It is generally accepted that the forerunner of the flamenco guitar (as well as the classical guitar) was a lute-like instrument brought into Spain by the Moors, an Arabic people who ruled much of the country for hundreds of years. The classical and flamenco instruments are similar in some respects (besides their common ancestry), both being originally handbuilt by essentially the same methods, but the flamenco guitar has a particularly distinctive sound and unique playing action, achieved by the use of different timbers to fashion the body and subtly different dimensions and proportions.
Essentially, there are three primary differences between the flamenco guitar and its classical counterpart. Typically, the classical instrument is made of rosewood with a cedar or spruce top, whereas the traditional flamenco instrument is fashioned entirely of cypress and generally less heavy in construction, which lends an overall lighter and more percussive sound to the music. The flamenco guitar has plastic tappingplates (or teardrop scratch plates) known as golpeadores which protect the face of the intrument from damage by the tapping and other percussive strokes (such as drumming and slapping) performed with the right-hand fingernails...a specific feature of the flamenco technique. Thus, the flamenco guitar tends to be more percussive in tone than its classical counsin, such that any energy put into the strings comes out louder over a shorter period, leading to better articulation of rhythmic strokes and a higher degree of clarity when playing quickly. In addition, flamenco guitars often have push-pegs (akin to a violin) for tuning while the classical guitar has geared machine heads. In general, flamenco guitars are lighter in weight and a little smaller in body size than the classical guitar...possibly so that the flamenco guitar may be positioned higher on the lap. It is also usual for the soundbox of a flamenco guitar to be smaller than that of the classical variety. While the classical guitar normally has a better sustain and a more mellow sound, it does lend itself somewhat to "woolliness" when used to play flamenco music.
With regard to the position of the strings, they are lower on the flamenco guitar and set closer to the frets which allows for faster left-hand action and rapid fingering...the ensuing increased rattling of the strings deemed a trademark of the style. While the latter still holds true today, the modern flamenco guitar tends to be larger than the original version (due to the need for increased volume) and is often fashioned from darker woods, making it something of a hybrid between the traditional flamenco and classical instruments. However, some flamenco guitarists actually prefer the depth afforded by the classical instrument for their solo performances.
The flamenco guitar began as an accompaniment for cante (the song) and, in Spain, has largely remained as such with the role of the flamenco guitarist being chiefly that of a musician who knows how to musically support the singers and dancers, which is not to say that there have been no exceptionally gifted and very fine solo flamenco guitarists over the years. However, to paraphrase the now deceased Agustin Castellon "Sabicas," one of the most accomplished and legendary Spanish guitarists who is credited with being the first to take flamenco out of Spain, "spend twenty years accompanying cante; spend twenty years accompanying baile; now you're ready to think about solos."
Both modern classical guitars and flamenco guitars are considered instruments of comparatively recent invention. Antonio de Torres is usually credited with the development and stablization of the flamenco guitar during the 1850s. An examination of an early flamenco guitar made by Torres in 1867 reveals the basic characteristics of the type...six strings tuned by wooden pegs and a body fashioned somewhat smaller than the equivalent classical version. Two important components of the typical flamenco guitar, however, are the use of Spanish cypress for the back and sides (which gives the flamenco guitar its distinctive sound) and the extreme lightness of the overall construction which is internally much simpler than its classical cousin. It has been suggested that many characteristics of the flamenco guitar arose initially from the need for an inexpensive instrument. This theory is not entirely without basis...flamenco guitarists have not, traditionally, been particularly wealthy individuals.
Over the last century or so, the original basic flamenco guitar has undergone relatively few modifications...the most significant probably being a slight increase in size...and trial guitars have been constructed with maple bodies rather than the traditional cypress. The most recent introduction has been the "concerto flamenco" guitar which combines the customary flamenco fingerboard and tap plate with the classical rosewood construction and machine tuning.
As a point of interest, according to some sources, Stradivarius is said to have learned the art of instrument-making from the gypsies and the greatest French jazz guitarist of all time, Django Reinhardt, was of gypsy origin.
Ramon Montoya Salazar a/k/a Ramon Montoya
A gypsy from Spain's capital city of Madrid, Ramon Montoya was born on November 2, 1880 to a family of cattle traders and is best remembered for his creativity and virtuosity. He purchased a guitar with part of his first earnings and is considered a pioneer of that flamenco instrument, in much the same manner as Segovia is considered a pioneer for the classical version. Employed from the age of fourteen in Madrid cafes to accompany cantantes, Montoya was the original tocaor to create a repertoire for flamenco guitar as a solo instrument, cutting his first recording around 1910. Thus, did the flamenco guitar become a lead instrument as opposed to its traditional function of being simply an accompaniment to the voice. Echoes of Montoya's original falsetas continue to be performed today and he is credited with generating an unstoppable interest in the flamenco guitar complete with its new technical and compositive possibilities. Montoya was the first to introduce musical virtuosity to the world of flamenco. He is considered by many to have introduced the five-stroke tremolo and arpegio techniques into the flamenco playing style, as well as creating the guitar solo form Rondena.
Of gypsy heritage and native son of Madrid, Spain's capital city, Carlos Montoya began playing at the age of eight and became an American citizen in approximately 1940. He recorded a multitude of records during his lifetime and garnered a huge following from all over the globe. When Ramon, his famous uncle, initially refused to teach him, Montoya took lessons from the local barber for three years. By the age of fourteen, he was performing in the local Cafe Cantantes. Throughout his career, Montoya was much criticized for the roughness of his playing and the apparent liberty he took with compas and speed variations. Montoya was only too aware that aficionados rarely appreciated his music, the usual complaints being that he used excessive left hand legato, the playing was choppy and he used too much tremolo. However, as Montoya once rightly pointed out in his own defense, he had filled the Houston Astrodome and no other flamenco artist would ever equal that accomplishment. Montoya always maintained (with no little pride) that he owed absolutely nothing to his uncle and simply refused to assimilate any of Ramon's immeasurable contributions to flamenco. Although criticism of Montoya's talent may be justified in some respects, he nevertheless played a significant role in raising international awareness of flamenco.
Manuel Serrapi Sanchez a/k/a Nino Ricardo
Nino Ricardo was born in the Spanish city of Seville on July 1, 1904. At the age of thirteen, he began playing in the Salon Vigil and initiated his recording career in the mid-1920s. An extremely influential guitarist who accompanied many great cantates, Ricardo's long career began in 1924 by accompanying La Nina Do Los Peines and her brother, Tomas Pavon. He is considered by some to be the most accomplished fandango player of all time and a significant link in the evolution of the flamenco guitar. Ricardo's fingernails grew in a peculiar upward curve and are believed to have been responsible to a great extent for his unique tone and style.
Agustin Castellon Campos a/k/a Sabicas
Sabicas was born in Pamplona, capital of the ancient Kingdom of Navarre (which borders France, Castile, Aragon and Baskland) and historic town of the "Running of Bulls." A legend in life and considered one of the greatest master guitarists of all time, Sabicas was proud of having accomplished for the guitar that which nobody had done before...to tour the world with his music and make it fashionable. Prior to Sabicas, the flamenco guitar had never been played outside of Spain. Displaying dazzling speed, the technique of Sabicas, who began his art at the age of five, was clean and brimming with musical creativity. According to some sources, his mother took him to a local music teacher who was deeply offended by the fact that the small boy could not even put together a decent scale...they were told to leave and never return. Consequently, Sabicas taught himself how to play. When his family moved to Spain's capital city of Madrid a few years later, Sabicas began his artistic career, using the phonetic form of his nickname "las habicas," which means "little beans." (Apparently, he was extremely fond of broad beans and always carried a pocketful with him.) Between 1925 and 1935, Sabicas performed all over Spain before going with his family to Buenos Aires at the time of the Civil War. There, he was reunited with Carmen Amaya, one of the world's most distinguished flamenco dancers, whom he had originally met in Barcelona when they were both children. Sabicas and Amaya performed together for a decade. When Amaya returned to Spain in 1945, Sabicas remained in Latin America for another ten years until 1955, at which time he moved into the Spanish-speaking district of Manhatten, New York, three blocks from his cousin, Mario Escudero (yet another accomplished flamenco guitarist who formerly went by the name of "Nino de Alicante"). By 1982, Sabicas was unable to recall how many recordings he had made, stating: "Fifty-two, fifty-three...something like that". Sabicas died in 1990, leaving behind what many consider a legacy of unmistakable brilliance and inspiring artistry.
Francisco Sanchez Gomez a/k/a Paco De Lucia
The youngest of five sons, Franciso Sanchez Gomez, better known as Paco De Lucia, was born on December 21, 1947 in Algeciras (a sea port in Cadiz, Spain). His artistic name was adopted to honor his mother, Lucia Gomez. Surrounded by flamenco song and dance since early infancy, Paco De Lucia was already familiar with compas when his father (Antonio) and brother (Ramon) first began teaching him to play the guitar at the age of five. Between 1962 and 1964, he toured the United States accompanying Pepe, his brother, on cante. There, he met the great virtuosos Mario Escudero and Escudero's legendary cousin, Sabicas (who encouraged him to develop his own ideas). However, Paco De Lucia's greatest influence is probably Nino Ricardo, whose style he had imitated from a young age. Since his first recording in 1960 with his brother Pepe, Paco De Lucia has recorded many ground-breaking albums. All of his solo offerings are brimming with musical innovations and others soon began to imitate his style, spawning a whole new generation of young virtuosos. Paco De Lucia's collaborations with non-flamenco artists such as John Mclaughlin, Al Di Meola, Chick Corea and Bryan Adams, have allowed him to extend his musical horizons even further. Paco De Lucia's amazing virtuosity and unprecedented popularity as an international artist have elevated him to almost messiah-like status in the eyes of many of his contemporaries. Although considered by some to be more of a jazz guitarist, Paco De Lucia is nonetheless pure flamenco in style and one of the modern era's greatest flamenco guitarists.
For an extensive biography/discography listing of celebrated guitarra performers
both past and present, click on the link button below to visit the
Flamenco Artists' Encyclopedia at La Web Del Flamenco.
For audio clips/MIDIs of both traditional and modern flamenco guitar styles,
please click on the musical note buttons below.
Each button links to a different site.