The Total Classical Guitar Method (tm)

Classical Guitar Lessons completed so far: Introduction,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,
Also completed: Acoustics of Music, Pythagorean System of Intonation

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Book 1 -- Lesson 7-- Timbre - the Color of Music

As I stated in Lesson 6: Timbre is the quality of sound that is caused by the harmonic content of that sound (see supplement to Lesson 5: The Acoustics of Music ). Lesson 6 also briefly touched on the various notational elements used to indicate color changes in printed music.

This lesson will explain how to evoke different colors from the classic guitar and will try to give you an introduction to the more esoteric, but much more important concept of how color can be used to give life to your playing.

The Basics

The harmonic content of each sound you produce IS the timbre of that sound. It depends on several things. First of all, the string has to vibrate. This in turn causes the guitar to vibrate. When you set a string into motion, you directly determine the mix of harmonic components in each vibration by where and how you touch the string. Once the string is in motion, you again affect how that motion is allowed to continue or "sustain" and to propagate into the guitar so that it can be projected to your audience. Let's look at each component separately:

Where you touch the string

If you've done any experimenting on the guitar, you have probably already noticed that if you strike the string close to the bridge of the guitar it has a more metallic, or "thin" sound. As you move your hand further from the bridge, the sound gets progressively smoother or "thicker". This motion of the right hand is the most coarse aspect of control of timbre. It's like an artist using only base colors in his paintings, never mixing a palette that contains colors which are not adjacent to each other. Unfortunately, that technique is often the only technique many classical guitarists ever develop. Problems with using only this method are that it severely limits the range of colors you can produce, and, more importantly, it forces you to constantly alter your right hand position, making it more difficult to accurately control each note. It also violates the basic principal of "minimum motion", causing you to move much more than is actually required to produce any desired change in timbre. Perhaps the most significant limitation is that you will eventually want to independently control the timbre of each voice in the music. To properly do that, you must control the touch of each finger independently. When you move your whole hand the entire palette of color changes, not just the voice you may be shaping.

If you had ever watched Andres Segovia play the guitar you would have been surprised at the range of color he got without moving his hand far from its starting position. There is definitely a place for this technique and it is especially useful when you want to change the timbre of some extended passage within a piece or when you want modify the entire palette of colors. However, the much more important tool to control timbre involves how you touch the string.

How you touch the string

I have been playing the "Tango" by Isaac Albeniz for over 25 years. It took me about 2 or 3 months to learn the notes, but I am still learning how to bring out the shadings in color which I hear in my mind. Besides the actual shape of your finger nail (see lesson 4), there are only a few physical variables involved in controlling the "touch". Each of the variables provides its own component of the overall timbre that will result from the stroke. As you read about each of these variables you should experiment on the guitar to learn how to produce a sound through the entire range of each variable. When doing this type of practice you should try to vary only one variable in turn at a time, keeping the others constant. Eventually you will naturally and subconsciously control all of these variables simultaneously, but until that time you must train your ear to hear the color changes that each variable produces. Don't be surprised if you can't discern very many steps, or discreet changes in the timbres - your ability to create these variations and your ability to hear subtle variations will grow together. Be patient and practice with a goal. Don't just sit there varying the sound while you allow your mind to drift to the latest exciting event that you've either done or have planned. Your playing will improve only to the degree that you give the guitar your undivided attention. Almost like real life relationships...

Variables in the touch

1) the angle of contact between your finger and the string

2) the amount of weight transmitted to the string via your finger 3) the degree of firmness in the first joint of your finger 4) the ratio of fingernail to flesh which touches the string at release time Sustaining the vibration

Once a string is set in motion, the sound it produces causes the wood of the guitar to resonate and to project that sound. The transfer of the motion of the string to the wood of the guitar is not instantaneous. The sound actually increases as the string vibrates longer and the wood of the guitar responds to the vibration.

It is important to direct the pressure from your fretting finger correctly so that the least possible pressure will hold the string in place while it vibrates. When you press down on a string to cause it to contact with a fret, try to place the finger tip as close as possible to the fret without having the finger extend beyond the fret. If your finger extends beyond the pressed fret, it will dampen the sound before it has a chance to cause the guitar to resonate properly. If your finger is too far from the fret it will take too much pressure to keep the string from buzzing. You should try to direct the pressure of the finger toward the fret, not straight down against the fingerboard. The fret and the fingerboard create a 90 degree angle where they meet. Imagine that the pressure vector is directed at a 45 degree angle to both the inside wall of the fret and the fingerboard.

It is also very important to hold the string against the fret with the right amount of pressure and to keep that pressure constant so that it allows the string to continue vibrating at the same pitch. Experiment by applying the lightest pressure possible against the string that will cause the string to touch the fret but not buzz the string when you play a note. Practice holding the pressure constant, or, vary the pressure to begin experimenting with vibrato. We'll talk more about vibrato later but it's not a bad idea that you start thinking about it now.

Projecting sound from the guitar

Finally, the sound must be allowed to project from the guitar. Be careful not to place your fingers or rest your arm on the top of the guitar. The top should be unobstructed and free to resonate.

Mixing the Palette - From the physical to the spiritual realm

Now that you understand how to get different colors from the instrument, I want you to start thinking about why you want to alter the timbre. Is it just to get a different sound? That certainly is what happens, but the important question is why?

In my experience, the best way to communicate this idea is by an analogy. Imagine a great orator or poet speaking publicly. Imagine the tone of her voice and the inflection between each word and phrase. Here how she uses sudden accents or softness in her presentation to color the text. Now imagine that same speech or poem given by a 3rd grader at his first experience in public speaking. Have you ever heard Lincoln's Gettysburg address recited in such an environment? Hear the monotone presentation and the total lack of understanding of the meaning behind the words. This same effect occurs in music. Too many "great" guitarists of our time sound like 3rd graders reading from the dictionary. All the notes are correct, all the rhythms are accurate, all the dynamics are followed to perfection - the only problem is that you walk away feeling like you just spoke to your insurance agent instead of your therapist.

Timbre is the musical element that allows you to add that inexplicable part of yourself to the music. You can shape a phrase of music so that each voice has its own character. To me, that is a lifetime task which can never end because I am always growing and changing. As I mature I understand more about color. Things become less black and white and feelings mix and flow together in an ever-changing swirl. Each time I play a piece of music it reflects the "me" I am at that moment. Life feeds back onto my music and my music feeds back onto my life.

The next lesson begins the study of scales. I waited to start scales because scales must be played musically from the start. A scale is a path from somewhere in the music to somewhere else. It must be shaped so that the listener arrives at the correct place after all the notes are played. You will see that there is no absolute "correct place", the place it takes the listener will change according to your mood of the moment. If you practice scales without considering the musical aspect of the journey, you will learn very well how to say nothing with a lot of well-positioned notes. It is my hope that you will avoid the all-to-tempting "dark side" of playing. It is actually easier to play fast and evenly when your mind is somewhere else. It's less demanding - it lets "your fingers do the walking". The path of true communication requires that you take the time to figure out what you want to say before you start talking. Believe me, your audience will know the difference.

This work is funded in part by sales of  my CD.  If you find the lessons useful, please consider purchasing 
"Timeless Reflections of the Spanish Guitar" on line.

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