What you need to know about flamenco guitar

I’ve met people who don’t love flamenco, but do love flamenco guitar. And I totally understand. I became hooked on flamenco largely because of flamenco guitar. This is how it goes: you start listening profusely to Paco de Lucía’s Entre dos aguas and next thing you know, you’re spending 90% of your waking time thinking about, practising and listening to flamenco.

In other words, you’re hooked.

The world of flamenco guitar is fascinating, sometimes confusing and always exhilarating. So if you’ve become intrigued by flamenco guitar, here is some info – and some album recommendations – that will hopefully help you understand and enjoy it more.

The origins of the flamenco guitar

The history of the flamenco guitar is a little complicated. So let me make a long story very short.

The earliest known ancestors of the guitar (whether flamenco or otherwise) are primitive string instruments (bowl harps and tanburs) from the ancient Egyptian, Sumerian and Babylonian civilisations, over 4000 years ago. These instruments spread around the ancient world with travellers, merchants and seamen, and evolved throughout centuries.

So how did they get to Spain? The chartar, a four-stringed Persian instrument, arrived in Spain and changed in shape and construction, and became known as the quitarra. During the Rennaissance, the Spanish vihuela became popular in the court. It was a string instrument with lute-style tuning (influenced by the Arabic oud which was brought to Spain by the moors) and a guitar-like body. Meanwhile, the guitarra latina, which derived from the quitarra, was played by ordinary folk.

A fifth string was added to the guitarra latina, which made it much more popular than the vihuela, and spread around Europe. In the 18th century, Italian guitar-maker Gaetano Vinaccia built the first six-string guitar in Naples, and in the 19th century, Spanish maker Antonio de Torres designed the first modern classical guitar. During this time, the professionalisation of flamenco and the popularity of cafés cantantes (flamenco venues from the 19th century) meant that there was a need for louder guitars.  And in this context, the Ramírez family designed the current flamenco guitar, based on Torres’ classical guitar design.

Spanish classical guitars and flamenco guitars are different

The term guitarra española or Spanish guitar can be used to refer to both flamenco guitars and classical guitars. Although it may look like there is no difference between a flamenco guitar and a classical guitar to the naked eye, they are indeed different instruments. The differences can be found mainly in their construction and sound.

Guitars hanging from the wall at Pedro de Miguel workshop
Classical and flamenco guitars hanging from the wall at Pedro de Miguel workshop in Madrid

Generally speaking, a classical guitar has a deeper body and the woods used are usually thicker, resulting in a heavier instrument than the lighter flamenco guitar. The strings of a flamenco guitar are closer to the frets to enable faster left-hand action, and they come with a tap-plate (golpeador) —a protective plate that is installed on the surface of the guitar and allows the player to tap the guitar without causing damage to the instrument.

As for sound, a flamenco guitar is more responsive and percussive. Its sound is brighter and drier than a classical guitar, which produces a deeper timbre. A flamenco guitar produces notes that are shorter so that the fast notes don’t step on each other – i.e. so that the flurry of notes that is typical of flamenco doesn’t result in a sound that is too muddy.

The adoption of the capo was key for the evolution of flamenco guitar… and of flamenco singing!

Before flamenco guitarists started using the capo, the singers had two basic keys they could sing in —each of them could be major, minor or phrygian. They keys were por arriba (literally “above” or E) or por medio (“in the middle” or A). This means that the singers had to adapt their voices to the guitar’s limited tonality, rather than the guitar being able to adapt to the singer’s wide tonality.

The adoption of the capo brought a greater scope for both guitarists and singers, and was key for guitarists to slowly discover the infinite musical possibilities of the flamenco guitar.

The price of a flamenco guitar

There is a huge price range when it comes to flamenco guitars. Prices vary depending on the materials used and construction. For example, you can spend around €200 on a factory-made guitar up to tens of thousands of euros on a highly customised, meticulously handcrafted work of art.

Guitar parts at Pedro de Miguel workshop
Guitar parts waiting for their turn at Pedro de Miguel workshop

If you’re in Madrid and keen on getting your hands on one, check out these two guitar workshops and stores. And bear in mind that they also ship internationally, should you not be planning to come to Madrid any time soon!

Pedro de Miguel

Located in Madrid’s flamenco district (aka the Huertas neighbourhood), this workshop was founded in 1991 by two friends who learned their craft making guitars in the renowned José Ramírez’s workshop. These guys have made guitars for some of the best flamenco guitarists in Spain —make sure you check out their wall-of-fame! Their workshop is down the back, where I feel right at home: my dad’s a carpenter by trade and its humbleness reminds me of my dad’s workshop. The guitars from Pedro de Miguel are excellent value, are very responsive and have a fantastic sound. Calle Amor de Dios, 13

Press for guitars
Press used in the guitar-making process at Pedro de Miguel’s

Mariano Conde

This guitar workshop and store is in Madrid’s luthier district, near the opera house. Mariano Sr. and Mariano Jr. are third and fourth-generation luthiers, descendants of a luthier dynasty that dates back to 1915. Their brand is globally renowned, and they make guitars for the very best, including non-flamenco guitar players like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen! They pride themselves on using high-quality wood and knowing how to treat it, as well as finding out exactly what each guitar player wants when they order a guitar, and then constructing the best guitar for them. Calle Amnistía, 1

Three fantastic flamenco guitar albums

All lists are unfair, as they say, but these are three albums that truly capture the beauty and complexity of flamenco guitar.

Sabicas – Essential

Sabicas, who lived a big chunk of his life in exile from the Spanish dictatorship led by Francisco Franco, was an incredibly talented guitarist and composer who reached international stardom before he was renowned in his native Spain. He was a bit of a pioneer as a flamenco guitar soloist, and he was also one of the first flamenco artists to experiment with other music genres like rock with the album Rock Encounter (1966). Essential contains a great selection of some of his best work as a soloist. Agárrate los machos. Prepare yourself!

Paco de Lucía – Siroco

Pretty hard to make a list of flamenco guitar albums without including one by the late Paco de Lucía! Best known internationally by his wonderful Entre dos aguas, he is considered by many to be the greatest flamenco guitar player that ever walked the earth. He popularised flamenco worldwide and in Spain, where, believe it or not, flamenco is still often considered underground. He was an active member of the “new flamenco” trend of the 80s where he ventured into fusion-territory by playing with world-class musicians like McLaughlin, Di Meola and Chick Corea. He even introduced a new musical instrument into flamenco: the cajón or flamenco beat-box. So go ahead and enjoy this sublime work of art. Paco de Lucía dreamed of being a flamenco singer —thank god the man couldn’t sing!

Manolo Sanlúcar – Tauromagia

Truth be told, I became a bit stuck when recommending this album, given its title and running theme: bullfighting. But this record is much more than that – its author is one of the greatest flamenco guitar players, and the music contained within is outstanding and inspired, as well as daring and innovative. So despite your feelings on bullfighting, give it a spin!

Wanna learn more and listen to great live flamenco guitar in Madrid? Check out my private flamenco tours!

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