From the Winter 2017 issue of Ukulele | BY DANIEL WARD | VIDEO BY MATT DEAN
The tremolo technique, as it is played on nylon-stringed instruments like the classical guitar, flamenco guitar, and yes, the ukulele, is very special technique of single-string repetitions that is usually combined with a thumb arpeggio outlining the harmony. When played smoothly and with just enough speed, this pattern creates the illusion of a duet, where the quickly picked melody sounds as a sustained note and the accompaniment bounces between the other strings, played with the thumb. The result is a magical sound that can resemble a voice, or an instrument like an oboe that sings above the harmony arpeggio of the thumb.
One of the most famous tremolo works is Recuerdos de la Alhambra, a classical guitar piece by Spanish composer Francisco Tárrega. It’s worth watching and listening to a video to get a feel for what this mysterious technique can sound like.
I love to unravel technical mysteries and in this lesson we will examine a complete breakdown of the tremolo technique and then look at an easy way to practice it so you can add it to your toolbox of picking styles. Even at very slow speeds, this kind of work will add tone, agility, and smoothness to your playing.
Let’s start by focusing on just using your picking hand on the open strings. Example 1 shows the open-string pattern. Play the fourth string using your thumb, and then play the three consecutive first-string notes using your ring, middle, and index finger very slowly. (See the sidebar for information on the picking-hand notation.) The thumb plays the strings in a 4–3–2–3 pattern, with each note followed by three notes played on the first string with a ring-middle-index arpeggio. Play this over and over and don’t try to speed up yet. Just get used to the feel of the single-string repetitions and the moving thumb in between.
Because classical guitar pieces can be demanding for both hands, lessons and music will often contain suggestions about which fingers the player should use to perform the piece. The fretting hand is given numbers 1 through 4 for the index through pinky fingers. By contrast, the picking-hand recommendations are each given a lowercase letter taken from the Spanish words for each finger: pulgar, indicio, medular, anular, and chiquito.
There are two ways to get a solid tremolo going. Patience is the real skill needed for both of these, and for any new technique you are working on. One of the best lessons I ever learned was when a great teacher told me “the slower you practice, the faster you become.” So the first technique is to play the pattern over and over in a slow, steady rhythm. This way you will orient the tips of your fingers to the strings in a deep, kinesthetic way that never leaves once it is established. The second way to master tremolo is a fancy trick I picked up from flamenco and classical guitar artists.
This way of practicing is called “prepared picking.” What you do is play each note and immediately stop it short by placing the finger that’s about to play next on the string. This mutes the ringing and makes the sound very short. With this pattern, play the thumb’s note and put the ring finger on the first string. When you play the note with your ring finger, stop the sound as quickly as you can using your middle finger. Then play with the middle and stop the sound short with the index. The sound from the index will ring as you now play the next thumb note and start the pattern over. It will sound something like: Bong-Bip-Bip-Bee-Bong-Bip-Bip-Bee. The thumb and index tones will sound long and the ring and middle will be very staccato.
This way of stopping the strings puts the next finger right in the place it’s supposed to play, and trains your neurons exactly where the strings are. It’s slow and can be very tedious unless you resign yourself to enjoying how precise and clean you are becoming as you work on this skill. I suggest two times around the study, minimum, playing as slowly as you can stand to play it and changing chords cleanly. Once you can do this, you will be delighted and surprised by your progress.
The next step is to speed up, a little at a time, with the prepared practice. It’s a bit like pulling a tractor with a rope and getting the strength and stamina to sustain the even notes. When you do let go of the short notes and play normally, you will feel a rush of speed as your hand relaxes and the tractor rope comes off. Imagine breathing out while you stretch, and make sure the back of your picking hand feels “released” so it can go faster. Then play through the piece and feel how easy things are coming now.
Repeat the steps of using the prepared practice technique and then letting go, and you will soon see how valuable this method is. Be prepared to work slowly as much as you can, and understand that this takes time. Even if you don’t get fast right away, you will feel the tremendous effects of your practice. Every time I perform my tremolo version of “Aloha ’Oe,” I very slowly run through the whole piece backstage while stopping the strings. It resets my angles and puts me in touch with the instrument so it can really fly when it’s time to perform.
Okay, now go practice!
Sueños (below) is one of the later studies in my book Arpeggio Meditations for Ukulele.