From The Practice Studio – Expressive Technique: Timbre

By Brad DeRoche

Brad DeRoche is an active concert and recording artist. He holds a Doctor of Musical Arts in Classical Guitar Performance from Eastman School of Music and records for the Centaur Label.
He serves on the board of trustees for the Guitar Foundation of America and is currently Professor of Music, Music Department Chairperson and Director of Guitar Studies at Delta College.

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From the Practice Studio is a series of posts designed to improve our practicing. In my many years of experience as both a performer and educator, I noticed that most of us “students of the guitar” often approach learning technique in a haphazard or unstructured manner. Because of this, I developed a somewhat unique approach to practicing expression and other techniques that I found helpful for both myself and my students. My approach is to systematically apply most of the common and practical expressive concepts and articulation marks to our current technical drills. This way, we are practicing not only control over the movements of a particular scale or arpeggio, but also the expression that would typically accompany it in a piece of music, thereby eliminating the disconnect between technical and expressive playing. The goal of these articles then, is to help us to improve how we structure our technique practice and help make us more expressive, artistic musicians. So, let’s get out our instruments and work through some ideas together….

Expressive Technique: Timbre

The guitar has the ability to produce a wide variety of tone colors or changes in timbre that make it an instrument most capable of musical expression. It is crucial that guitarists exploit these changes of timbre in order to add interest to the soundscape of any piece. This can also be considered an exercise in producing a good tone quality on our instruments, since it puts us in touch with the sound producing techniques of the right hand. Therefore, these exercises not only help us in learning to produce a wider variety of tone colors, but will also help us to learn to produce a high-quality sound on demand. In order to become comfortable producing these different sound colors, we must practice them on a regular basis in the practice studio. I believe this is best done by using pre-existing technical and musical drills and adding changes of timbre to the exercise. We will explore this in the examples below.

First, in order to better understand how to change the timbre on our instrument, it is helpful to know the basic physics of how this occurs, along with some terminology.

  1. Timbre (pronounced tam-burr), is a catch-all term that refers to the relative strength and relationship of the fundamental and partials of a note. The terms tone, tone-character, and sound-color, are sometimes used interchangeably with timbre.
  2. Vibration of a string is a complex physical phenomenon. It vibrates as a single unit from end to end (the fundamental), but also subdivides into many smaller segments (partials, overtones, harmonics) simultaneously. The smaller divisions, or modes of vibration, produce higher pitches. With many modes of vibration, a string is then capable of producing a number of different frequencies simultaneously. This produces a harmonically rich sound. See example below:
    Example 1
  3. The fundamental is lowest sounding frequency.
  4. Partials (overtones/harmonics) are the other (smaller) modes of vibration of the string, providing higher frequencies that occur simultaneously with the fundamental.
  5. Since the relative strength of the fundamental and different partials can be altered, the resulting sound color – timbre – can therefore be changed.
  6. There are three primary means of altering timbre:
    • The Placement of the plucking finger along the string
    • The Angle at which the plucking finger is released from the string
    • The Shape of the object plucking the string (fingernail (or fingertip) in most cases)

The physical aspect of timbre involves the shape of the fingertip and/or nail, controlling the release of the string from different places along its length, and releasing it from different angles. Each has an impact on the sound produced. These components all work together to create our own unique sound. Each can, of course, be altered to produce a different sound color or timbre. The shape of the fingernail, while important, is only one of the factors in the production of our sound. I will address nails in an upcoming episode.

Placement of the finger along the length of the string. Most of us traditionally think in terms of three distinct regions along the string: Ponticello (metallic), Ordinary (normal), and Tasto (dolce), which roughly translate to most people’s descriptions of bright, normal, and dark sounds. For starters, let’s just be sure we can create at least three distinctly different timbres by plucking in each of the three regions:

  • toward the bridge (ponticello), which produces a “bright” sound
  • normal position near the soundhole, which produces an “ordinary” sound
  • near the fingerboard (dolce or tasto), which produces a “dark” sound

Once you are comfortable with the three “regions” of placement, you could work to expand that and have one in-between each of the regions, or learn to move gradually from one region to the next. Becoming comfortable with the sound in each region, and the physical aspect of moving to/from each one, is important and adds much color to our playing.

The Angle of departure across the string creates dramatic changes in timbre. My own preference is for a 45 degree angle of approach and departure. This provides a warm sound with a strong fundamental. As we turn to a more perpendicular release (90 degree approach/departure) – such as was utilized more in the Tarrega/Segovia styles of playing – we produce a brighter quality of sound with greater emphasis on the higher partials, and less on the fundamental. We don’t need to be locked in to a single approach, but rather, can utilize each of them for contrast and color in our playing. Each comes with its own set of positive and negative factors. One such negative factor is the physical bending of the wrist to produce a 90 degree angle. For this reason, I tend to limit my use the 90 degree approach because of the detrimental effect it can have on the physical mechanism in the wrist. All of these factors must be considered by each player respectively.

The Shape of the object that releases the string also has a great impact on the overall timbre. The wider, and more rounded, the object that releases the string, the more the fundamental is strengthened. The release from such an object is more gradual, and the energy is spread out over a wider region, thus affecting a greater number of partials. This creates a fuller, or richer sound that appears “warmer” to our ears. Conversely, the more pointed, or sharp, the object is that releases the string, the brighter the sound. This has to do with the abruptness of departure, and how the energy is focused onto one very small point. This provides a great deal of energy or strength to a very limited number of partials, therefore usually resulting in a brighter sound with emphasis on the particular partial that is found on that part of the string. My own preference is to use a flat-top nail with a subtle ramp. The ramp is taller on the little finger side, thereby pushing the string inward toward the body to produce a stronger dynamic. Also, critically important, is the tip of the nail from where the string is released. My preference is to round the tip of the nail (little finger side) so that I avoid any sudden departures which create overly bright sounds. Again, I will cover nails in another episode.

Then, most importantly, try each of the three above approaches in some technical exercises to see which effects are useful for you. You may not like all of the sounds you produce, and may only use some in very limited circumstances, but it is important that you experiment with sound colors regularly in order to become comfortable with them. The follow exercises are ones that I use in the video. You can use these, or chose others, as long as you practice changes of timbre with a variety of technical drills. I hope this helps you and makes your playing more colorful!

Download a PDF version of the exercises HERE.

Ex 1 Ex 2 Ex 3 Ex 4

3 thoughts on “From The Practice Studio – Expressive Technique: Timbre

  1. Thank you Brad. Isolating and distilling the concept down to Placement, Angle and Shape is useful approach to internalizing the concept of timbre. In this application using the Giuliani RT Hand studies is once again, a great use of those.

  2. Your teaching is inspiring! Thank you for your presentation, demonstrations and exercises that have me practicing changes of timbre.

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