The tremolo is one of the most beautiful techniques of the classical guitar. The tremolo gives the impression of a sustained, shimmering note—a continuous thread of pure sound. It is a delicate effect that still mesmerizes audiences, especially when a jewel like Francisco Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra is performed.
Basically, the tremolo is created by playing a bass note with the thumb followed by three repeated higher notes; traditionally the ring (a), middle (m), and index (i) fingers play the higher notes. When played rapidly, this technique creates the illusion of a sustained upper line with a bass accompaniment. In the example below, the melody is in the top voice.
Occasionally one will encounter a tremolo with the melody in the bass, as demonstrated in the next example.
The Mexican guitarist and pedagogue Jesùs Silva (1914-1996), with whom I had the good fortune to study with for many years, had an excellent exercise for developing an even tremolo. He would have his students play a scale using the tremolo technique.
By playing the tremolo on one note—and by listening very carefully—the student is able to hear more clearly the quality of each tone produced and also control any rhythmic imperfections. This should first be practiced very slowly with each tone being equal, and then one can gradually increase the tempo.
Below is a tremolo exercise from the School of Tárrega that will help the student move from string to string with confidence.
It is interesting to note that the great Spanish guitarist Andrès Segovia (1893-1987) thought of the tremolo as “an arpeggio on a single string”. Vladimir Bobri wrote in a 1948 Guitar Review article that “the advice given (by Segovia)… many years ago was to play rapid arpeggios until they were perfectly even and then practice the tremolo.”
The touch used to produce a good tremolo is very important. The tremolo should have a smooth, singing quality. Silva always emphasized the creation of a mellow tone by using more flesh than nail; for this reason, the nails should not be too long. It is important for the right hand fingers to be “on” the strings, caressing the strings, and not “flying” or with an exaggerated motion. Silva advised his students to “….loosen the fingers and play lightly. The tremolo needs to be smooth, fluid like water….like a little stream. Don’t play heavy and don’t play each note so individual.”
In his article How to Write For the Guitar, Julian Bream (1933-2020) described the tremolo as a “delightful technique on the guitar….This effect should be used very sparingly, and I would advise composers to limit their use of it to extended compositions such as a sonata, suite, or concerto, where it can effectively be used to give textural variety, when all the other ‘stops’ have been pulled!” Bream continues that “when played at a reasonably fast speed, it (the tremolo) can achieve a highly sustained musical line.”
Many important composers for the guitar, including Ponce, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Torroba, Rodrigo, Tansman, and Barrios have utilized the tremolo in their works. This delicate and, at times, mysterious technique is one of the most poetic sounds of the classical guitar. Through the works of the great composers, the tremolo captivates the ears of the listener and penetrates the musical soul of the guitarist.
John Patykula is the Assistant Chair and Coordinator of the Guitar Program in the Department of Music at Virginia Commonwealth University.