Tremolos are often thought of as stylish, even flamboyant plectrum effects. Actually, there is a rationale behind the technique: when you strike strings on most plectrum instruments the sound decays very quickly, and if your notes die fast, the only way to create long sustain is to play a lot of them. That’s when tremolo techniques make sense. Of course the trouble with tremolo is that in order to achieve that sustain, you have to be able to play very, very fast. And the paradox in achieving fast tremolo is to start out really, really slow.
A Universal Technique
You’ll find tremolos played throughout the world wherever plectrum instruments exist. Oud and shamisen players play them with a long pick that extends to the palm of a hand. Italian mandolin players use a very small pick held between the tip of the index finger and the thumb. Classical guitarists play tremolo with their fingertips. Each instrument calls for a different approach. Here’s how I handle tremolos on guitar, mandolin and banjo:
Tremolo on Guitar
A good example of tremolo on the classical guitar is Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Francisco Tárrega, which is in most classical guitar solo book compilations because it was a greatest hit. The tremolo in this piece consists of 32nd note quadruplets in 3/4 time. That means there are 24 notes in each measure. That means that the first four measures have 96 notes in them. And there are five pages worth of them! That’s a lot of notes.
The way the right hand fingering is organized is simple and repetitive. The right hand fingering is p, a, m, i, or thumb, ring finger, middle finger and index finger. The three fingers play only one string at a time, in this case the first and second strings, and the thumb plays all the rest. I suggest you not be as rash as I was by jumping right in to this piece. I was young and cavalier. There are easier ways to approach it.
A good place to start is "Prelude No. 10a" from Aaron Shearer’s Classic Guitar Technique, Volume I (page 43). You should play the tremolo exercises very slowly at first and be brutally honest with yourself regarding your level of competence. You will do much better to get the notes even before you increase the speed. You may find that tremolo exercises are useful in combating a myriad of right hand problems. If for nothing else learning tremolo is good technique therapy.
Tremolo on Mandolin
On the mandolin the object is to hold the pick lightly and move it back and forth across the double strings at great speed. This too should be attempted slowly at first. Make sure you are striking both strings with each stroke, and that your tone is even with both up-stroke and down-stroke. My favorite joke for this problem is to drink four cups of strong coffee -- the way I like it -- and try to hold the pick still. The funny thing to me about this joke is that many people attempt mandolin tremolos by putting their hand in some sort of controlled spasm. This doesn’t really work very well, and it’s a waste of time.
As with any other technical exercise, you should begin slowly, analyze the motion, and execute it cleanly. The trick with using a pick is to hold it lightly and focus on the precise movements at the tip of your forefinger and thumb. You can increase speed later when you have really good control over your pick. And yes, your hand will move that fast if you build your speed slowly and carefully.
Tremolo on Banjo
Banjos need tremolo more than most instruments because their notes die really fast. I have several methods for playing tremolo on the five string banjo, which I consider the fingerstyle banjo:
Classical Method: This method is similar to what I do on a guitar as described above, i.e. thumb, ring finger, middle finger and index finger, though on a banjo one might use two fingers and the thumb instead of three fingers. I understand this form of tremolo was common in the 19th century.
Lute Style Method: This method is a thumb forefinger tremolo, not unlike Renaissance lute technique. It works rather well and it isn’t all that hard to do. However unlike lute technique, I think it works better if your thumb goes before your index finger and they’re separated by an inch or so.
Rest Stroke Method: One technique I like to use (and I don’t know if it has any historical basis) is the quick alternation of the index middle finger playing rest strokes as one does on the classical guitar or the bass guitar. It’s loud and it’s clean. But it takes a while to build up that much speed.
One Finger Method: This method is similar to an early 19th century guitar technique of oscillating the index finger across the string up-stroke, down-stroke using your index finger like a pick. You do well to block the adjacent strings with your other fingers. Although it’s been fashionable to plant fingers on the head of the banjo, it’s better for your tendons, if you must plant at all, to plant on the strings. Of course when using one finger as a pick, it works best if you have a good size nail on that finger.
The banjo I use as a plectrum is an old tenor. Although I find it easy to tremolo with a pick on double strung instruments like the mandolin, banjolin or cittern, I find it very difficult to get a clean tremolo on the single strings of a tenor banjo. I think the secret is a long tear drop shape pick and a somewhat larger freer motion. I know that other single-strung plectrum instruments around the world use a much longer pick that is controlled by the entire hand.
With all these techniques the most important thing is to use all the joints of your fingers intelligently. In the case of a flat pick the control is really in the tips of your thumb and forefinger. All of your attention should be focused on that. The rest of your hand should be quite loose. If you hold the pick too tight your hand will cramp up. Most player injuries come from too much tension. You should be able to pull the pick right out from your thumb and index finger. People grip their picks very tightly for fear of dropping them. I don’t think I’ve actually dropped a pick since I learned how to hold one properly.
When it comes to tremolo with the fingers, once again the action is in the fingertip. Your arm doesn’t really get involved. It’s the whiplash effect of bending the joints that gives you your power. As far as guitar tremolo is concerned you probably won’t experience any new muscle strain because it’s just free strokes, only a lot of them. When using the one finger technique you may find it interesting to do down-strokes because you will be using your extenders to produce a tone.
Just remember to start learning your tremolo technique slowly and deliberately and you should be fine. I know it’s tempting to wish so, but there really aren’t many short cuts in this music business. Better that you should spend a couple months on drills and do it well for life than try something quick and dirty that doesn’t sound even.