A Beginners Guide to Flamenco Guitar
Flamenco is a passionate, seductive and theatrical art form in which song, dance and the guitar are performed together. Flamenco evolved in the Andalusia region of Spain but the precise details of its origins are unclear. It is thought that Romany people known as Gitanos were instrumental in the emergence of the art. Gitanos were the descendants of immigrants from northern India who migrated to Spain via Europe and North Africa, bringing with them a rich cultural diversity. Many of these immigrants settled in Andalusia but along with the Jews and the Moors of the region were persecuted during the Spanish Inquisition and forced into the hills. The Gitanos, Jews and Moors then lived together in isolation and Flamenco began to emerge as a unique performance art.
Flamenco almost certainly began as a vocal performance, perhaps in the form of chanting which also involved the banging of staffs on the floor. The music and dance probably came later and eventually Flamenco was to feature four principle elements. Cante (the voice), Baile (the dance), Toque (the guitar) and Jaleo which is the signature percussive hand clapping, foot stamping and shouting that can make the performance of Flamenco so utterly compelling.
The principle role of the Flamenco guitarist is to accompany the performance of the vocalist and dancer but solos also feature. Both skill and understanding are required to accurately accompany the performance. Flamenco is to a great extent an improvised art with common structures and chord sequences. The instruments are often played using a cejilla (capo) which raises their pitch and causes the guitars to sound much sharper and more percussive. The cejilla also changes the key of the guitar to match the singer's vocal range and makes it easier for players who may not have performed together before to play in harmony. Flamenco uses many highly modified and open chord forms to create a solid drone effect and to leave at least one finger free to create melodic notes and movement.
Flamenco guitars are generally played in a different way to classical instruments. The Flamenco musicians adopt a different posture and use distinctive strumming patterns and techniques. Flamenco guitarists have a tendency to play their instruments between the sound hole and the bridge to produce a raspy sound. Strings are struck towards the soundboard and the fingers are caught and supported by the next string. This style produces more percussive results. Players often sit cross legged with the guitar supported by the upper leg, however some performers use a classical position. The playing of Flamenco guitar is characterised by the following distinctive techniques.
- Golpe which is a percussive finger tapping on the soundboard that requires the addition of a golpeador (plate) to protect the top of the instrument.
- Picado which is comprised of single-line scale passages created by playing alternately with the middle and index fingers whilst supporting the other fingers on the string above. This technique can also involve using the thumb rapidly on adjacent strings or alternating the index finger and thumb. Sometimes all three methods can be employed in a single passage.
- Rasgueado, a technique which can be performed with 3, 4 or 5 fingers and involves strumming with outward flicks to create a rhythmic roll that is reminiscent of the dancers feet.
- Alzapúa where the thumb is used for strumming across more than one string whilst moving both up and down.
- Tremolo which is the rapid repetition of a treble note. Flamenco guitar tremolo differs from that of classical guitar and is usually a four note tremolo.
- Seco, a technique where the left hand damps the strings whilst the right hand plays the rhythmic components. This accents the rhythm and allows the singers and dancer to perform off the beat.
The Flamenco guitarist must master the four principle elements of the performance. Firstly falsetas which are short guitar solos. These are often composed rather than improvised and can be played at the beginning of a piece to set the mood and establish the tempo and key. The art is to choose the right falseta for the moment. Some performers have a set collection that they always draw from whilst others compose new pieces regularly. The second element is the cante accompaniment. Here the guitarists must understand the underlying harmony and be able to adapt to any changes the singer makes to the piece as they perform it. The best accompanists support the singer but also offer a contrasting sound which adds depth to the combined performance. Baile accompaniment may involve playing fixed melodic patterns to support the dancers footwork or the guitarist sharing and contrasting rhythms with the dancer. Finally there are times when the guitarist's role is simply to maintain the rhythm as the singer or dancer prepares for their next solo and this element is called the compás.
In the 19th century Andalusian luthiers produced guitars with varying price tags which largely reflected the materials used in the construction. The cheapest woods were the local species like cypress. As the Spanish gypsies were poor they tended to buy the cheapest instruments. Thus the materials that characterised Flamenco guitars were a matter of economics and not chosen because of the sound they produced. At the time such instruments were not differentiated as Flamenco guitars but eventually instruments with the features of these basic pieces came to be identified as such.
Flamenco guitars are similar to classical guitars but with some noticeable differences. There are several characteristics which give the guitars their typical loud, percussive tone. A Flamenco guitar responds quickly and has less sustain than a classical instrument. The sound is brighter and drier with fewer overtones.
The bodies are often smaller than those of classical guitars and Flamenco guitars tend to be lighter with a shallower neck angle and a lower bridge. Cypress is still often used for the back and sides of the instruments but is ironically now a costly material as good quality Mediterranean Cypress is in short supply. This wood is very stable and so can be worked very thin and this helps to produce the biting flamenco tone. By the 20th century some luthiers were using maple and pear wood for the backs and sides but these denser woods give the instruments a softer sound with more sustain. Laminated sycamore is now often the wood of choice for less expensive, factory produced instruments.
Both cedar and spruce are used for the soundboards of classical guitars but spruce is favoured in the construction of Flamenco instruments as it produces a clearer and more focussed sound. Spruce is relatively light in weight and stiff. There are, however, some excellent examples of cedar-topped Flamenco guitars.
There is a variant of the Flamenco guitar which is known as the Flamenca Negra. These models are built with the same geometry, i.e. with thin woods and smaller bodies, but feature rosewood backs and sides. These instruments are most popular with soloists as opposed to those who play in an ensemble and offer a sound which is somewhere between a traditional cypress Flamenco guitar and a classical instrument.
We have a fabulous collection of Flamenco guitars at the London Guitar Studio with instruments to suit all playing abilities. Choose from guitars by Camps, Burguet, Alhambra, Conde, Jose Bellido, Rafael Romero and more.