Playing with Expression Part 3 – Trills and Ornaments

So far we have discussed vibrato and expression and how they can be used to bring a melody to life. This week we will look at using trills and ornaments to expand our melodic toolkit further.

A trill is the rapid repetition of two notes in place of a sustained note. Trills should be a single legato phrase when performed on any instrument so on guitar this means using hammer-ons and pull-offs. It takes strength to maintain a good quality, even trill for any length of time. When the fingers get tired the volume of the pull-offs will get quieter.

A good exercise is to practice trilling between each pair of fingers in turn to develop strength and stamina. This way, when it comes to trilling in a real playing situation you will be able to easily apply a trill to any note you choose rather than just the ones that fall on the first finger.

Ornaments can be easily overused so it is important to be tasteful and restrained so that the melody is enhanced rather than obscured. Grace notes can be used quite liberally but trills and turns should be reserved for long notes, particularly at the end of phrases.

The simplest ornament is the grace note. This is the rapid slide or hammer-on into a note from another note so that the first note doesn’t have it’s own rhythmic value. Drummers call this a ‘flam’ and the classical phrase for he same thing is an appoggiatura.

Grace Notes on Guitar Example 1

In today’s lesson we will take the following melody and apply three different melodic ornaments to it. To start with I’ve played the melody using grace notes. Some are slid and some are hammer-ons so read the tab carefully and listen to the difference in sound. The slides have less of a defined reattack on the second note so are the more legato option of the two.

Trills on Guitar Example 2

Now I have applied a couple of trills throughout the same melody. Follow the fingering notes on the trills. Sometimes momentary changes of position have to be made to provide the best tone or to support a bend, but it’s good practice to play in one position too.

Ornaments on Guitar Example 3

Finally we put some ornaments in that use turns around the target melody notes. If you are not used to playing three-note-per-string scale patterns then you may like to practice the fills in isolation help get them rhythmically accurate and defined.

In the next instalment we will give the fretting hand a rest and look at picking hand techniques for playing with greater expression.

Recommended listening: Every great lead guitarist has used these ideas to inject their personality into a simple melody however, two of my favourites for their attention to detail and touch are Steve Vai and Hank Marvin (The Shadows). Though very different guitarists from very different styles, both players’ work is full of nuance. Listen to The Shadows’ version of Cavatina, and Steve Vai’s For the Love of God.