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Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909)

linie 940 Who was Francisco Tárrega? Worshipped and adored by many and mischievously mocked and ridiculed by others. Lost and misunderstood by the sensation-seeking audience of the time his way lead him deeper and deeper into the guitar. A life of poverty and humility, sacrificially accepted by his passionate devotion of his love for the guitar.

Francisco Tárrega was working his whole life for the sound of the guitar and was constantly trying to improve it. His work was introverted as he consciously tried to elicit the soul of the instrument.

He achieved a lot as a guitarist. With his original works and transcriptions he tried to free the guitar of its part as an outsider, to raise it to the same level as a piano and other orchestral instruments. His greatest achievement for the benefit of the guitaristic can be seen in the technique of his attack which was decisive for all future guitarists and established itself as a new basic of the Spanish style of playing.


Francisco Tárrega Eixea was born in Villareal de los Infantes, a small Spanish village near Valencia on 21/11/1852.

Tárrega passed his childhood mostly on the streets where he also came in touch with the guitar for the first time, having lessons with Manuel González, a busker, known by everybody as "blind from the port ". He showed Tárrega the basics of guitar playing.

He also received advices from Julian Arcas who had already reached the peak of his career in the 60s of the 19th Century. He introduced Tárrega to the guitar school of Dionisio Aguado, who had published the only existing guitar textbook at that time.

In 1862 Tárrega was having lessons from Eugenio Ruiz who explained him the basics of reading notes, rhythm and singing before he was taught the piano at the Royal Conservatory of Madrid in 1874 at the urging of his father. The piano should secure him his livelihood rather than the guitar.

He only studied the piano because of the demands of his father who considered it a necessity but he reserved his enthusiasm and passion which he presented to the guitar. So his musical breakthrough resulted with the guitar and not with the piano.

In short time he was able to celebrate success through concerts in the home country and abroad. The guitar provided a lot of fame but also financial difficulties because it did not have the same status as an orchestral instrument. The guitar was rather seen as an outsider instrument. In 1880 he has been recognized in newspapers as an exceptional guitarist although he hardly could afford  to provide the essential needs of life.

The reason therefore can be found in the peoples taste for music of the 19th Century. The audience was largely impressed by technical exaggeration of the player and remained blind to the compositions which moved more into the background. Tárrega, however, set the composition in the foreground and refrained from technical gimmicks. He put the importance of himself, the interpreter, as well as his virtuosity behind the sound of the instrument. But such interpretations didn't appeal to the audience. Tárrega felt himself misunderstood and retired more and more from large public concerts. By 1899 the concerts no longer provided further fame for his career but remained a necessity to earn money.

Francisco Tárrega died on December, 15th in 1909 at the age of 56 due to a stroke.

Tárregas Legacy

No Nail Playing

In his early years he made big efforts in controlling the techniques of Aguado. His extraordinary feeling for the guitar helped him quickly to outstanding technical skills to impress the audience and secured him his fast achieved fame.

Because of his desire to improve the guitar tone continuously he reached the conclusion to change his technique of attack by cutting his nails. He didn't like the metallic sound produced by the nails and without them he achieved the sound he always heard inside himself.

With this change he accrued a lot of incomprehension. Not even his students understood this measure and so developed various rumours about the reasons of cutting his nails. It is claimed that his nails got too brittle in old age and that he was forced to cut them. Other sources reported that one of his nails broke while playing the guitar and he liked the sound more without it. The reasons are controversial but nevertheless, Sor, Tárrega and Pujol have been the three most important guitarists of the last 200 years and all of them have been playing without nails.

Tárrega didn't receive only the advantages in timbre but he also noticed that the largest extent in volume of a tone was no longer generated directly after the release of the string as it reached its peak after a short increase after the attack. That means that you gain sustain in playing without nails.

Original Compositions

Confusion exists regarding the amount of his original compositions and 300 'originals' are wrongly wearing his name.

Domingo Prat was first in examining Tárregas work in 1934 and came to the result of 34 original pieces.

Tárregas works are influenced by Romanticism and Spanish Folk Music. His musical ideas are created out of the instrument itself and have originated from the character of the guitar. He represented the singularities of the soul of the guitar like no other composer of his time.


A transcription is the transfer of a piece for another instrument which is kept to the original as close as possible.

Becasuse of his piano studies Tárrega knew a large quantity of classical and romantic literature which he transferred for the guitar. Today, more than over 200 transcriptions are attributed to him, among them have been pieces by Beethoven, Chopin, Hyden, Schubert, Bach, Händel, Schumann and Mozart. The roots of this work can be seen in his attempt to help the instrument to a better reputation. He tried to place the guitar at the same level as the piano and orchestral instruments.

For this reason the compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach are now the most played guitar pieces although Bach never composed a single piece for the guitar.

The Tárrega - Technique

An essential aspect in the development of his guitar technique can be seen in the use of his Torres guitar. Until this time guitars were only built with smaller bodies and because of that the existing guitar textbooks became unusable. He had to rearrange his technique with the larger body size to find a new playing position.

To put the guitar with her waist on the left thigh, which was lifted up by a footstool had not been a previously common method in Spain. Tárrega originated this position during his life, the so-called "school position".

In his early years Tárrega based the technique of his right hand completely from the school of Aguado. In the course of time, however, he distanced himself from this technique and was looking for his own way. He changed the attachment point of the bridge closer to the sound hole. In addition he integrated the Apoyando-Technique, a changing stroke between the index and middle finger.

This technique wasn't adopted from Flamenco, it is a development of the concert guitarist and Tárrega established this technique for all future guitarists.

At this time Tárrega developed a system for the right hand which still matched the 'nail play'. Paired with the 'Apoyando-Technique' more strength was achieved in your fingers for the attack. This system established the characteristic of the new Spanish style of playing. But Tárrega didn't stop at this level. Because of his Change to playing without nails he had to change the position of his right hand again which provided the benefits of a more powerful and singing tone with more sustain.

In summary it can be said that he introduced the 'School-Position', the attack closer to the sound hole, the integrated 'Apoyando-Technique', the change to playing without nails, all this represents the real legacy of the Tárrega Technique.

Source: Wolf Moser - Francisco Tárrega (Werden und Wirken)


© 2013 by Dominik Wurth



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