Tremolo

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Although absolutely nobody asked for it, I am going to try to start another ongoing series (have to steer the conversation away from the ukes! ). We talk about these various techniques off and on, but I thought it would be a good idea to focus on a particular topic, over a longer period. There's a lot of collective wisdom on the list, believe it or not--and also a lot of questions. I hope people will jump in with what they have learned, what works for them, tips, tricks, techniques, exercises, questions, frustrations, breakthroughs, and so on.

Somewhat selfishly, I am naming tremolo as topic number one. It's a fundamental skill, and an integral part of the sound of the mandolin in almost every kind of music that people play on the instrument. I say selfishly because I know it is something I want to work on--and if it is a topic of discussion, I'll focus on it better, and I know I'll learn something.

After I switched from posting my little finger and ring finger and playing more from the arm to a loose wrist, no posting, anchoring my forearm on the body of the instrument (and that change came over 4 years ago, after 20 years of playing the other way), the tremolo was the last thing I held on to from the old (bad) way. I just seemed afraid to give up what I was doing, afraid that I couldn't get enough sound the new way. I would practice it the new way, but revert to the old way in performance. The stiff wrist gave me a tremolo, but it had problems: it didn't sound very smooth or even, and I had a "hitch" as I went into it. I finally made myself switch over to the loose wrist, non-posting hand, especially after I listened to myself and heard that I could get just as many notes, and make them smoother--and get rid of that damn hitch! But I am still struggling with tremolo, long after other parts of my playing have gotten better.

I noticed at mandolin camp this summer, playing in Carlo Aonzo's Kamp Orchestra, that I almost pooped out on tremolo after having to play that whole "angel" piece. What a workout! So I knew I needed to practice and really concentrate on this vital skill.

I think when I started playing, I should have mastered this fundamental skill from the beginning. As I'll write later, I can see how the tremolo underlies all kinds of playing, including some fast bluegrass stuff. But I was impatient--I wanted to pick the fiddle tunes, and didn't put the time in on this basic skill. I just got a semi-serviceable tremolo going, and then moved on. Now I want to go all the way back to the beginning and see what I can learn. I'm also a little frustrated in that this is the one place that I feel at a disadvantage for being a lefty who plays right-handed. I am happy I do that, for many reasons, but I notice that I have such a more natural tremolo motion with my left wrist than I do my right. I can just feel the power and the flow with it! But that can't be helped--I'm sticking with my right hand. But then again, if my left hand can do it, I know I can train my right hand to be better. It's all muscle stuff, right?

So--it's a huge subject, but one that we can learn from at all levels, beginner, intermediate, advanced, pro. I hope other people will jump in with their ideas on this--if for nothing else, so I can learn something!

John Bird


Well John, I'll jump in. As someone who abandoned pinky posting before it became too much of a habit (6 months versus your 20 years) I haven't had the frustration of unlearning old habits. Plus I'm one of those oddball righties that plays right handed. I don't consider my tremolo the best but it's not something that needs as much work as other aspects of my playing (i.e. I am NOT a tremolo expert nor do I play one on TV)

That said, the main thing I focus on is to maintain a loose grip on the pick: a Mike Compton, about to fly out of your hand, keep the pick on the strings grip. That your arm gets tired from tremolo suggests to me that you may have excess muscle tension. Lighten up, guy! I find a rounded tip pick, like a Golden Gate, is easier to tremolo with but I like the triangle shape better overall. So I practice at keeping the tremolo smooth. I will sometimes sit and tremolo scales and arpeggios just to drive the wife and kids nuts. I try to maximize string contact time (another Comptonism); I have this mental picture of my hand moving up and down while the pick tip on the strings moves very little. I also toss in tremolos on tunes where there's a note longer then an eighth just to work on keeping the entrance to and exit from the tremolo smooth. Waltz tunes are good for this as they are often a little slower tempo. I think the challenge of tremolos in a Monroe/Compton style is to get the power while keeping it smooth. Compton did an exercise with my group at Kamp'99 where we tremolo a single pair (say E), then added a second pair (EA), then a third (EAD), ........... you get the idea.

Fun tremolo tunes: Lonesome Moonlight Waltz, Waltz for Bill Monroe (music on the Mandozine site and in Mandolin Mag), Wayfaring Stranger (I do this in Bb up the neck, thanks Niles!)

Ron Lacey



I'm with Ron--watching Mike Compton was a big help to me. His pick looks like it is made of rubber, it is so loose in his fingers. He suggests keeping the pick on the strings at all times, like a bow on a fiddle. I want to be able to use tremolo on fast songs, as he does. The other thing he does is almost ALWAYS play triplet tremolo. After hearing that from him, I heard it more clearly in Monroe's playing (no shock) and others, like Ronnie McCoury, for example.

In the latest Mandolin Magazine, with Mike Marshall on the cover (got it yesterday), he advocates the same loose grip for tremolo. He says hold it as loosely as possible, about to fall out of your hands, then gradually increase the grip, which will give a louder sound. He advocates starting slow with even eighth notes, then adding speed to make it a tremolo. He also mentions that it's harder to go up than down, because of gravity, but that it has to be even. Mike has a great tremolo, of course.

Ron is right about me tensing up. I have to be on guard for that. The key is to be as loose as possible, from the should all the way through the arm to the wrist to the fingers. I just have to let all my tension go, and have to be conscious of that.

John Bird



I recently heard John Reichmann suggest something that's helped my tremolo in waltzes. He suggested practician playing 3 strokes against 2 beats; DA-da-da, DA-da-da, DA-da-da, etc. In waltz time this adds a pulse, depending on how much you emphasise the beat. For me at least, it's made it easier to start and end tremolo phrases crisply.

For what it's worth, Reichmann plays with a relatively firm pick grip, but emphasizes angling the pick to maximize string contact, as previously mentioned in this thread. I'm guessing he's after a bigger, fuller tone than other more Monroe-influenced players.

Finally, he does a cool hammer-on/pull-off on the D note (5th fret A string) in the beginning of the A part of Lonesome Moonlight Waltz.

John Garibaldi



I was just about to post a tremolo question when John posted the TOM--thanks John!

Having said that, it seems to me (for what that's worth) that a lot of the tremolo I hear is sort of a wild flurry of notes that are uncounted, but rather fill up a certain period of time. John & Ron have mentioned playing loose--so you mean from the wrist not the elbow?

From the most fundamental point, how does one play a proper tremolo?

Alan Cornett



That may be so in some cases, but my experience of bluegrass is that the tremolo is usually measured in multiples of two or three. It often helps to finish the tremolo passage on a downstroke which is actually a quarter note or one-eighth note. The overall musical effect is of one long note. In written notation/tab I often tie the tremolo note to the following downpicked quarter or one-eighth note which finishes off that total "long" note.

Hope this makes some sense! See my tab of Lonesome Moonlight Waltz at http://www.btinternet.com/~john.baldry/mando/tabgif/moonlt/moonlt.html as an example. (This arrangement can also be downloaded for MIDI playback - see http://www.btinternet.com/~john.baldry/mando/tablist.html for further info.)

John Baldry



Alan asks about flurry of notes vs. measured. That's what Evan Marshall (in Mandocrucian's Digest) called the buzz saw vs. measured tremolo. I am going back to working on measured tremolo (what Marilyn Mair is talking about) as a foundation--but the buzz saw has its place too.

The question about "proper" depends on the context and the style of music. The classical people have to be very structured about this, by the nature of the music and the tight ensemble playing. (In a bluegrass band, only one person is doing it. In a mandolin orchestra, everybody has to be doing it the same to sound right.) I remember a few years ago, when classical people dominated this list (or were much more present--where the heck did those people go? We need them!), in a discussion of tremolo, somebody mentioned David Grisman as having a great tremolo (I've always considered him my ideal), and a bunch of folks went nuts, and a big brouhaha ensued (and this wasn't even about ukes!). So I was pretty amazed to see how they approached this--but now I think I understand why.

Still, it seems to me that developing a clear, precise, measured tremolo is foundational, and can apply to everything. That's why I am going back to basics.

John Bird



One of the best examples of this (but not in the context of classical) is the Norman Blake "Natasha's Waltz" cd. There is some incredible examples of two to four players doing "synchronized" tremolo on some of those tracks. (It's also one of the best collections of mandolin artistry around (IMHO)).

Bob Shelby



One thing that John mentioned is the triplet tremolo (another Compton tip). This was a concept that really helped me, much more then the idea of speeding up eighth notes. I don't always play triplets but usually go for an odd number within the measured space, usually 5 or 7 depending on the tempo and the length of the space I'm fitting the tremolo into. This isn't really a conscious effort as much as a consequence of keeping the downstroke on the beat and leaving a little break on exiting the tremolo. If the tremolo carries through the note change then I wind up with an even number (e.g. two sets of triplets) as I don't want that little break in there.

I think the key is to not let the tremolo take control of the rhythm, it has to fit within the beat of the tune.

Ron Lacey



This is a technique that I work on off and on, lately move of the on, though. I like Sean's suggestion of a tremolo sub. There are a few tunes that have really tricky phrases that I will do the same with when playing with others and leave getting the correct single notes down at home.

Just as sure as I am of what is working for me, I'm sure a lot of folks would argue but, in the past I believed that a loose wrist was the answer...not anymore. Well, it is the answer but I have found that for myself, a loose pick grip is the real answer. When I play with a loose wrist and ignore what is going on with my pick grip, I find that I am not really playing with a loose wrist at all. Just a stiff but more exaggerated motion in the wrist. I find that I really must loosen up on the pick for the wrist to move freely. Try it. Without a pick. Simulate your grip and flick your wrist back and forth like a tremolo. Do it with you thumb pinch tightly, then try it loosely and then everything in between. As you grip more tightly the action on you wrist becomes more choppy so it won't sound a smooth.

Ken Dunbar



Here is a cool tremolo lick that can be substituted in "Rawhide" for the real fast Monroesque lick that plays over the dreaded F chord. I have been working on tremolo a lot lately, especially with double stops. It really opens up a lot of possibilities.

                                   

------------------------------3---------
-------------3-----------6 sl 7---------
----3--------7--------------------------
----5-----------------------------------

Because I am rotationally and tab challenged, you kind of have to just tremolo through these positions and try to hear what is going on, does this make sense?

Sean Grexa



OK, let's get down to the nitty gritty with this tremolo stuff. I agree 100% with the philosophy of a loose wrist, but how are people practician this stuff?

I have the following routine for practician tremolo (forgive me if it doesn't totally make sense, I don't have my metronome with me):

1. Set the metronome at 144. On the G string, I play 4 quarter notes, with metronome clicking on 1 & 3, then 8 8th notes. I do this pattern twice and then play 4 quarters and 24 8th notes to make an 8 bar phrase. I repeat this ad nauseam on each string, and then on each pair (E & A, A & D, D & G).

2. Set metronome at 92. The pattern here is to play 4 quarter notes, with metronome clicking on 1 & 3, then 12 notes as triplets in the same space (not sure of the correct terminology here, 8th note triplets?). Repeat ad nauseam as above, including pairs of courses.

3. Set metronome at 160. Repeat exercise #1 at new tempo.

4. Try to relax for a moment because now I'm tense as hell, even though I am concentrating on relaxing the whole time.

5. Play Wayfaring Stranger, Lonesome Moonlight Waltz, and Waltz in the Bluegrass. Play them rubato, with no metronome, concentrating on only doing the tremolo as fast as I can with ZERO tension.

6. I also practice these tunes a lot with a metronome at various tempos.

At this point I have run out of ways to torture myself, but when I listen to my Travellers CD by Baldassari/Reichmann/Bullock, I'm still very unhappy with my tremolo.

I'm definitely looking forward to hearing about some other people's practice "regimes" for developing tremolo. Please share the dirty details.

Will Kimble



These are really good exercises. I also set the metronome and do 4-beat and 3-beat tremolo.

Marilyn Mair suggests this in a recent classical column in Mandolin Magazine:

1. Set the metronome to between 50 and 60, quarter note equals a beat.
2. Play quarter notes for a measure.
3. Then play eighth notes, keeping them very precise. (8 notes to the measure)
4. Then play 16ths. (16 notes to the measure)
5. Then play 32nd notes. (32 notes to the measure)

She emphasizes being really relaxed throughout, and waiting for the tension to come on the 32nd notes. Even though 50 bpm is really slow, this is not easy to do cleanly, evenly, and relaxed. I can do up to 57 or 58 with not much problem, but find that I start to max out at 59 or 60. One click makes a difference with those 32nd notes.

She emphasizes developing expression with the notes. I like to do scales with the 32nd notes, trying to concentrate on being totally even. I figure it's good to learn this from the classical players, who must be absolutely measured and precise. I can let up some later when I am playing bluegrass, but I want this rock solid foundation that I skipped over years ago. So I do some of this every day.

John Bird



Here's some tremolo info forwarded from Don Stiernberg...

Bill Hamilton

----Don sez---

My regards to John Bird and all the CoMandos and MandoKampers...

concerning tremolo, I think I learned to do it by starting with eighth notes, and just making smaller and smaller subdivisions:sixteenths, 32nds, and finally that blur that allows us to sustain a note in vocal fashion, or as a clarinet or violin might...a somewhat loosened grip on the pick helps, and if your wrist is not relaxed you may not be able to tremolo at all. I've seen some of the greatest pickers move up toward the fretboard a little for tremolo passages. Is it possible that the tension on the strings is different there (mushier?) and allows the pick to travel more readily? One student who watched closely said my pick was moving in a circular fashion for tremolo also.

Finally here's some mechanical suggestions: Have the sound you want IN MIND. Good models can come from singers or horn players or bowed instruments as well as other mandolin sounds. You'll be surprised what great results come from asking yourself "How do I want this note to sound?" or "How long should this note last?" as opposed to "How did Mando Guy X get that sound?" Weird, I know...

another one that's helped my students with double or triple stop tremolo is to think of (visualize?) a double stop as only one string...the pick needs to swing through that area as a bat or golf club through a ball...it should come to rest on the next highest string above that's not being played. Pick motions should be consistent(roughly the same distance travelled each time) Weird, I know....

Oh yeah, in bluegrass, just go for broke! The emotional content of the SONG will make the tremolo for you, it seems. In spite of what I said earlier, I feel obligated to mention Buzz Buzzby, Bill Monroe, Ronnie McCoury, David Grisman - I love that ferocious stuff just as much as I love how Dave Apollon makes notes that seem to last forever...

Good luck to all of us and if we love the song and make it sing, we'll be playing good tremolo.

sincerely,
Don Stiernberg

Get more of Don's mandolin knowledge in each issue of Mandolin Magazine http://www.mandolincafe.com/mandomag/



Here's one of my favorite tremolo licks for a G to D change:


------------------------5---5---5---5--------
----5-----5-5-5---5---9---10--9---7----------
----9-----7-9-10--9--------------------------
---------------------------------------------

I really love the Dunlop nylon picks because they don't seem to get that burr on them that lots of plastic picks do. It really helps me keep a smoother trem. going without having to replace picks constantly. I sometimes visualize a flamenco guitarist's wrist motion when trying to do fast tremolos. Great topic, John. David C



Finally something I can do sort of.

I have little trouble with tremolo, maybe because I don't pick with other mandolin players. :0)

I hold the pick backwards, angled up towards the neck and left shoulder, between the first finger and the end of my thumb. Radim Zenkle didn't like it much, but because I have held the pick this way for about a zillion years he did not tell me to change. Anyway, I find that when I do a loud tremolo I don't touch\anchor my pinkie at all. all of the motion for the pick is in the wrist and I can play that way for extended periods without pain or stiffness. When I want to play quietly I have recently noticed that I brush my pinkie on the pickguard/fingerest, occasionally planting it, but not often. On the other hand I do notice that when i play loud and hard lead my hand cramps a lot. I have to do it for awhile but it does hurt at the end. I tend to think that my picking style lends itself to tremolo but sucks for real good lead playing. have I confused anyone yet? This is a great thread John.

Steve Jones



If I'm understanding Steve correctly, this sounds like the way John Reichmann holds his pick--backwards at an angle. Sure works for him! He says he is double-jointed, and he feels this angle gives him the best tone and fluidity. A lot of people recommend holding the pick differently for tremolo than for regular picking. A lot don't. So I guess you just have to figure out what works for you.

John Bird



It seems to me that tremolo technique might depend more than some mandolin techniques on what pick one favors. I have played around with Fender rounded triangles, Golden Gates, Dunlop 207 and 208's and find that I play a tremolo differently with the GG's or rounded Dunlops than with the more pointy Dunlops (my current most favorite pick!). The rounded ones seem to lend themselves to the loose grip, flat of the pick against the string approach, while I tend to angle my wrist with the pointy ones so that it glides over the strings more easily. (Have noticed Sam Bush does something like this, but don't know what pick he uses.) All in all I'm happiest with the pointed, thick Dunlop pick and a shift in wrist angle and rather firm grip for tremolo.

Bob Shelby



Well, Pete Martin, my old mandolin/fiddle teacher, (who is also on here occasionally) did tell me at one time to stay lower (towards the bridge) and a firmer grip while picking a melody, and move up the strings slightly and loosen the grip on the tremolo's. It does make a difference in the sound. And, BTW, he was the best and most enjoyable instructor, and he's got some great instruction materials on his web site http://www.halcyon.com/petimar/ Another unabashed plug!

Tracy Courtney



As part of the beginner contingent, I found that I 'picked up' the habit of anchoring my pinky to press into the strings harder, and it has had the same affect on my tremolo that you mentioned - it has had a 'hitch' at the beginning or end on occasion....

Just recently (after feedback here) I've worked to quit anchoring.

A question that I'd like to add to the thread is about the speed and rhythm of the tremolo. I've found that sometimes I'll play it straight through (to hold the note steady) and other times I'll vary the tempo with the rhythm of the song. Is there a 'correct' way (is varying 'lazy') or does that just go toward style and the way the song plays?

Doug Edwards



Don't know if this answers your question or not, but I always try to reference the speed of the tremolo to the song's tempo. Not to say that a slow trem. is always correct for a slow song. For example, for a syrupy sweet ballad, I might play soft double stop trem that would equal 16th notes based on that song's tempo. For other slow songs, the trem might equal 32nd or even 64ths. Also, there are loads of different sounding tremolos you can get by varying the strength of the pick attack, the distance from the bridge, whether you're using the edge of the pick or the flat, how much pick is exposed and the thickness of the pick, etc. Hope that helps.

David C



Matt Flinner gave us a good RH exercise at RockyGrass that relates to tremolo. Start with a very slow metronome: 40 to 50. Play down and up strokes one stroke per beat, then 2, then 3, then 4, then 6, then 8. Don't stop playing when you switch. Get an idea in your head what the next speed will be and go straight to it. Now the tricky part: go back down from 8 to 6, from 6 to 4, from 4 to 3, etc. Again, try to make your transitions from different stroke speeds even. Pay attention to tone, to keeping your pick strokes even, and to keeping your wrist and arm muscles relaxed.

It's deceptively difficult, at least for me. Must be good for me.

Don Grieser