If you’re new to flamenco, you’ll notice some Spanish words on our site that may not mean anything to you… yet. Most of these Spanish words, or flamenco terminology are covered in our Beginner Course: Learn Flamenco Guitar The Ultimate Guide. Since knowing these flamenco terms will be very helpful in navigating our site, we thought we’d clear up some of the more common and important ones right away.
Read on for some of the most essential flamenco terms you want to know as you begin your flamenco journey.
A Palo is a style of flamenco. Each Palo has a mood, a tempo range and a key it’s traditionally played in.
As you get started playing flamenco, determining what Palo a piece is will be challenging, but it’s also part of the fun. The more you listen and pay attention to what Palo a piece is, the more easily you’ll recognize that Palo the next time you hear it.
The Palos are divided into a few categories, as well. There’s Cante Jondo, (Deep Song) which is generally dark in mood, tone, and lyrics; there’s Cante Chico (Small Song) which is generally light and happy; There’s Cante de Ida y Vuelta (Literally “Round-Trip” or “There and back” Song) which is the music of the Americas that was brought to Spain by Sailors and incorporated into flamenco; There’s Cante Libre (Free Song), which has no set meter; and there are other categories as well.
There’s no definitive number of Palos that I know of, mainly because some of the Palos are simply regional variations of a given Palo, some are examples of the Palo as sung by a particular singer, etc… We don’t pretend to present a comprehensive guide here, but on our site you’ll find the most common Palos you’ll run into as you learn more and more flamenco.
Some of the defining characteristics of each Palo are found in the Cante (singing) rather than in the specific key or figures played on the guitar, and this can make it challenging to recognize some Palos when they’re being played in a less traditional key. But more often than not as you start out it’s the familiar guitar figures or rhythms and the mood that will tell you what Palo you’re hearing. As you become more familiar with the Cante you may recognize the Palo from the singing before you recognize it from the guitar.
Because the Palos are so identified by the Cante (singing), it’s common to also refer to them as Cantes – especially when we talk about the family of Cante. For example, the Alegrías is part of the Cantiñas family, even though the Alegrías itself is currently much more popular than the actual Cante called Cantiñas (and from just listening to the guitar, you would be hard-pressed to identify a Cantiñas from an Alegrías). There are quite a few lesser Cantes in the Cantiñas family (like Rosas, Mirabras, or Romeras) but the main one you need to know as you get started is the Alegrias. Other Cante families have similar sub-Palos (a term I just made up), but on the site we almost exclusively deal with the ones you’re likely to run into out in the world.
Compás is the time element of flamenco, but it’s also the glue that holds together most of what we play in flamenco. As you learn a new palo you’ll learn how to play compás, which means how to play variations of the traditional material which makes up this glue that holds everything together. We speak about playing compás – playing variations of these traditional melodies – and we speak of playing in compás, which means playing the right amount of beats for each palo.
What’s more, the word compás also literally means a measure of music in Spanish. In flamenco a compás can be seen as a measure or a metric cycle. The distinctive 12-beat cycle that is common to so much flamenco is referred to as a compás.
So we have playing in compás, which is essentially playing the right amount of beats for a given palo. We have playing compás, which is playing variations of traditional melodies and figures (as opposed to playing falsteas, which I get into below). And we can also speak of playing one compás, or three compáses or however many, which means how many measures/cycles we’re playing.
I promise it all makes more sense as you begin to watch our lessons and play. I also promise that there are no other words with as many meanings as compás!
A falseta is the other essential element to playing flamenco on the guitar. Whereas compás is made up of variations of just a few traditional figures, falsetas are like little guitar solos that are written by guitarists and that make up most of the longer, melodic ideas in flamenco guitar.
A flamenco guitar piece will feature many falsetas, which are “glued together” by the compás. So as you learn a new palo you’ll start off by learning some compás variations, and then you’ll learn falsetas to add variety to the music. At first you may not see a huge difference between the compás and the falsteas, but as you get to know a palo you’ll see that some of what you play is traditional and common, other bits are more personal or individual.
Guitarists tend to collect falsetas, much in the way that Blues players collect licks. And, like licks, you’ll learn how to connect the falsetas and the compás to create new pieces or to improvise, using material you’ve learned or written yourself.
Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the more important techniques in flamenco:
Rasgueado is the distinctive strumming we do in flamenco – it’s pretty much the sound of flamenco! There are many different Rasgueado patterns, which involve different patterns of the fingers combining to play literally any rhythm you can think of.
Alzapua is one of the coolest flamenco guitar techniques there is. You sort of use the thumb like a pick in that you use both sides of your thumb nail to create a fast, percussive sound unique to flamenco guitar.
Arpeggio technique on the guitar is when you use the right-hand fingers to play the notes of a chord individually, in sequence, rather than all at once as in strumming. Arpeggio is central to right hand flamenco guitar technique.
Picado is what we call scale technique in flamenco. We play alternating rest-strokes with our middle and index fingers to achieve some pretty impressive speed in scale playing. (Some folks use more than two fingers or ring and index, but the vast majority of players use middle and index).
Pulgar means thumb, and the use of the thumb in flamenco is another of the more distinctive sounds/techniques we have.
Golpe is when we strike the top of the guitar percussively. It’s the reason that flamenco guitars have tap plates (called golpeadores).
Rest strokes are one of two techniques we use to play individual notes with either the fingers or the thumb. We call them rest strokes because the thumb or finger lands on the adjacent string (and rests there, if only for an instant). Rest strokes tend to be a bit sharper or more percussive than Free Strokes.
Free strokes are the other of the two techniques we use to play individual notes with either the fingers or the thumb. Rather than land on the adjacent swing, the finger or thumb follows through to a place where it floats above the strings, rather than landing to rest on an adjacent string.
Other important terms
Palmas are the rhythmic hand claps that are the backbone of percussion in flamenco. There are countless patterns we clap depending on what Palo is being played. Learning Palmas is a very important part of learning flamenco and is very helpful for internalizing your compás.
A Cantaor is a flamenco singer, and a Cantaora is a female flamenco singer.
A Bailaor is a flamenco dancer, and a Bailaora is a female flamenco dancer.
Libre, which literally means “free” is the term we use for those flamenco forms that don’t have a meter – in other words they’re free of rhythm. Libre Palos can be sung or played, but they are generally not danced.
A Llamada is literally a call. Llamadas can be used to communicate to other artists, as in “hey, something’s about to happen,” or they can be used as a form of punctuation in a solo guitar piece.
Palo Seco and Tapado are both terms we use for when the guitar is muted with the left hand and we play rasgueados and other patterns with the right hand. The result is that the guitar sounds like a percussion instrument.
A Letra is a sung verse in flamenco. Each Palo has its own styles of Letras. When a singer sings, they will string together various Letras, which may or may not have anything to do with one another. Letras are also central to the dance structures of all of the danced Palos.
Por Fiesta means as at a party and involves the singers, dancers and musicians all playing together and improvising little bits. There is no grand structure when playing Por Fiesta – people take turns showing off what they have, usually dancing one letra before allowing the next dancer to take their turn. Bulerias, Tangos and Rumba are the main Palos played Por Fiesta.
Of course there are many more terms you’ll learn along the way, and you may even end up learning Spanish if you don’t already speak it! But these are some of the words I think it’s very helpful to know as you get started playing flamenco.
Many of the terms will make more sense once you experience them in context. And as I mentioned, many are built into our Beginner Course, so that as you spend more time with the course those terms will make more and more sense. It’s often said that music is a language, and I certainly believe that flamenco is a language of its own. Part of learning this new language will be acquiring some new vocabulary. With time it will all feel very familiar.