Today is Flamenco Guitar Day. I don’t know who invented the holiday or what it really means, but seems like a good thing to celebrate. Let’s be clear, though. It’s Flamenco Guitar Day, not Flamenco Day. Flamenco is an art form that has a number of components — cante (singing), toque (guitar playing), baile (dance), jaleo (vocalizations), palmas (handclapping) and pitos (finger snapping). This post will focus exclusively on toque.
Traditionally, luthiers made guitars to sell at a wide ranges of prices, largely based on the materials used and the amount of decorations, to cater to the popularity of the instrument across all classes of people in Spain. The cheapest guitars were often simple, basic instruments made from the less expensive woods such as cypress. Antonio de Torres, one of the most renowned luthiers, did not differentiate between flamenco and classical guitars. Only after Andrés Segovia and others popularized classical guitar music, did this distinction emerge.
The traditional flamenco guitar is made of Spanish cypress, sycamore, or rosewood for the back and sides, and spruce for the top. This (in the case of cypress and sycamore) accounts for its characteristic body color. Flamenco guitars are built lighter with thinner tops than classical guitars, which produces a “brighter” and more percussive sound quality. Builders also use less internal bracing to keep the top more percussively resonant. The top is typically made of either spruce or cedar, though other tone woods are used today. Volume has traditionally been very important for flamenco guitarists, as they must be heard over the sound of the dancers’ nailed shoes. To increase volume, harder woods, such as rosewood, can be used for the back and sides, with softer woods for the top.
In contrast to the classical guitar, the flamenco guitar is often equipped with a tap plate (a golpeador), commonly made of plastic, similar to a pick guard, whose function is to protect the body of the guitar from the rhythmic finger taps, or golpes. Originally, all guitars were made with wooden tuning pegs, that pass straight through the head stock, similar to those found on a lute, a violin or oud, as opposed to the modern classical-style guitars’ geared tuning mechanisms.
“Flamenco negra” guitars are called “negra” after the darker of the harder woods used in their construction, similar materials to those of high-end classical guitars, such as rosewood or other dense tone woods. The harder materials increase volume and tonal range. A typical cypress flamenco guitar produces more treble and louder percussion than the more sonorous negra. These guitars strive to capture some of the sustain achieved by concert caliber classical guitars while retaining the volume and attack associated with flamenco.
A well-made flamenco guitar responds quickly, and typically has less sustain than a classical. This is desirable, since the flurry of notes that a good flamenco player can produce might sound muddy on a guitar with a big, lush, sustaining sound. The flamenco guitar’s sound is often described as percussive; it tends to be brighter, drier and more austere than a classical guitar.
Flamenco is played somewhat differently from classical guitar. Players use different posture, strumming patterns, and techniques. Flamenco guitarists are known as tocaores (from an Andalusian pronunciation of tocadores, “players”) and flamenco guitar technique is known as toque. Flamenco players tend to play the guitar between the sound hole and the bridge, but as closely as possible to the bridge, to produce a harsher, rasping sound quality. Unlike classical tirando, where the strings are pulled parallel to the soundboard, in flamenco apoyando strings are struck towards the soundboard in such way that the striking finger is caught and supported by the next string, hence the name apoyando (from Spanish apoyar meaning “to support”). At times, this style of playing causes the vibrating string to gently touch the frets along its length, causing a more percussive sound.
Flamenco guitar is commonly played using a cejilla (capo) which raises the pitch and causes the guitar to sound sharper and more percussive. However, the main purpose in using a cejilla is to change the key of the guitar to match the singer’s vocal range. Because Flamenco is an improvisational musical form that uses common structures and chord sequences, the capo makes it easier for players who have never played together before to do so. Rather than transcribe to another key each time the singer changes, the player can move the capo and use the same chord positions. Flamenco uses a lot of highly modified and open chord forms to create a solid drone effect and leave at least one finger free to add melodic notes and movement. Very little traditional Flamenco music is written, but is mostly passed on hand to hand. Books, however are becoming more available.
Both accompaniment and solo flamenco guitar are based as much on modal as tonal harmonies – most often, both are combined. There have been many guitarists who have become a part of the popularized Flamenco scene, such as Paco Peña, Paco De Lucia, Ramon Montoya, Pepe Romero, and Pepe Martinez. My suspicion, based on what I know about Argentine tango, is that there is a world of Flamenco that the general public does not see, and gets only a little taste from what becomes popular and, hence, mainstream.
Flamenco music uses the Flamenco mode which is a harmonic version of the Phyrgian scale with a major 3rd degree. If you can read music, below is a descending E Phrygian scale in flamenco style, with common alterations in parentheses.
A typical chord sequence, usually called the “Andalusian cadence,” in E is Am–G–F–E. Of course, guitarists play with the “rules” a great deal, and there’s a great deal of variation anyway.
The compás is fundamental to flamenco. Compás is most often translated as rhythm but it demands far more precise interpretation than any other Western style of music. If there is no guitarist available, the compás is rendered through hand clapping (palmas) or by hitting a table with the knuckles. The guitarist uses techniques like strumming (rasgueado) or tapping the soundboard (golpe). Changes of chords emphasize the most important downbeats.
Flamenco uses three basic counts or measures: Binary, Ternary and a form of a twelve-beat cycle that is unique to flamenco. There are also free-form styles including, among others, the tonás, saetas, malagueñas, tarantos, and some types of fandangos. The 12-beat cycle is the most common in flamenco, differentiated by the accentuation of the beats in different palos. The accents do not correspond to the classic concept of the downbeat. The alternating of groups of 2 and 3 beats is also common in Spanish dances of the 16th century such as the zarabanda, jácara and canarios.
The Bulerías is the emblematic palo of flamenco: today its 12-beat cycle is most often played with accents on the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 10th and 12th beats. The accompanying palmas are played in groups of 6 beats, giving rise to a multitude of counter-rhythms and percussive voices within the 12 beat compás. Here’s a video presentation of the beats for Flamenco Bulerías with emphasis  1 2  4 5  7  9  11 – also the rhythm for the song “America” from West Side Story.
Enough of theory. Here’s Flamenco master Sabicas:
To celebrate Flamenco let’s make eggs Flamenco, a classic Andalusian dish. You’ll need ovenproof ramekins.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 red peppers, seeded and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
500g fresh tomatoes grated on a cheese grater
1 tsp smoked paprika
8 slices of serrano ham
8 thin slices of chorizo
1 cup of peas frozen/defrosted or fresh
fresh parsley, chopped
salt and pepper
Sauté the onion and peppers slowly over medium-low heat in the olive oil until they are soft. Add the garlic. Sauté for a minute or two and then add the tomatoes and smoked paprika. Sauté gently for an additional 10 minutes and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Divide the vegetables into 4 ramekins, break 2 eggs on top of each and place 2 slices of ham, 2 slices of chorizo and a handful of peas on top.
Preheat the oven to 395°F/200°C and bake the ramekins for about 10 minutes or until the eggs are set but still runny.
Garnish with parsley and serve with crusty bread.