What to look for when buying a flamenco guitar
With what we’ve learned in Part 1 of this post we now 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.
New vs. Used
Buying a used guitar is like buying a used car – no one can tell you if it’s a great deal or if you’re getting a lemon until you play the actual guitar. Unlike a used car though, if a used guitar appears to be in good shape and you love how it sounds and feels, then you’re not so likely to have big problems down the road. It’s not impossible that some latent issue will pop up later, but it’s just not that likely. So it’s not a bad idea to do your research among new guitars and then see if there’s anything used in your area that fits the bill. Unlike a car, you could argue that a guitar that has been played a lot already is a benefit, as guitars change a little when they’re first played a lot. Thats means that a guitar may not reveal it’s true character until it’s been played a bit, so with a used guitar you know just a bit better what you’re getting for your money.
The downside of buying something used, as with the car, is that if you don’t love it you may be stuck with it. So while it may limit your options, I’d recommend not buying used unless there’s a return policy.
If your budget is above, let’s say, $2,500, then you may want to skip to part 3 of this article, which covers the topic of buying a hand-made guitar. If your budget is a bit more down-to-earth, then read on.
Looking at new guitars, you can get something that meets all of the above criteria for just a couple hundred dollars if you look around. I’ll caution that it’s still hard to make a high-quality guitar that’s going to sound good, feel good, and last for a while for very little money. That means that if you buy the cheapest new guitar you can find it’s possible you won’t be happy with it for very long. But starting at around $400 the options open up to include some very respectable guitars that will serve you for a very long time.
For our purposes, let’s say that a “flamenco guitar’ is one that was built with flamenco in mind. So even if it doesn’t have cypress back and sides or a spruce top it’ll have a lower setup and tap-plates.
One of the least expensive flamenco guitars available in both the US and European markets is the Yamaha CG172SF, which in the U.S. retails new for about $400 (and you can often find used ones for less). My experience with these has been very positive, and many students who go on to buy more expensive guitars later hold on to their Yamahas to have a very decent second guitar. For about $600, the Cordoba F7 is another fantastic choice. And while Cordoba doesn’t make a less expensive ‘flamenco guitar’, their C5 classical guitar costs about the same as that Yamaha and with lowered action makes a great guitar to play flamenco on (you’d probably want a guitar tech to lower the action and add a tap-plate, which will add a little to the cost). In Europe you may have an easier time finding the Alhambra 3F for around 500 Euros, and this guitar is another strong contender. Cordoba was just recently acquired by Yamaha, but I’m assured by the folks at Cordoba that nothing will change in the manufacture or quality control of their instruments.
As your budget goes up, so do your options. And while a higher price doesn’t always mean a better guitar, the quality does tend to go up pretty dramatically as you go up from the $300-400 to the $750 range or so. And as you get to the $750 range and above the options suddenly increase exponentially.
At around $1300 the Cordoba F10 is hard to beat. It’s an all-solid wood cypress and spruce guitar made for flamenco, and I have yet to run across a bad one. It’s a guitar that really could last you a lifetime and that you wouldn’t need to upgrade in a hurry. And at about $2,000 I love the Camps Primera Blanca – it really doesn’t give up very much at all to most luthier-made guitars and the quality control is fantastic. This isn’t to say that there aren’t lots of other guitars in these price brackets that would serve you well, just that these are ones that I know and can vouch for. (And no, neither Camps nor Cordoba gives me any money for saying this).
Since I can’t really get into every model out there or every guitar you might run across, here are a few tips on what to look for no matter what your budget:
How does it sound?
You should love how your guitar sounds. With experience you may have more of a sense of what a flamenco guitar “should” sound like, but you falling in love with the sound of your guitar is pretty much non-negotiable.
How does it feel?
If you already play the guitar, then you’ll know pretty quickly if you like how the guitar feels. If you’re used to playing the smaller necks on electric or acoustic guitars, then it may take a little getting used to, but you should still like how the guitar feels in your hands. If you’re brand new to the guitar you may want to ask a friend or teacher – anyone with a little more experience than you – but even if you’ve never picked up a guitar before, you want to ask yourself if you like how the guitar feels in your hands.
How does it look?
First, make sure it looks like everything is where it’s supposed to be. You may not know how to build a guitar, but see that nothing looks broken, wrong or just plain weird. After that, the issue of looks becomes purely subjective. It doesn’t really matter what color the guitar is or what the design of the rosette is like (that’s the little design around the sound hole). In the long run, how it looks doesn’t matter nearly as much as how it sounds and feels. If you just hate how it looks then you may want to stay away, but other than that try to go for sound and feel above looks.
Does it have cracks?
If you’re looking at used guitars, it’s very possible the guitar will have a crack or two. Believe it or not, this is not necessarily a dealbreaker. Lots of great guitars have cracks. Lots of my guitars have cracks. If you don’t know too much about guitars, and don’t know anyone who can tell you how bad a crack is (some are structural, which is bad, but many are not) then you’re probably better off avoiding a guitar with cracks. But if you’re pretty certain the crack is well repaired, or if someone you trust tells you not to worry, then you’re probably ok and could save a lot of money.
There’s an old saying: The best guitar is the one you have right now. I take this to mean that while there may always be a “better” guitar out there, what’s really important is to have an instrument to play. There are so many great guitars out there – and you don’t have to spend thousands to have something that you can get going with and that will allow you to enjoy playing the guitar. Which is what really matters.
In Part 3 of this post we will look at what to consider if you’re thinking of investing in a luthier-made guitar.