I’m a long time student and teacher of tango guitar. This series of articles is for tango guitar students and guitarists interested in pursuing tango. Contact me for more information on lessons and workshops.
What is Tango Guitar?
First, this is what tango guitar looks and sounds like, played by the masters:
Hugo Rivas, solo guitar with pick
Anibal Arias, solo guitar fingerstyle
Palermo Trio, guitar ensemble
Salgán-De Lío, electric guitar and piano
Nelly Omar, singer with guitar quartet
Ok...how do I learn how to do that?
What Is Tango Guitar?
Before we define tango guitar, what is tango? Tango is a genre of popular music that developed in the 20th century in the city of Buenos Aires*. Think of it as having a similar timeline to jazz in the 20th century– from folkish roots to cabaret/dance music, to art music. As string/piano/bandoneon combos developed into the sound that many consider to be ‘the sound’ of tango, the guitar (which had been in tango for longer) took a parallel route, mostly accompanying singers in groups of 2-4 guitars. The guitar then made its way into other small ensembles such as the mixed quintet (usually with electric guitar) and the bandoneon/guitar duo. More than other instruments in tango the guitar has a connection (by repertoire and tradition) to Argentinean folk music. That’s a plus for us guitarists, as it gives us a door into a neighboring world.
What Isn’t Tango Guitar?
- Flamenco guitar
- Bossa Nova, or any other Brazilian guitar style
- Salsa, son, or any other Caribbean guitar style
If you’re new to the universes of Latin music or Spanish guitar, welcome. There are many, many branches of this tree, and though there are common roots, each genre of music is a world of its own. Once you’re inside a genre you’ll probably find it completely different from the others. Similar to a few other Latin genres, tango was born of a mixture of Spanish and African roots. It then took on a dose of European flavor, especially from the Italian immigrants that flocked to Buenos Aires in the early 20th century. They left their mark on tango, and on Buenos Aires, in countless ways: the vocabulary, emotion, phrasing, and temperament of tango reveal a strong Italian influence.
Finally, the guitar in tango is diverse and has developed several modes: nylon guitar with flatpick, nylon fingerstyle, electric guitar with and without a pick, solo and ensemble styles.
What Are The Keys To Tango Guitar?
I’ll expand upon these keys in future posts.
- Repertoire, repertoire, repertoire
- The idiomatic building blocks of tango: melodic, rhythmic/harmonic, and complimentary material (i.e. ‘fills’)
- Techniques specific to the guitar, and those derived from other instruments.
How do you get there?
If your goal is to become a tango guitarist, here are some practices I recommend. I found them invaluable in my development.
Listen to as many recordings as you can. Here is a list to get you started.***
- Play with others
This might mean a weekly session with a friend who is also learning, or rehearsals and gigs with fellow musicians. Always push each other to learn new tunes.
A great way to absorb language, phrasing, and idiomatic material is to transcribe recordings. Two ideas to try: transcribe short segments that capture your imagination, and try transcribing instruments other than guitar.
- Learn arrangements
Another great way to incorporate musical language is to learn arrangements. For guitarists this might mean learning a complete solo guitar arrangement, or it might mean learning a guitar part from a group arrangement.
- Take lessons
Nothing can replace working with a good teacher, because they can listen, observe, give you feedback, give you new ideas, and push you in the right direction. If you’re new to tango guitar find a guitar teacher. At other stages in your journey it may make sense to learn from other instrumentalists as well.
- Find the old masters
An invaluable way to connect with tradition is to find a master musician who was part of a previous generation. In some cases the old masters aren’t even ‘old’ but people your own age who have connected and learned from elders. It’s a good idea to be open – learning doesn’t only occur in a formal setting.
- Learn songs and sing them
Tango music is full of songs. Songs with lyrics. There is no better way to incorporate musical material than to sing it. Memorize lyrics, write them out, find your key, sing them to yourself. Don’t worry if you’re a terrible singer and won’t perform in public – trust me, this is a great method. Plus, tango guitar is tied to singers by tradition, so the more you know these songs inside and out, the better.
Tango Guitar Roles
The guitar has multiple roles in tango. As a guitarist you may end up pursuing one or more than one way of playing.
- Solo guitar (complete ‘classical’ style arrangements)
- Guitar groups (roles can be divided into lead and rhythm)
- Guitar in mixed ensembles (written parts with lines and/or rhythm, parrilla** playing, electric or nylon guitar)
- Solo guitar with singer (classical style or more traditional accompaniment with pick)
- Two or more guitars with singer (traditional accompaniment, parrilla** or arranged)
In summary - tango is a genre of Latin music with fascinating roots. The guitar has a special role in tango, with links to folkloric music, the singing tradition, and with multiple conceptual approaches. If your curious about learning, or series about your development, stay tuned for more articles in this series.
*Tango is a genre of music from Buenos Aires that starting developing before 1900, enjoyed massive popularity in Argentina and the world, especially as dance music in the 1940’s, and since then has undergone different periods of ebb and flow. Different tendencies have developed. Astor Piazzolla was a tango musician who brought is own art music to audiences and musicians outside of Argentina and outside of the tango tradition in the 1970’s. Around the year 2000 a new surge of tango activity began to grow in Buenos Aires. Today the local scene is more alive than ever, with current tango composers, groups of all flavors, camps, training orchestras, and radio programs, and contests.
** Parrilla playing means playing without arrangements. Much in the way that jazz musicians can play on the spot, with no rehearsal or even experience with their bandmates, tango musicians can throw together a performance with little or no preparation or discussion. To do this well, of course, each musician must have a sensitive ear and a masterful knowledge of repertoire, language, and even standard versions of songs. Don’t let that last sentence scare you – parrilla playing is a great way to develop your musicianship and you should start working on it right away.
*** Here's a great starter list for listening, organized by instrumentation
Guitar Ensemble with Singer
Ensembles including guitar
Cuarteto Troilo Grela
Cuarteto Federico Grela
Salgán - De Lío(Horacio Salgán & Ubaldo De Lío)
Quinteto Real (and Nuevo Quinteto Real, both led by Horacio Salgán)
Ciriaco Ortiz & Ubaldo De Lío
Carlos Di Sarli
Julio De Caro
Roberto Goyeneche (1950's - 1970's)
Roberto Rufino - Bandoneón de mi ciudad
Ensembles (no guitar)