Spanish composer Francisco Tárrega (November 21, 1852 – December 15, 1909) is widely considered the most iconic and popular guitar composer of all time. Tárrega composed in the Romantic period, which one can hear clearly in his swooping, melancholy melodies that seem to just ‘sing’ with passionate emotion, longing, and at times, tragedy.
With frequent melodic slides up the neck, his ability to utilize the full range of the guitar sets him apart from other composers. Needless to say, Tárrega is a brilliant composer and arranger that any fan of guitar can love and appreciate.
Allegedly, Tárrega’s father played some flamenco guitar, as well as other musical styles. After Tárrega suffered an eye injury at childhood, his family decided to enroll him in music classes so that he would still have some form of employment even if he went fully blind.
He was also trained in piano, a more popular solo instrument in Europe at the time. This piano training would eventually help him immensely in his guitar arrangements of famous piano works by Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn and others.
His early formal music classes, along with some private lessons by the renowned guitarist and composer Julián Arcas at age 10, set up Tárrega for a special and profound musical career.
Growing up, Tárrega ran away on several occasions, including a period where he tried to make money by performing in cafes and bars, and even joining a band of gypsies.
In addition to composing in his adulthood, Tárrega taught several students who ended up becoming prominent guitar composers in their own right, including Emilio Pujol, Miguel Llobet, and Daniel Fortea.
In 1885, Tárrega settled in Barcelona with his wife María José Rizo. His friends in Barcelona include other notable composers like Isaac Albéniz, Enrique Granados, Joaquín Turina, and Pau Casals.
Tárrega composed music for guitar only, many of which are masterpieces that are some of the most popular in all of classical guitar repertoire!
Are there any recordings of Francisco Tárrega?
There are no confirmed recordings of Tárrega playing guitar. However, researchers discovered some wax cylinder recordings from either 1899 or 1908 which some people speculate might be Tárrega. More likely though, the performance you hear is by one of his pupils, a guitarist by the name of Paquito.
Did Francisco Tárrega use fingernails or flesh technique?
Tárrega played guitar with right hand fingernails earlier in his career, but switched to playing flesh towards the end of his life in 1902. The two reasons historians cite for this change in nail technique are: aesthetic preference and medical necessity.
His pupil, Emilio Pujol, advocates that this was an aesthetic preference that allowed Tárrega to “hear the mellowness obtained without the nail plucking a string”. Indeed, Pujol notoriously instructed his students to play guitar using flesh rather than fingernails.
Alternatively, scholar Domingo Prat suggests that Tárrega’s nails became useless due to a medical condition called atherosclerosis, or the hardening of arteries.
Either way, Tárrega went on tour in Italy during this period and performed without fingernails. Allegedly, he encouraged other students to play with little to no fingernails as well, indicating that he thought this produced a superior sound.
Tárrega’s Torres Guitars
Tárrega also had a unique opportunity to inherit (and later purchase) guitars directly from Antonin Torres, which were the most revolutionary guitars in terms of construction and sound at the time.
Even today, Torres guitars are still considered to be the most superb instruments of all time–they’re basically the Stradivarius of guitar! Indeed, the superior rich sound of these guitars inspired Tárrega both from a compositional and performance perspective.
- FE 17 (1864)
- Top: Spruce
- Back & Sides: Maple
- Scale Length: 650 mm
- Nut Width: 48 mm
- Torres, SE 49 (1883)
- Top: Spruce
- Back & Sides: Maple
- Scale Length: 650 mm
- Nut Width: 50 mm
- Torres, SE 114 (1888)
- Top: Spruce
- Back & Sides: CSA Rosewood
- Scale Length: 650 mm
- Nut Width: 50 mm
Tárrega’s Torres guitars are now held by Guitar Salon International in Sanata Monica, CA. You can click the links above for specific guitar information, or learn more about their collective history here.
Popular Guitar Works by Francisco Tárrega
Tárrega’s diverse personal background is evident in his various compositional styles.
In total, you’ll find 39 popular guitar works by Tárrega in this article. Below are links to help you jump directly to whichever piece you’d like!
- Arab-Andalusian Heritage
- Romantic Compositions
- Transcriptions & Arrangements
Recuerdos de la Alhambra
Recuerdos de la Alhambra (“Memories of the Alhambra”,) is undoubtedly Tárrega’s most well-known composition, and one of the most recognizable guitar compositions of all time.
Tárrega composed Recuerdos de la Alhambra in 1899 under the original title “Improvisacíon ¡A Granada! Cantíga árabe”. The revised title in 1907 refers to the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain–a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Alhambra is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Spain, with grand and ornate Islamic architecture that survives as a testament to the Moorish cultural influence in the region.
Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra is also the most well-known guitar piece featuring the tremolo technique. Tremolo is an advanced right hand technique in which the bass line is heard as a separate voice from the fast and continual melody line.
The classical guitar tremolo pattern is: p-a-m-i (thumb, ring, middle, index), ideally all played in a pattern that is rapid, flowing, and continuous.
As a result, the listener feels as though they are listening to two separate instruments that still come together as a cohesive whole.
Artistically, the tremolo effect in Recuerdos de la Alhambra portrays the flowing water from the iconic fountains at the palace, along with the contour of the surrounding mountain tops. The A section of Recuerdos de la Alhambra is in A minor, and the B section is in the relative key of A major.
If Recuerdos de la Alhambra is Tárrega’s most famous work for guitar, Capricho árabe (Arabian Caprice) is a close second.
Capricho árabe is an advanced piece that begins with a dramatic introduction that explores the full melodic range that listeners (and players) will experience throughout the piece.
The A section of Capricho árabe kicks off with the distinctive theme the piece is known for in the key of D minor. The swooping melody in the upper voice moves in tandem with deep, dark, and expressive harmonies in the bass.
The piece then transitions beautifully to the B section in the relative key of F major. The B section carries over some similar themes and melodic movement found in the A section, but in more upbeat, major key.
Following a dramatic chromatic run, the piece opens up even further with a modulation to D major. After some more iconic passages in D major, the piece transitions back to the original key of the A section (D minor, now the parallel key of D major).
Although not as widely known as Recuerdos de la Alhambra or Capricho árabe, Tárrega’s Danza Mora is another iconic piece falling in the Arab-Andalusian Heritage category.
Tárrega allegedly composed this piece after hearing a Moorish drum pattern accompanying a dance in a town square the night before.
While Danza Mora may sound simple, this fun and lively piece is actually rather advanced. Barre chords are used often and need to be held for relatively long stretches. At the same time, the piece needs to move nimbly and pensively, requiring a delicate touch with every passage.
Few upper beginner/intermediate guitar pieces are more well-known and appreciated than Francisco Tárrega’s piece Lágrima (meaning tears).
The fragile A section in E major is full of emotion, requiring a delicate touch and sensitive approach. The bright A section is then juxtaposed with a remorseful, almost desperate B section in the parallel minor key (E minor).
You can download the Lágrima sheet music for free on my website here!
Tárrega’s Gran Vals is a lively waltz with four sections that play out similar to a theme and variations.
One could argue that the Gran Vals is Tárrega’s most recognizable compositions, simply because the opening theme was used as the default Nokia ring tone!
The Nokia ringtone featuring Tárrega’s Gran Vals quickly became the first identifiable mobile phone ring tone ever.
Maria (Gavota) or Gavotte is another lively, swooping, and beautiful tune by Francisco Tárrega. Gavottes are moderately paced dance forms that were popular in 18th century France, but are also featured movements in Bach suites.
Tárrega’s Maria includes a variety of left and right hand guitar techniques, including glissandi, slurs (hammer-ons and pull-offs), pizzicato, arpeggios, and call and response melodic phrases.
Gran Jota, known by many other names including Jota aragonesa, and Jota de Concierto, is an epic theme and variations piece that is often wrongly credited to Tárrega as the original creator, but was most likely composed by his predecessor Julián Arcas.
Tárrega worked and reworked the Gran Jota throughout his life, and it’s believed that he published 40 or more versions of the piece! Therefore, it’s not surprising to find many interpretations of the piece, with a variety of variations at play.
The edition by Dianel Fortea, one of Tárrega’s students and an excellent guitarist and composer, is considered one of the best editions that’s played most often.
The Gran Jota is a fun and joyous piece, but it’s also very challenging from a technical perspective. In fact, variations in Gran Jota feature almost every single technique found in classical guitar repertoire! For that reason, Gran Jota is an extremely exciting performance piece–showing off so much of what the guitar can offer.
I struggled to decide which category to fit Gran Jota into. The piece has some influential roots in the Arab-Andulusian heritage category, as it’s similar to the Alegrías flamenco form. However, the piece also has many Romantic themes, short variations that are excellent to study from a technical perspective, AND it’s technically an arrangement!
Ultimately, the Gran Jota is a profound piece that encapsulates so much of what Tárrega is known for, so it feels appropriate to list it here along with his other Romantic era solo works.
While not necessarily a set, Tárrega composed four popular mazurkas: ¡Adelita!, ¡Marieta!, Mazurka (en sol), and Sueño.
Mazurkas comes from Polish dance forms in triple meter, with a lively tempo and distinctive accents on the second and third beats. These accents patterns give mazurkas a syncopated, surprising, and at times even jerky feel–perfect for romantic era compositions!
Francisco Tárrega’s most famous mazurkas is probably ¡Adelita!. The piece is named after Adela Aymerich, the daughter of the King of Spain Alfonso XII. The hauntingly beautiful melody of ¡Adelita! is an iconic part of the classical guitar repertoire beloved by students and professional players alike!
¡Adelita! doesn’t share many of the obvious dotted rhythmic characteristics one expects to find with a mazurka.
However, the accents are purposefully placed in such a way that one can still feel the unique sway of the form, particularly with the emphasis on the second beat of each measure in the A section.
Tárrega’s ¡Marieta! is a dramatic, relatively slow (lento) mazurka. The piece begins in A minor, staring off with a characteristic slide, dotted rhythms, and a distinctive melody on the treble strings. The melody then moves to the bass strings, and feels like a perfect response to the previous material.
Similar to other Tárrega pieces, the B section is a clear diversion from slow and melancholy A section. The B section kicks off in the parallel major key (A major), with a glissando on the bass strings and più mosso tempo, meaning more quickly. The lighthearted B section is full of triplets, and quick grace notes that lead to a surprisingly bold conclusion.
Mazurka (en sol)
Tárrega’s Mazurka (en sol) or (in G major), is a classic example of the fun and playful vibe mazurkas can offer. This is Tárrega’s longest, and in my opinion most complex mazurka he composed.
The piece is very chordal, and requires a lot of full harmonic movement in addition to playing a distinctive melody line. Tárrega clearly has a lot of fun with the tempo of this piece, as it’s full of ritards, molto ritards, and A tempo markings, sometimes in quick succession.
Tárrega fans will notice that he has two compositions titled “Sueño”: one is a tremolo study, and the other is this mazurka.
The Sueño mazurka is full of triplets, grace notes, and bold luscious chords. The bright and seemingly sporadic A section is juxtaposed with a mysterious, dreamlike B section.
Not only do the triplets and slurs keep this piece surprising, but the ritards and A tempo markings introduces additional challenges for the performer.
Tárrega also composed over twenty preludes in Romantic style. Each prelude is full of luscious, yet delicate chords and bold melodies. His preludes are relatively short, and some of which almost sound like etudes.
Although they’re not particularly long in duration, some of them are surprisingly challenging! Ultimately, Tárrega’s preludes are excellent Romantic era compositions that guitarists can benefit from learning!
Here’s an audio collection of David Russell playing sixteen of Tárrega’s most well-known preludes:
Francisco Tárrega composed many guitar studies (etudes/estudios) of varying difficulty. Below are some notable ones for beginners, intermediate, and advanced students!
Estudio in C Major
Francisco Tárrega’s “Study in C Major” is a beautiful classical guitar etude for beginners. The consistent right hand pattern (p-i-m-a-m-i-a-m-i-a-m-i) is one that guitar students come to know and love!
This beginner classical guitar study encompasses a variety of techniques including triplets, accenting the melody with the ring finger, melodic movement in the 5th position, and the hinge barre material.
You can download a free copy of Tárrega’s Estudio in C Major on my website here.
Estudio in E Minor
Francisco Tárrega’s “Estudio in E Minor” is a beautiful classical guitar etude for beginner and intermediate players! This guitar study helps familiarize the common (a-m-i) right hand pattern.
You also have the opportunity to practice barre chord articulation while maintaining a melodic line with relatively wide left hand stretches. This guitar study also helps you learn how to play a melody line while holding a barre chord.
Estudio brillante de Alard
Estudio brillante de Alard (Study on a theme by Alard), also known as simply “Estudio Brilliante” is one of Tárrega’s most well-known studies.
However, it’s also one of his most challenging! The piece is bright in A major, with lovely phrases moving up and down the neck at breakneck speed.
The speed required with the left hand, along with various right hand changes make this a superb study for advanced players!
Estudio en forma de minuetto
Estudio en Forma de Minuetto (Study in the form of a Minuet) is a short a sweet intermediate guitar study by Francisco Tárrega. Minuets are moderately paces (allegretto) with a stately feel. This study is primarily single line melodic scale movement with occasional bass harmonies.
The piece is more Classical than Romantic in sound, and is true to Minuet form with call and response/question and answer phrases over half and full cadences. The latter half of the piece is also full of slurs, arpeggio phrases, and even harmonics.
¡Sueño! (Estudio de trémolo)
Tárrega’s grand and elaborate study entitled ¡Sueño! is stunningly gorgeous, with bold robust chords that move sweetly up the neck in a powerful introduction that introduces the theme.
What follows is an epic tremolo masterpiece, with beautiful melodic movement on various strings. This is an advanced study in every sense of the word, but my friend Andrea De Vitis plays it beautifully!
Transcriptions & Arrangements
Although not as well-known as his other solo compositions, Tárrega also transcribed and arranged pieces by other popular composers for the guitar!
This includes pieces by: Albéniz, Almagro, Arcas, Arietta, Bach, Beethoven, Berlioz, Boito, Bolzoni, Caballero, Callea Gomaz, Chapí, Chopin, Chueca, Di Capua, Gottschalk, Grieg, Handel, Haydyn, Iradier, Malats, Marijon, Massenet, Mendlessohn, Meyerbeer, Mozart, Paganini, Rubinstein, Schubert, Schumann, Thalberg, Valverde, Verdi, and Wagner.
Unfortunately, these brilliant compositions are yet to be recorded or performed on a regular basis, possibly because of their high difficulty and the simple fact that they’re not as widely distributed.
However, below are several fine performances by guitarists Patrik Kleemola and Anton Baranov.