What Exactly Is A Flamenco Guitar?
A flamenco guitar, known as a flamenca in Spanish differs from its classical counterpart. The guitar is believed to have developed from the Arabic lute which was prominent in the Iberian peninsula during the period of the Moors, known as Al-Andalus.
The lute was reputedly improved by the polymath Zyryab (of disrupted origin, some claiming he was Iraqi, Persian, Arab, Kurdish, or North African) who added a fifth set of strings to the instrument. Either way, Zyryab (Mirlo in Spanish which means blackbird) is credited with many revolutions, from music to food, to fashion and hygiene and many more, and is often hailed as the father of Andalusian music.
Whilst classical and flamenco guitars share the same origins, they aim to produce different styles of music and consequently follow different construction protocols. Flamenco guitar is known for its aggressive and emotive growl. It’s meant to sound raw and perhaps a bit rough to convey the deep emotive responses inherent in different flamenco palos (forms).
Classical guitar aims for a clean, clear, and rounded sound. They are made with high string action to aid in sustain, often at the expense of being easy to play. This high string action also helps to avoid fret buzz which is the enemy of the classical guitarist yet vital to flamenco. Compare this with a flamenca which is set with a low string action to aid in the rapid picados (fast succession of notes) rasgueos (literally ‘scratching,’) the characteristic flamenco strum.
Flamenco guitars are traditionally built with spruce tops and cypress back and sides for bright tones and a resonant sound with a swift decay that can cut through the sounds of the singers and dancers. These are known as blancas because of the light colour of cypress wood.
Classical guitars are often made with cedar or spruce tops, and with Indian Rosewood back and sides. Rosewood is a hard tonewood that aids in sound projection and sustain and is both readily available and durable. The construction of a classical guitar allows each layer of sound to develop fully. Flamenco music’s high speed doesn’t call for this so the brighter cypress is favoured as a tonewood.
Modern times have seen the introduction of negras, flamenco guitars built with darker hardwoods like palosanto (rosewood) or cocobolo popularised by the inimitable Paco de Lucia. Choice of either a blanca or negra is down to the personal tastes and preferences of each player. There are the traditionalists who believe in the unviolable place of the blanca and there are also those who relish the tone of the negra, believing it to be fuller rounder, and perhaps more expressive.
The tone of the negra has seen increased popularity in conjunction with the advent of flamenco guitarists giving solo concerts, following trail-blazers such as Sabicas and Paco de Lucia. Flamenco is traditionally an art form including guitar, vocals, and dance, and the peculiar timbre of a blanca allowed for it to better blend into the percussive quality of the flamenco art form.
Solo flamenco guitar recitals, unheard of in the past when the guitar was viewed more as an accompaniment than the main feature has changed the preferences and options of tocaores (guitarists) Also, the greater availability of different tone-woods has allowed luthiers to experiment with different options, with professionals having different guitars for different occasions.