The Instrument and the sound
In the past, the Flamenco guitarist always had problems with the volume of his instrument. Originally, the Flamenco guitar was exclusively used as an accompanying instrument for cante (singing) and baile (dancing). Compared with the loud taconeos (percussive footwork) of the bailaoras (female dancers) and bailaores (male dancers) and the voices of the cantaores (singers), some of which were quite powerful, the guitar was always too soft.
That is why the guitarrero (guitar-maker) was asked to build a loud instrument and the guitarrista (guitarist) was expected to play so that everyone could hear him. The guitarreros solved this problem by building instruments with strong, brilliant, high notes, a high volume in the middle frequencies, almost no bass and a tone which had a very short attack time, but also a very short decay. The Flamenco guitar responds instantly because it is very lightweight. The walls of the soundboard, bottom and sides are much thinner than those of a concert guitar. A Flamenco guitar with a good sound and a concert guitar are not comparable.
Everything else was up to the tocaor (guitarist). Over the years, the guitarists adapted a very loud, powerful toque which is still in use today, although electronic amplification is now quite common in Flamenco, as well. All techniques require playing close to the puente (bridge). Whether rasgueo (rasgueado), picado, arpegio or trémolo, the sound is always brilliant and dry. You will find more details later on.
Guitarrero = guitarmaker
Guitarrista/Tocaor = guitarist
Flamenco vs classical guitar
Before Don Antonio Torres (1817-1892) started building guitars at the time of the café cantante, the so-called guitarras de tablao were used in Flamenco. They were made of local wood which was cheaper than the precious woods from America Latina. Not only did Torres invent the modern guitar, but he was also the first guitar maker who began to differentiate between the Flamenco and the classical guitar.
The Flamenco guitar is much lighter than the concert guitar. That is not only because it is made of cypress wood, but also, as mentioned in Lesson 1, because the walls of its back, sides and soundboard are much thinner. Even today, many guitar manufacturers still build their Flamenco guitars with less depth than the concert guitars, i.e. the sides of the Flamenco guitar are about one inch (2.5 cm) narrower than those of a concert guitar. To claim that a genuine Flamenco guitar must have clavijas (wooden tuning pegs) instead of a tuning machine or that these will even influence the sound of the guitar is complete nonsense.
Source: Flamenco Guitar Method by Graf-Martinez
One of the differences between flamenco and classical guitar is the head of the guitar.
Playability or action of the flamenco guitar
A big difference between the flamenco and classical guitar lies in the tocabilidad (action and playability of the strings). The action on the fingerboard is not as low as it used to be because many guitarists often play concertante and dislike the rattling and beating of the strings against the frets. What is much more important is the height of the bridge, or rather the space between the strings and the soundboard. Many guitarists measure this space with a cigarette. If it falls between the soundboard, the strings are too far apart. Others are of the opinion that the guitar no longer functions exclusively as an accompanying instrument. They require more space between the strings and the soundboard; after all, it is impossible to play concertante with a low action because the fingernails often touch the soundboard. Today, instruments with a low action at the bridge are only built at special request.
Read more in Flamenco Guitar Method by Gerhard Graf-Martinez
Flamenco guitar: playability
Source: Flamenco Guitar Method by Graf-Martinez.
Types of wood are used for the Flamenco guitar
Many guitar manufacturers use a completely different design for the soundboard of a Flamenco guitar than for that of a concert guitar. Some use palosanto for the back and the sides. But the guitars still sound "muy flamenco." The only visible difference between it and a concert guitar is the golpeador.
It is a matter of the guitarist's taste or is up to the guitar maker's philosophy, whether spruce or cedar is used for the soundboard. Some guitar makers leave the choice to you. Others use only cedar or only spruce.
The tapa de cedro (cedar soundboard), which sounds a bit more wooden and nasal, doesn't need to be broken in for as long as the tapa de pinabete (spruce soundboard), which has a more brilliant and powerful tone. In return, it lasts longer than a cedar soundboard. i.e. the legendary sound of Manolo Sanlúcar.
The following types of wood are used for the different parts of the guitar: pinapete (mostly German spruce) or cedro (Canadian cedar) for the soundboard, as already mentioned; ciprés (cypress from Spain or Morocco) - this guitar is called guitarra blanca - or palosanto (jacaranda from East India or Rio) - this guitar is called guitarra negra - for the back and sides; cedro (Honduras cedar, also called cigar-box wood) for the neck; ébano (ebony) for the fingerboard and spruce and cedar for the bracing.
The hand-made Flamenco guitar
Hand-made or "factory" Flamenco guitars
The guitarras hecho de mano (hand-made) guitars are made of madera macizo (solid wood). Most of the guitar makers work on their own or with family members in a small workshop. It is amazing to see that, even today, these high-quality instruments are still built with very simple tools. The guitarrero himself often applies the varnish (barniz), mostly goma laca (shellac), by hand. Others, mostly big manufacturers, have the shellac, or sometimes synthetic lacquer, applied by a varnisher with a "pistola" (spray-gun).
Apart from the guitarras hecho de mano there are the so-called guitarras de fábrica (factory guitars) or the guitarras de Valencia. In the area around Valencia there are many guitar factories or bigger workshops producing guitars in the lower price range and also so-called Flamenco guitars which are, however, mostly made of madera contrachapeada (plywood). Without a doubt, these instruments are guitars. But to find a Flamenco guitar among them which also sounds "flamenco" seems unlikely to me.
However, many of these manufacurers also build guitars in the middle price range. Some of them are not bad, considering the price to product relationship. Some big names have their cheaper models built in Valencia according to their own designs and then sell them in the maestro's taller or in shops. However, these guitars are easily distinguishable from a guitarra de primera clase, because although they bear the famous maestro's label, it is not signed; or the cabeza, a guitar maker's trademark, has nothing in common with the original. Still, you may find an instrument among these guitars which sounds better than many a primera clase.
The best Flamenco guitar ?
What is the best Flamenco guitar ?
I don't want to judge which of the guitars made by those many really good guitar makers is the best. Of course, people tend to prefer the well-known brands. However, I have also seen very bad "pistolitas" made by world-famous guitarreros and discovered a fantastic "cañon," when visiting an unknown guitar maker who still builds his instruments with loving care and outstanding craftsmanship somewhere in the Sierra Morena..
An important aspect is the region where the guitar comes from and which climate it is "torn away" from. There is an old saying, "La guitarra de Granada suena (sounds) en Granada, la guitarra de Sevilla suena en Sevilla." A guitar from Málaga, a town on the coast, won't survive the first winter without cracks in the wood in a normally (for us) heated room, where air humidity often drops below 40 per cent. The same conditions wouldn't harm a guitar from Madrid because it is very dry there. You will have problems with the sound of this guitar if the air is too humid, though. Fortunately, these problems only appear in the first years. The number seven plays an important part here, because after seven years the guitar has become fairly acclimatized.
Naturally, this isn't true for guitars from Madrid, which are built in air-conditioned workshops. It is relatively easy nowadays to create a humidity which is all right for people, but to create the contrary, i.e. to keep the air constantly dry, is much more difficult.
Source: Flamenco Guitar Method Graf-Martinez
Look inside the Flamenco guitar
Open Conde Media Luna.
See details of making a guitar. Body, bracing, top, back etc.
Conde with open soundboard
Conde with open back
Little Flamenco guitar glossary
flamenco guitar player
flamenco guitar playing
guitar maker (luthier)
Flamenco guitar cypres
Flamenco guitar palisanto (jacaranda)
hecho de mano
wooden tuning pegs
Read more in Graf-Martinez' Flamenco Guitar Method
© Copyright 1995 - · Gerhard Graf-Martinez