of the fingers is increased, slightly altering the hand position by making it more open. This created a more challenging position, especially for the already troublesome a. The opposite is true when p plays on the 2nd string, getting all the fingers closer together. Now you can see why having p make big jumps like that effects the rest of the tremolo. When approaching each tremolo piece individually, and applying the previously mentioned technique to the actual piece and not just to an exercise, we tailor the training to the unique challenges of the piece we are playing.