A Beginner’s Guide to Tone Colors on Classical Guitar
In this article I’d like to offer a beginner’s guide to using tone colors on the classical guitar. Tone is one of the things that distinguishes our instrument from other instruments or other styles of guitar playing. The soundworld, detail, and nuance we can create with tone colors is particular to the classical guitar. Perhaps that sound is what drew you to the classical guitar to begin with. In this video we’ll talk about how to use all these tone colors in the beginning stages.
Tone Colors: normale, ponticello, sul tasto
In a passage of music we might have some flowing notes or perhaps arpeggios, which already create some musical interest. So our normal right-hand position creates a particular kind of sound and color by itself. However, by bringing in additional tonal changes to that music with your right hand you can add your own personal stamp to the music along with some variety and contrast.
One way to do this is to move from our normal right-hand position toward the bridge for a brighter, coarser kind of sound. This is usually referred to as “ponticello” (toward the bridge). These words “bright,” “coarse,” or “nasal” are quite subjective and we invite you to think of descriptions you would offer for this “color.”
Then we can create the opposite contrast by moving the hand toward the neck of the guitar, called “sul tasto.” Some of the words we might use for this kind of color are “dark,” “mellow,” “sweet,” or “warm.” Again, leave your own color descriptions of tasto in the comments below!
Blocks of color
One common beginner approach to creating tone colors on classical guitar is to use blocks of color to create contrast. For instance, on repeated material we might play one phrase normale and then when the phrase is repeated we might play ponticello (or tasto). This is very similar to creating blocks of dynamics where we might play one section loud and then repeat that material soft. You can even combine color and dynamics together in blocks: try playing loud and normale, then repeat the same material playing soft and ponticello.
But what really grabs the ear and creates subtle, nuanced phrasing on the classical guitar is to use gradients of color and sound. And again we can think of dynamics, where we can follow a gradient from soft to loud to soft. So too can we create subtlety and finesse with our tone color changes on classical guitar. You can practice this with scales or even melodies that you want to offer contrast with. First, begin with “blocks” of contrast and color. And then see if you can play around with creating a gradient between those colors. Within one phrase you might move from normale to ponticello, to tasto, and back to normale. These subtle gradients in tone color create nuance and add sophistication to your tone color changes on classical guitar.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this beginner’s guide to tone colors on classical guitar! In the link below you can download a Quickstart Guide to Tone Colors with a visual guide on creating contrast on your instrument.