On classical guitar, most aspire to play with lush, beautiful tone.
This means each note is full and rich, showcasing the best of the instrument and the music.
But it’s not so easy as that. Tone quality is a study and takes practice. It can be great one day and horrible the next.
So one of our goals as guitarists is to gain better control of tone quality.
Classical Guitar Tone is a Choice
There is no one perfect tone quality. For any given spot in a piece of music, we have options.
Some phrases may sound best bright and metallic. Others may sound best dark and wooly. And the opinion of one player will differ from the next.
The important part is that we listen critically. We can be intentional and deliberate about every aspect of our playing, including the tone quality and sound.
With time and practice, we can learn to control our sound and hear subtle differences. We can do our best to sculpt our music so it resonates with anyone listening.
One “lever” we can use to affect tone is what is sometimes called “attack”.
What is “Attack”, and How Does it Affect Tone?
“Attack” is the speed at which a note gets to full volume.
For instance, if we slowly raise the volume of a pitch from zero, the attack is very slow. If we begin with full volume and then play a note or chord, we can say the attack is fast.
We can change the attack of our right-hand strokes on classical guitar by adjusting the stiffness of our fingers.
Stiff Fingers Create a Fast Attack
If we want a sharp, bright sound, we can create a fast attack. Stiff fingers create a fast attack.
When we “load” our tip joints, stiffening them or contracting the muscles, they activate the string in a “snagging” or plucking motion. This creates an aggressive and punctuated sound. Each note has a clear and abrupt beginning.
This is the perfect sound for some pieces of music. If the goal is to create “pointy”, “angular”, or “sharp” musical textures, this is one way to create those sounds.
Conversely, if we want to create music that is “flowing”, “smooth”, “round” and “lush”, a slow attack could be a better choice.
Soft Tip Joints Create a Slower Attack
When we allow the tip joints of our right hand to give way through the string, the result is a slower attack.
Soft tip joints activate the string in circular vibration pattern. This means the vibrating string moves in a circle instead of back and forth. This can create a fuller, richer tone quality.
More Flesh = Warmer Tone
Another simple equation we can use in our practice to alter tone is “more flesh equals warmer tone”
If we desire a warmer tone, we can alter our right-hand stroke so that more of the finger contacts the string.
Allowing the tip joint to stay passive helps with this.
Tone Control Without Nails
Players who do not use classical guitar fingernails can use attack to change the tone quality . And adjusting the attack can offer added versatility and expressive options.
If the music calls for a change of mood, adjusting the tone in this way can create contrast and musical interest.
Especially with exposed melodies, or atmospheric chords, keeping the tip joints soft can make the music come out “creamier”.
More Options are Better
But until we have the tools and skills to change the tone quality and volume, we may not even be aware of the possibilities. We can improve at both fast and slow attack by practicing them using scales or right-hand patterns.
So one way to become a better musician is to develop more options. When we’re able to choose and play with both fast and slow attack, we’ll find more places to use both. And this will help our music to become more expressive, more satisfying, and more fun to play.