If you have ever been a spectator to a flamenco dance – fiery and snappy, with precise movements neatly hemming in the passion it evokes, you might have thought that the guitar is merely a backdrop to the swirling skirts, clacking castanets and floating fans.
The Spanish art form known as Flamenco is composed of three parts: guitarra, canta i baile or guitar, song and dance. It is the traditional expression of longing and love; a physical expression of romantic desire.
Curiously enough, in the early days of this art form, it consisted only of dancing and toque de palmas – hand-clapping. The guitar was a later addition; today, all flamencos are danced to the sound of a guitar (and other instruments).
How did this instrument’s crisp, clean sound come to accompany the sharp pivots and finger-snapping that mark a true flamenco dance? How did it become an audio representation of sensuality and ardour?
Your Superprof delves into the history of ancient southern Spanish tribes to answer those questions and others.
This Guitar’s History
The flamenco guitar was an afterthought to the already-existing dancing-and-clapping art form performed to song.
A typical flamenco consisted of around four female dancers and maybe two male dancers. The song, canto in Spanish was the soul of the affair; it was born out of four disparate cultures: indigenous Andalusians, Moors (Arabs), Gypsies, and Jews.
There was substantial persecution of the latter three peoples which led to a fusion of laments that mark flamenco cantos still today.
At this time, the guitar had still not made its appearance on the flamenco scene; the dances were sometimes accompanied by traditional Andalusian instruments such as the violin and the tambourine.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that flamenco – and its guitar went mainstream.
Seville saw the opening of its first ‘singing cafe’ or cafe cantante that featured a pair of singers, a troupe of dancers and a couple of guitarists.
Adding guitar music to the mix was a novel concept that went over… not so well. The cafes were not well-frequented at the outset and the guitarists were really only bit players but it was the guitar’s role that changed these cafes’ fortunes.
Because much of flamenco’s guitar music was improvised, those guitar players had to not only keep up with the singers but intuit their phrasing to anticipate when the next flurry of notes would be most effective.
Good guitarists were much in demand and, soon, the guitar became an active part of the show. In fact, guitarists proved their virtuosity through rapid-fire riffing and even playing with their guitar held above their head.
The undisputed first name in flamenco guitar is Ramon Montoya, uncle of famed Spanish guitarist Carlos Montoya. Ramon started out as a cafe guitarist and is today considered to be the founder of the modern-style flamenco guitar solo.
Thanks to him, the guitar became the third pillar of the art known as flamenco.
Different Types of Flamenco Guitars
Typical flamenco guitarists were not wealthy; their financial condition dictated that they buy the cheapest instruments, generally made of cypress and, in comparison with the standard classical guitar, poorly made and with a minimum of materials.
The absence of quality materials came to distinguish the flamenco guitar; until its surge in popularity, a luthier would make no distinction between the smaller, flimsier instruments and their sturdier counterparts.
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Technical Aspects of the Flamenco Guitar
A flamenco guitar is typically smaller and lighter than its classical counterpart. It calls for nylon strings rather than steel, which helps deliver the clean, crisp sound of flamenco with less sustain than the classical instrument.
You are more likely to find tuning pegs on a flamenco guitar rather than geared tuning found on other types of guitar. These pegs closely resemble a lute or violin’s tuning pegs.
Let’s take a closer look at particulars of the flamenco guitar: what it’s made of and how it’s made, how to tune it and how to get the most out of playing it.
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Traditionally, the flamenco guitar was made entirely of cypress which made it a lighter instrument with a punchier sound. Today, the guitar’s body may be made of sycamore, rosewood or cypress for the backs and sides, and spruce for the top.
The tops of these guitars are much thinner than classical guitar tops and there are fewer internal braces – two more reasons for its brighter sound.
Because flamenco music demands rapid action, the strings are usually closer to the frets and the fingerboard itself tends to be a bit narrower than on other guitars.
A critical distinction between a flamenco guitar and its classical cousin is the golpeador or tap-plate.
A flamenco guitarist will often tap the face of his guitar with his fingernails while playing; these percussive beats are integral to flamenco technique. However, repeated forceful tapping could soon ruin the top of the guitar; that is why this plate is essential.
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How to Tune a Flamenco Guitar
As you would tune any other guitar, you must have something to tune your flamenco guitar to. As for chords, your tuning should revolve around Major D.
Start by strumming your sixth string; it should be one step below the conventional-sounding E. if you’re using a piano to tune your guitar, the D you want is five steps below middle C.
The fifth string should remain the same: the A directly below middle C. Your fourth string should also remain as the D, one step above middle C.
Now, things get tricky: your third string will drop to F# from G – three whole steps above middle C on the piano.
Your second string should be pitched to B (a major seventh above the piano’s middle C) and the highest string will be tuned to E – one octave and one major above your piano’s middle C.
Naturally, you will check your tuning and made adjustments as necessary; other than that, you are ready to play flamenco guitar!
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How to Play Flamenco Guitar
Flamenco guitar calls for the strings to be plied in the space between the soundhole and the bridge rather than directly over the soundhole, as so many other styles of guitar are played.
The skilled flamenco guitarist will incorporate both tonal and modal harmonies in his playing, the net result being clean, crisp sound.
Besides plucking the strings – tirando, players often ‘walk’ their fingers, meaning they use their index and middle fingers to rapidly play alternate notes. This technique is called picado.
A third distinctive technique of flamenco guitar playing is called rasgueado. It is an exaggerated strum with the wrist flicking outward on the downstroke, presumably to reflect the dancers’ dramatic moves.
And, of course, no guitarist could call himself a flamenco guitarist if s/he didn’t incorporate the golpe, the finger tapping on the face of the guitar.
Besides these basics of flamenco guitar playing, there are
- toque airoso: lively, rhythmic style of playing; yields a brilliant sound
- toque gitano: deep and expressive, includes many countertempos
- toque pastueño: slow, peaceful
- toque virtuoso: demonstrating an exceptional technique
- as opposed to toque corto, meaning ‘basic technique’
- toque sobrio: pure playing, no showing off
You’ll note the use of the word ‘toque’ earlier in this article meant clapping of hands; in general terms it translates to ‘touch’, meaning that each of these techniques shows a different touch.
Join the discussion: how does the jazz guitar differ from the Flamenco guitar?
Flamenco Guitarists of Renown
Now that you know a bit about flamenco guitar, you will surely want to look to the masters to see how playing is done.
To that end, we recommend Paco de Lucia. He is often credited with bringing improvisation to an already improvised style of playing. If you can, try to catch him playing Entre dos Aguas; you will clearly see him playing between the soundhole and the bridge of his guitar.
Tomatito, son of legendary guitarist Niño Miguel has many flamenco feats under his belt; he also plays in jazz combos and can rip off a mean tango.
Manolo Sanlúcar started playing flamenco guitar as a child and has made his mark on the genre; his Tauromagia is emblematic of old-style flamenco canto.
Vincente Amigo, a student of Sanlúcar is equally prolific in his playing; he represents a younger generation of flamenco guitarists who maintain that their art is meant for the wider public.
If you only listen to one guitarist on this list, it should be Pepe Habichuela.
Growing up in Granada, he would often repair to the caves of Sacromonte with this guitar, refining his sound until it was unique in the flamenco world. Today, he is known as a flamenco master; one of Spain’s finest guitarists.
Do you have a favourite flamenco guitarist? Won’t you let us know in the comments section below? While you’re at it, please give us your vote for your fav metal guitar players...
Learn to Play the Flamenco Guitar
If you are reading this article, you must have some interest in playing flamenco guitar. Are you already a guitarist or are you contemplating taking up this most sensuous of instruments?
If so, you will surely want to take guitar lessons, maybe at your nearby music school.
If you have no guitar master near you, perhaps you might consider online guitar lessons; you might even find an app to teach you how to play and guide you into tuning your guitar.
Don’t forget your Superprof!
Superprof has hundreds of guitar tutors scattered all over the UK; surely there is one near you?
The advantage to learning how to play the guitar with a Superprof tutor, besides the low price and the first lessons at no cost (usually), is the fact that you can specify that you want to learn how to play flamenco guitar.
You won’t have boring and repetitive lessons that emphasise basic chord structures and you’ll likely be spared Stairway to Heaven and House of the Rising Sun – two standards that many guitar teachers like to impart.
Your turn to chime in: of all the types of guitar, which is your favourite? Why?
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