I’m a long time teacher (and student) 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.
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.***
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.
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.