A tutorial on tremolo for Classic fingerstyle five-string banjo


About a year ago, I made a tutorial on tremolo in which I explained the fingerpicked form of tremolo – that is, alternating the thumb, index and middle fingers, similar to the way some guitar players do it. This technique has a long history in the Classic Banjo world, and has been used in arrangements by great banjoists such as Emile Grimshaw and S. E. Turner.

However, at the time, it was pointed out that alternating finger tremolo was not a substitute for finger tremolo as they do not sound the same. Indeed, whereas it is easier for the majority of banjoists to get a good, musical sound out of alternating finger tremolo, it is also less versatile and less smooth than finger tremolo. I therefore set out to learn finger tremolo the “proper” way in early 2012, and in this tutorial I would like to share the results of my learning process.

I will be building most of my tutorial on a book called Sostenuto, by B. Sheldon Green; I would like to thank the excellent banjoist and member of Classic-Banjo.Ning, David Wade, for making it available. You can download the book here: https://api.ning.com/files/mFmC7FAMrvrTl8EytuxSGAbgRyAjhIR4gIVmJMnfthoaIFDNT3sMFeRO4rpcHYSYw3DNRgcDmadSSsJ2nyuJaX76eNDOK0Qp/SostenutoBSheldonGreen.pdf


For examples of full pieces built on tremolo, you can have a look at my recordings of Butterfly by V. V. Andreyev (chord tremolo) and Adieu by Alfred Kirby (tremolo with thumb accompaniment) on Youtube. Other recordings include a bit of tremolo, as needed.


I’m not an expert, and this tutorial is by no means perfect; it should be taken as advice from one amateur to another. The playing in the videos is a bit rough, but I had to put myself in a very uncomfortable position so that the camera would focus on my right hand; still, the videos should help you to get an idea of what the exercises sound like. All the videos were shot in one take, so it's all "real" playing -- what you see is what you get!


Part 1 – A brief history of tremolo or Sostenuto

Single finger tremolo, as employed on the banjo, is a very old technique which has been in use in many musical cultures throughout the world; one of the most striking examples of the modern use of this technique is in Persian classical music, in which the four-stringed Setar is mostly played by sounding the notes with the index finger nail in a similar fashion to the plectrum used on its cousin, the Tar.



IFrameAn Iranian musician performing tremolo

Banjo players also adopted this tremolo technique in the late 19th century, and it even influenced guitar players like William Foden, who included banjo-style tremolo as well as guitar-style tremolo in his guitar arrangements.

Two kinds of tremolo in William Foden’s variations on My Old Kentucky Home for guitar. Foden also played banjo and knew many great banjo players, including Fred Bacon with whom he made a very successful tour as a part of the “Big Trio”, along with the great mandolin player Giuseppe Pettine.

For some players, tremolo was seen as the solution to the banjo’s chief limitation: sustained sounds, hence the name it was given at the time, “sostenuto”. There were many great exponents of this technique who used it extensively, chiefly American banjoists Alfred A. Farland and Fred Bacon, or British banjoist David Milner; others, however, disliked the technique, and felt it detracted from the true “banjo sound”: strong, staccato notes. Musical critics, at the time, were lukewarm about the “shivery shakery” tremolo used to produce sustained tones; however, due to the romantic mindset of the times, tremolo often enthralled audiences.

By the 1950s Wm. C. D. Phillips noted, in BMG, that tremolo on the five-string banjo was a dying art.


Part 2 – The Tremolo Corpus

When learning a technique, it is always good to ponder its possible applications and uses. Compared to other techniques, tremolo is relatively scarce in published banjo solos, as the majority of them rely on plain finger picking; furthermore, some solos advocate alternating finger tremolo rather than finger tremolo proper.

Pieces by Alfred A. Farland and his star pupil, Fred Bacon (of the Bacon Banjo Company) often feature tremolo; the most striking examples are slow, lyrical pieces, like Farland’s arrangement of Hauser’s Cradle Song, but they often found a way to insert some tremolo here and there. Many of David Milner’s arrangements of sentimental songs, such as Massa’s in the Cold, Cold GroundSweet Genevieve or Alice, Where Art Thou, are written entirely in chord tremolo, and some arrangements of balalaika music also include chord tremolo in imitation of that instrument.

Another common source of tremolo is arrangements and medleys of well-known songs with variations, which nearly always include a tremolo variation; examples include Herbert J. Ellis’ arrangements of Old Folks at Home and Home Sweet Home, Fred Van Eps’ Medley of Southern Melodies or Alfred Farland’s variations on My Old Kentucky Home.

Finally, there are some true tremolo-only solos written for the banjo, the most striking of which is Alfred Kirby’s Adieu.

When improvising or making a new arrangement, tremolo can be very effective for slow songs or passages, and can be used to imitate instruments which are frequently played tremolo, such as the mandolin or balalaika.

In this performance I'm Sitting on Top of the World by Ian a.k.a Thereallyniceman, regular fingerpicking is interspersed with chord tremolo for sustained notes. This is a transcription of an arrangement by Fred Van Eps:



Part 3 – Is it worth learning?

That depends on what you want to play, and how ambitious you are.

When I set out to learn finger tremolo, I did so mainly out of curiosity: I was both fascinated and impressed by this mysterious technique which featured in some of the most difficult solos; and, faced with the limitations of alternating finger tremolo, I decided to bite the proverbial bullet to satisfy my curiosity and that of anybody else who felt intrigued by the technique. On the way, I learned several things.

Firstly, finger tremolo is not as difficult as some would have it. I managed to get a decent tremolo in a few months of practising on and off, and I also helped someone else obtain the same results in a similar amount of time. The technique can be mastered with patience and efficient practise, and it is ultimately little more than an impressive “parlour trick” which is within the reach of the average banjoist.

Secondly, finger tremolo has limited applications. There are only so many published solos in which tremolo is indispensable, and whereas you can throw it in here and there for a surprising or novel effect, plain finger picking will often work just as well. Finger tremolo is an entirely optional technique in Classic banjo and some of the greatest classic banjoists in history never played tremolo and were none the worse for it.

Finally, keep in mind that you shouldn’t overdo tremolo. As with everything, tremolo should be enjoyed in moderation in order to avoid straining your finger. Some claim that some of the greatest banjoists of the past ruined their hands by playing too much tremolo – whereas this claim is debatable, and the experience of players in other traditions would indicate otherwise, overworking your fingers is never a good idea. Keep your tremolo light and relaxed, and don’t play if it makes you feel any discomfort.


Part 4 – How to play it

NOTE TO NON-READERS: Don’t worry if you don’t read notation; all these beginner’s exercises are based upon the same three chords, in the same sequence, and in Standard (Drop-C) tuning: C, F, G7, and back to C.


(Chord shapes from Brian’s Huge Chord List: http://chordlist.brian-amberg.de)


The first basic element is the right hand position; whereas several right hand positions have been advocated throughout the years for finger tremolo, the best position, nowadays, is commonly accepted to be the following:

That is, float your hand above the strings, and strike them with the side of your index finger (no nail); the thumb can then either be rested against other strings to mute them or steady the hand, or be used to play accompaniments.

 These two symbols are common with mandolin/plectrum banjo notation; the symbol above is a down stroke, and the lower one is an up stroke. You always want to start your tremolo with an up stroke, and usually finish on a down stroke.

I described tremolo as a “parlour trick” earlier, partly because much of the technique’s charm is in how mysterious and impressive it looks – the thumb, moving with almost metronomic precision, playing arpeggios while the index plays a sustained melody made by a constant trilling of short notes, creates the impression of two banjos being played at the same time. Plectrum banjo players and mandolin players perform a similar technique with a pick, called Duo Style, and Eddie Peabody jokingly demonstrated how “easy” the technique was, with the simple explanation of “it’s all in the right hand!” http://www.britishpathe.com/video/eddie-peabody/query/eddie+peabody

He’s right, of course: it’s all in the right hand. The “secret” behind the effect is that, when you break down the motions involved, it’s relatively simple; the illusion of complexity is created when these motions are performed up to speed.

Some claim that tremolo should simply involve twiddling the finger “as fast as possible”, but the result is always choppy and uneven. It is much better to go for a realistic amount of notes per measure and stick to it.

The key is to break up the notes in a piece into smaller values as in the following diagram, from Joe Morley’s banjo tutor:

As we can see in the diagram above, there are eight quavers (eighth notes) in a measure of common (4/4) time, and four crotchets (quarter notes); in the following exercise, from B. Sheldon Green’s book on tremolo, we are going to play the quavers with the finger, and the crotchets with the thumb as in the companion video:

(As usual in Classic banjo notation, a + underneath a note means it must be plucked with the thumb).


Video illustration: 

It is important to notice that, in this exercise in 4/4 time, the “tremolo” notes are formed into four “clusters”; when you play them, you should accentuate the beat on the first note (the up stroke) in each cluster along with the bass note: TWI-ddle TWI-ddle TWI-ddle a and so forth.

Once you can play this exercise smoothly, you can move on to the next one: as you can see, the tremolo quavers (eighth notes) have been divided into twice as many notes of half their value, semiquavers (Sixteenth notes):


Video illustration:IFrame 

This is similar to what you would get with alternating finger tremolo, only you’re playing four notes instead of three as the first note in each cluster of four is synchronous with a bass note.

In this case, for each thumb stroke, you’re playing an up stroke and a down stroke twice in succession, in four clusters of four notes: TWI-ddle-twi-ddle TWI-ddle-twi-ddle TWI-ddle-twi-ddle TWI-ddle-twi-ddle.

Once you can play this at speed, you can move on to the true tremolo speed: by dividing each semiquaver in two, we get four clusters of eight demisemiquavers (thirty-second notes), for a total of thirty-two tremolo notes per measure:


Video illustration:IFrame 

It takes time to accomplish this speed, and you might be comfortable playing something a bit slower; I find playing triplets of semiquavers (three semiquavers in the time it usually takes to play three) to be a comfortable and effective speed, for a total of six tremolo notes per thumb stroke and a total of 24 tremolo notes per measure of 4/4 time.


You can likewise vary the amount and frequency of thumb bass notes; in this case, by playing twice as many thumb notes (quavers instead of crotchets, or 8 notes per measure) we get four tremolo notes for every thumb note:

Video illustration:IFrame 


We can also vary the thumb accompaniments; instead of playing arpeggios, we can play the fourth string and brush the 3rd and 2nd:

Video illustration:IFrame 

Or brush the fourth, third and second strings while trilling the first:

Video illustration:IFrame 

To illustrate these accompaniments, here is the first part of “Silvery Waves” (a piece which is virtually forgotten in the West, but which is apparently very popular among pianists in Taiwan):

Video illustration:IFrame 

Notice that it is in 6/8 time, so there are 6 quavers played with the thumb per measure; it is equivalent to the more common ¾ time but with twice as many beats per measure.


You can also just play tremolo on one or more strings without thumb accompaniment; this chord tremolo can be very dramatic in effect. Tremolo on three strings:

Video illustration:IFrame 

Tremolo on four strings; you will notice that you will need to flatten your finger against the strings to shorten the movement you need to strum all four of them.

Video illustration:IFrame 

To illustrate chord tremolo, here are the first few bars of Grimshaw’s arrangement of Andreev’s waltz, Butterfly:

Video illustration:IFrame 


You will notice that, both in tremolo with arpeggios and chord tremolo, solid left-hand fingering is essential. Sloppy left-hand fingering will interrupt the continuous tremolo sound and ruin the effect; you must keep the strings pressed firmly with the left hand, and make fast, precise movements up and down the fingerboard, maintaining the pressure if possible, for smooth and easy transitions between chord shapes.


Finally, you can also play tremolo on any two adjacent strings: the 1st and 2nd, 2nd and 3rd, or 3rd and 4th. Here is an example from the introduction to Alfred A. Farland’s variations on My Old Kentucky Home, which requires you to smoothly shift between strings and up and down the fingerboard:

(H/t to Richard Ineson for providing the score)

Video illustration:IFrame 

Thanks for reading, and have fun!

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Great Tutorial Mike, Thank you , won't be back now for a month or two, or three or four until I master the thing.

thanks taking all that effort Mike . I do it in small doses om mandolin , but you have really got me on to practice on banjo ,must go up the shed and practice .Regards Alan.

Fantastic tutorial Mike! Would it be possible to purchase the video sections on a USB stick?

We are on satellite computer out here in the Aussie outback,and it takes about 15 minutes for each video segment to load up.


Thanks all!

Hi Skip, an easier and cheaper solution might be to download each video using Keepvid: they are very small (only about 1 megabyte each) and you wouldn't have to load them each time.

Just visit keepvid.com/ and type in the addresses for my videos to download them in FLV or MP4 format:


Exercise 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9jg3c7XeH84

2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2snDUGC2cUo

3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bs-kAjmdB-E

4: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6EbQ5LEk6oo

5: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSa98Kcw6D4

6: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cz4dncQQKks

7: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SdfbcMmNFI

8: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C344pZiSuT0

9: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAUQbHz3aqM

10: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nmo7Eah_5A

11: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6cjl5Wm-kg


Hope that helps!



Wow Mike !, sorry for the delay in my reply but I have been away helping my friend (the original eco warrior!) insulate under his floorboards. If anyone here is thinking of doing this, take my advice.. DON'T!

That is an amazing reference and tutorial, Mike. You are a great exponent and ambassador for Classic Style! We should all be pleased and grateful that we have such a dedicated member of the group! It is brilliant that you share the results of your hard (VERY HARD) work and efforts.

 I will see if there is a way to add your lesson to our LESSONS page for future reference by site visitors.

Insulating under the floorboards, eh? Who knows, he might need your help for soundproof insulation next if Classic Banjo makes a comeback! ;-)

This is really very good Mike.  You are ever perfecting the one finger tremolo. I too like the piece Adieu you mentioned by Kirby and like your video of it.  I featured the music to Adieu in a column I did for All Frets magazine a few years back. I think of it as the "Recuerdos de Alhambra" for classic banjo. Kirby was obviously well schooled in music theory, and I found it interesting that he even makes use of a descending German 6th chord on the 2nd page of the music, something not found too often in banjo music.  I play this piece with the standard thumb, middle, index tremolo as marked, and index chord sweep intro rather than tremolo, but I like your version too.  

Hi Doug,

thanks! I don't intend to play much more tremolo as it's an ungrateful technique, so I thought I might as well sum up what I'd learnt in this tutorial in case anyone else was interested. All in all, I think the finger wag tremolo is just too much effort for an effect that isn't always all that pleasing. I'll still use it now and then when called for, but I'll give Adieu a try the "orthodox" way once I get my new banjo in January. Plain finger-picked triplets sounded too dry and thin on my current banjo, but I hope the Weaver will be up to the task.

Thanks for the info on theory... I have been fascinated by "Adieu" for a while and I've just learned what a German 6th chord is. I know very little about harmony but clearly some banjoists, esp. Kirby and Cammeyer, had a very profound knowledge of it and brought out some really entrancing chords.

What is a German sixth? 

Eet eez vhen you ist goose-steppink up und down ze scale.

Obviously Doug has a psychic ability to predict football results. If we can get him to help out with this weeks football pools we could all be RICH!

 I can't quite work out what it has to do with the banjo though


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