This is a collection of essential pick techniques for tango guitar playing in the traditional “guitarrero” style. Guitarreros general play by ear and are the ones responsible for developing the most essential, traditional way of playing the guitar in tango.
This concept was passed on by the legendary Bartolomé Palermo to his students. The palm is used to create a partial mute*, right where the strings meet the saddle. Giving weight to the pick, make a solid, sweeping downstroke across all strings. Rhythmically, the stroke should feel accented.
*Spend some time finding the sweet spot between fully open and fully muted strings. Pay attention to how you can use the palm to regulate the muting and find just the right amount. I find that you can tap into a very powerful, resonant “speaking” quality by making the right adjustments and finding the sound.
Rhythm – muting from the right hand
Many people approach the guitarrero tango style based on guesswork and listening to recordings. Some make the mistake of thinking that the staccato articulations (both in rhythm and melody playing) come from the left hand. I was one of these people and I eventually had to relearn, making a fundamental change to my technique. Tango guitar articulations come from the right hand. If you want to develop the traditional style, resist the urge to make staccatos with the left hand. This goes for chords and single notes. In this example we are playing one of the many versions of marcato, the most basic rhythmic pattern in tango accompaniment.
Single note pizzicato
Here the idea is the same as in chordal playing: all stopping or cutting off the sound comes from the right hand. From a technical standpoint, the movement is slightly different because at the beginning of the stroke the wrist is raised and the palm is not touching the strings. The palm then comes down to stop the note.
When playing single notes, another way to produce staccato is by using the pick. After the stroke the pick returns immediately to the string, in position to play the next note. Compared to a staccato produced by the palm, the picado has a brighter, more biting sound.
Classical and flamenco players use free stokes (where the nail plays one string and continues freely without making any further contact) and rest strokes (where the nail plays one string and then comes to rest on the next). Guitarreros do the same thing with the pick. Along with the wrist position and muting techniques described previously, the rest stroke is one of the keys to producing a robust sound.
Rest stroke (bass strings)
Here is another example of rest stroke, on the bass strings.
Wrist position (single notes)
When playing single notes and arpeggios, most players position the wrist outward, rather than resting it on the saddles as when playing rhythm. This puts the thumb and pick at more of a perpendicular angle, allowing for more weight and downward force. Flamenco players will be familiar and comfortable with this idea. I believe that this position is one of the ways to achieve volume, a solid tone, and a grounded feel to the sound.
All downstroke: 16th notes
Here is an excerpt of the 16th-note run from the previous video, this time played all púa abajo. Note that the sound and intention changes.
Alternate picking: 16th notes
There is a mythic concept in tango guitar: that pick only plays púa abajo, or downstrokes. Some tango guitarists have said in interviews that they use downstrokes exclusively, but the most likely truth (as admitted by many others) is that you want to use all downstrokes whenever possible, but at a certain speed it becomes necessary to alternate. However, striving to play all downstrokes makes sense, as it produces a different sound and feel to alternate picking. For short bursts of 16th notes (e.g. a 4-note fill) it’s a good idea to go for all púa abajo. However, for an extended passage (a 16th-note variation at 100 bpm or more) it’s beyond the technical reach of most players to play all downstrokes).
Arpeggios - continuous rest stroke
I’ve observed many tango and cuyano* players using a very impressive, controlled sweeping technique to play arpeggios with all downstrokes. A good approach is to consider two extremes: 1) a very slow, very accurate arpeggio in downstrokes, all rest strokes. Start at a tempo that is very easy to execute, e.g. quarter = 80 and your arpeggios are in 8ths. 2) at the other extreme, simply play the arpeggio as a chord using an even, relaxed strum. Now, work the two extremes until they meet in the middle: slowing down the strum and speeding up the arpeggio in increments. At a certain point you will enter a territory where you’re challenged: The metronome arpeggio is hard to play evenly, and the strum is slow enough that it’s unwieldy. Identify this tempo zone and work on it patiently.
Arpeggios: continuous rest + upstroke (first string)
An alternative to continuous rest strokes, with an upstroke on the first string.
Arpeggios: alternating free strokes
You can also play arpeggios with alternating free strokes. You’ll immediately notice a difference in sound and intention.
Arpeggios: continuous rest + upstroke (2nd string)