How can I develop a good tremolo mandolin picking technique?

By Jonathan Bélanger

Version française

If your right hand feels tensed and your wrist can't be smooth when you play, maybe it's time you check a couple of tips i'm gonna give you today.

The Pennate

Classical mandolin tremolo is explained by Carlo Munier and Raffaele Calace using the term: pennate. A pennate consists of  2 consecutive and equal pick strokes, on both strings together (Down + Up). When you tremolo a note, you play a serie of consecutive pennates. When you play a piece, you almost never count the pennates because they occur in the music like singing. But you must absolutely learn to count them if you want to play tremolo smoothly.

The Metronome

The metronome is a tool that you must master to go further in your tremolo practice. With this tool, you will be able to evaluate where is your personal speed limit or « plateau » and progress from that point.

Open Strings

Generally speaking, you should practice every possible picking exercise using only open strings. This way you will be able to focus on your right hand only. Hitting the strings from too far or bouncing your wrist on the bridge can slow you down and bring tension to your arm.

Placement of the wrist

Calace describes in his method that the wrist should look like a 2 axes machine, where one axe is fixed and the other moving. The arm should be resting a little above the bridge. Resting the wrist on the bridge must be done very lightly without putting any pressure. Some players also use the arched wrist technique avoiding touching the bridge, but this is more difficult and in my opinion, suited for a certain style or sound. Fingers of the right hand should not anchor on the soundboard. If they sometimes touch, it must be very lightly.


Exercise 1

  • Play an open string
  • 1 pennate/beat at 60BPM
  • Please count loud your pennates
  • Proceed to your maximum speed or to 100BPM

Exercise 2

  • Play an open string
  • 2 pennate/beat at 60BPM
  • Please count loud your pennates
  • Proceed to maximum speed or 100BPM

Exercise 3

  • Play an open string
  • 4 pennate/beat at 60BPM
  • Please count loud your pennates
  • Proceed to maximum speed or 80BPM

Exercise 4

(aproximate speed of a real tremollo)

  • Play an open string (A)
  • 8 pennate/beat at 40BPM
  • Please count loud your pennates
  • Proceed to maximum speed or 60BPM

Understanding the plateau and swiching exercises

Everytime you play an exercise, bring it to your maximum speed (of clean playing). If you divide this speed by 2. Then it tells you where is your plateau in the next exercise. Never try to play faster than your plateau. Unless your goal is to learn how to play tensed! Practice slow and relax.

For example:

Play exercise 1. Let's say your plateau is at 120BPM. Then you should expect that 60BPM is your maximum speed for exercise 2, 30BPM for exercise 3 and ultimately 15BPM for exercise 4. If you are stuck at 120BPM in the exercise 1, no matter you can't tremolo!


Tips for getting there

Go back, work on your plateau, relax, watch your wrist, use a mirror, count loud your pennates. Then go to the next exercise and build your tremolo like a staircase. Voilà!

When done precisely, it's not difficult! 


In a next post I will talk about tremolo phrasing. But here's a clue: Always swich notes and strings beginning with a downstroke.

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