W. Mark Akin

Guitarist: Instructor, Performer

Let's Talk About Tone, Pt. 1

It's no mystery that we as classical guitarists should have great tone - the sound that we produce from the guitar with our right hand fingers.  It needs to be deep, round, full, and clear.  However many times it sounds thin, scratchy, "tinny," and overall unpleasant.  Therefore, we need to ask ourselves, why should we have good tone?  Why make great sounds?  Yes, there is the simple aural aesthetic, meaning it just sounds nice to listen to.  But one of the reasons that other people don't tend to mention is that, with great tone, you get the full range of sounds from your instrument.  Or to put it in the negative, you do the guitar and its luthier a DISSERVICE by having bad tone.  Your tone should be so good that after a concert, your audience members should come up to you and ask, "Who made your guitar?" 

So how do we make great tone?  Over my years of playing and teaching I've noticed 3 main points that help create good tone.  Today I'm discussing the first point:  THE ANGLE AT WHICH THE FINGER RELEASES THE STRING.

Look at Segovia's right hand wrist.  It was always so curved that the finger stroke was essentially perpendicular to the strings.  Think of his stroke like this: if the the string is a flat line at 180°, then his fingers would come up at a straight line at 90°.  DO NOT DO THIS!  For one thing, it's pedagogically dangerous (a topic for another day), but it also creates a super thin sound.  Producing a deep, warm, and rich quality from the guitar this way is almost impossible, and instead creates a tone that is shallow and "surface-y."  Like a shallow pool versus the ocean. 

So how do we correct this? 

1. TURN YOUR WRIST. Turn it to where it seems like the right side of the hand (the pinky side) is facing the floor.  It will seem like your fingers are stacked upon one another with the thumb on top.  Imagine a hitchhiker or "thumbs up."  Take that feeling and plant p on String 6 as an anchor and i on String 3.

2.  THE STROKE.  I like to think of plucking the string as going "with" the string.  Almost gliding the finger along the string before releasing it.  If Segovia's stroke was perpendicular to the string, then think more parallel.  Start with i on String 3 and play some rest strokes.  Make sure the finger momentum is coming from the big knuckle.  When a good, round sound is produced, take note of where the string was released from the finger and try to replicate it exactly.  Once you feel confident in making the i finger sound good, do the same with m on String 3.  After m sounds good, alternate i and m using rest stroke on String 3.  When you can get a consistent sound, move to String 2.  Then to String 1. 


Turning your wrist and plucking parallel to the string are the best "quick fixes" to make your tone better.  However, there are 2 other factors that can sway one's tone... stay tuned.