Defining a “flamenco” guitar
“What flamenco guitar should I buy?” is a question we’re asked all the time, so I thought I’d write about some of the important things to keep in mind as you decide how much to spend, where to buy, and all of that. I’ll try to keep it pretty simple, and I’ll assume that you’re somewhere where you don’t have access to lots of guitars, you’re not an expert yourself, and that you don’t have a teacher or friend nearby to guide you.
The bottom line is that you need a nylon string guitar with 6 strings. I’ll get into scale lengths and all of that in a minute, but to get started any 6-string guitar with nylon strings will work. I emphasize the nylon strings because most guitars, including what we call acoustic guitars and electrics use steel strings. And while you can do a few flamenco lessons on a steel-string guitar if that’s what you have right now, steel strings aren’t appropriate for the techniques you’ll be learning or for the sound we want when playing flamenco. And while you don’t want an “acoustic” guitar (which implies steel strings) you do want a guitar that is acoustic, in that you don’t need to plug it into an amplifier to get sound. That means that the guitar will have a hollow body and a sound hole.
Flamenco vs. Spanish vs. Classical
Within the world of nylon string guitar you’ll see them described variously as Classical guitars, Spanish guitars and Flamenco guitars. You may also see the term Crossover guitar. Any of these will work for flamenco, but let’s clear up what those words mean. A flamenco guitar is made for playing Flamenco, so that one’s easy. A Classical guitar is also sometimes called a Spanish guitar even though technically, of course, a flamenco guitar is a Spanish guitar also. But it’s safer to assume that most people mean a Classical Spanish guitar when they say Spanish guitar.
The bottom line is that a classical guitar will serve you perfectly well for learning flamenco. There are way more similarities between a flamenco guitar and a classical guitar than there are differences. We’ll look at the differences in just a minute, but if you have a classical guitar you can start with that and may never need to buy a flamenco guitar (but who’s to say what we really need, right?).
The term “crossover” can mean a lot of things, but a crossover guitar with nylon strings is generally a nylon-string guitar that looks and feels more like an electric or acoustic guitar. These guitars generally have narrower necks and can even have solid bodies. While I wouldn’t choose a crossover guitar to be your main flamenco guitar, if you already have one or can borrow one, there’s no reason you can’t start playing flamenco on it for now. And I’d choose a crossover with nylon strings over any guitar with steel strings.
What makes it a “flamenco” guitar?
So what’s the real difference between a flamenco guitar and a classical one? This question isn’t quite as easy to answer as it used to be. Traditionally, a flamenco guitar was made with a spruce top and cypress back and sides, featured wooden peg tuners and a golpeador (tap-plate), and was lighter than a classical guitar. In other respects the two were basically the same. The reasons for the differences were originally that a “flamenco” guitar was simply a cheap classical guitar. The cypress back and sides and the wooden peg tuners were less expensive than the rosewood back and sides and machine tuners used for fancier classical guitars.
Today a flamenco guitar will likely have machine tuning pegs, can be made of many woods for the back and sides, and may even have a cedar top. The main giveaway in many cases is simply the clear plastic golpeador, which is pretty much standard on any flamenco guitar. Also, flamenco guitars are no longer cheaper than classical guitars.
Most of us would agree that a flamenco guitar is generally a little lighter than a classical and has a faster action (which means that the strings are lower, I.e. closer to the fretboard) and a punchier sound than a classical. That lower action makes the guitar easier to play for many, and also contributes to what we call a ‘fast’ or ‘punchy’ sound. Where a classical guitar wants to have a lot of sustain and a roundness to the sound it produces, a flamenco guitar has less sustain but more attack. Some call this sound more aggressive. A certain amount of buzz or ‘growl’ is also acceptable and even desirable in a flamenco guitar, while it would be anathema to a classical player. There’s good buzz and bad buzz though – both involve the strings making contact with the frets as they ring, but good buzz is like a kind of reverb that blankets the sound of everything you play, while bad buzz is generally an annoying metallic sound that only happens when certain notes are played.
The lines have blurred quite a bit between flamencos and classicals in the last 60 years or so, and now it’s not uncommon to see flamenco players play Negras (guitars with rosewood back and sides) to get more sustain. The cliche is that you’d use a blanca (cypress guitar) for accompaniment and a negra (rosewood) for solo playing, but I personally think that it’s down to taste more than to what you’re using the guitar for. Most professional players will use the same guitar for solo and for accompaniment, and you can’t always tell without looking if a guitar is a blanca or a negra.
The tap-plate, or golpeador, is a film of (usually) clear plastic that protects the top of the guitar from ‘golpes,’ or striking the guitar with our nails as we play flamenco. Since the technique is an integral part of so much of what we do, the golpeador is more or less an essential part of a flamenco guitar. A guitar will survive quite a while, or even forever, without one, but you’ll definitely notice first the finish and then the wood itself getting chipped away as you abuse the guitar more and more. Some people can live with this, but the vast majority opt for a golpeador that protects both above the 6th sting and below the first.
Traditionally golpeadores were made of wood, and were two pieces – one above the 6th string and one below the 1st. Then came the black and white plastic ones, also generally in two pieces. Today most golpeadores are a single sheet of clear plastic that protects all of the places you might thwack your guitar, though you might still see colored ones or even wood on some guitars.
A traditional Spanish guitar – classical or flamenco – has a scale length of between 650mm and 665mm. Scale length is the measurement from the saddle to the nut. Smaller than 650mm may be appropriate for truly small hands, but I don’t see any reason to go looking for a smaller-than-standard guitar. It’s unlikely you’ll find anything too much longer than 665 (I had one that was 666!), but again, I’d avoid going much bigger. Some argue that a bigger guitar gives you a bigger sound, but I’ve experienced some huge-sounding guitars on the small side of this scale and vice-versa, so I wouldn’t just go looking for the biggest guitar around unless you know from experience that that’s what your hands want.
The other number you might look at is nut width, which is the width at the neck of the guitar measured at the nut (the ‘bone’ that guides the strings from the peghead onto the neck) . Most classical and flamenco guitars will have a neck width of between 50mm and 54mm, with 52 being more or less standard.
If you have the opportunity to play a lot of guitars, then I generally recommend not looking at the numbers. I’m always amazed that a guitar that measures large may actually feel smaller, and vice-versa. It’s a funny thing. If you’re ordering a guitar online, sight-unseen, however, these numbers are useful to make the sure that the guitar is more or less standard. A crossover will likely have a narrower measurement at the nut, which will feel more like an acoustic or electric guitar. Nothing wrong with crossovers, but if you’re looking for your first real flamenco guitar, then it’s not where I’d start looking.
There are some nylon-string guitars with cutaways, and even a few “legit” classical or flamenco guitars that have them. It’s definitely not traditional, but personally I don’t hear much difference between a well-made cutaway and a similar guitar without the cutaway. If you have reason to believe you’re really going to need those extra frets, or if you’ve fallen in love with a cutaway (or maybe there’s a great deal on one), then there’s no good reason to avoid it. Probably the biggest downside for most people is simply that it won’t look traditional. The Cordoba GK Studio is an example of a popular and really fun flamenco guitar with a cutaway, and lots of players love them.
So now we know that we’re looking for a 6-string, nylon string acoustic guitar with a scale length of 650-665mm, a nut width of 50-54mm, and a tap plate (which can be added to any guitar, so that’s not a deal breaker). The good news is that equipped with the above information, you no longer need to see the words “flamenco guitar” to know if a guitar will work for you.
In Part 2 of this post I’ll get into what to look for as you shop for your first flamenco guitar.