On Practice: What Makes a Flamenco Guitar?
We are all familiar with classical guitars and some of us have had the opportunity to play a flamenco guitar. I would like to explain what makes a flamenco guitar different from a classical.
Flamenco guitars feel lighter, play easier and have a more immediate and percussive sound. These features reflect differences in the method and types of woods used in construction. The differences in construction are subtle and vary from one maker to another, so I speak from my own perspective. Typically, the depth of the guitar body of the flamenco is shallower than the classical, with the soundboard and the back of the instrument usually 1/8" 1/4" closer together. This reduces the volume of air in the soundbox and raises the pitch slightly. Internally, the length of the fan braces of a flamenco guitar are not as long and this shortens the duration of tone, giving a more immediate sound the characteristic "punch" that is a desirable flamenco attribute. This "punch" or "edge" allows the guitar to cut through other sounds when in accompaniment with the flamenco song, dance and clapping (palmas).
On the flamenco guitar, the action as measured by the height of the strings above the twelfth fret is 1/32" lower than on the classical. To facilitate right hand strumming (rasgueados) and finger tapping (golpes) on the tap plate (golpeador), the strings must also be closer to the soundboard, which requires a lower bridge and saddle height.
Flamenco guitars are tuned with tuning machines or, more traditionally, by wooden friction pegs of ebony or rosewood. The pegs are lighter in weight and aid in the holding of the guitar in the traditional (but seldom used) position in which the guitar is supported by the right arm and rests on the right leg without touching the left leg. While some say the pegs change the tone, I like the look, feel, and tuning of a guitar with well-fitted pegs.
Based on the woods used in construction, flamenco guitars fall into two categories: traditional or modern. In the traditional or blanca flamenco guitar, light colored cypress is used for the back and sides while the modern or negra guitar uses dark colored rosewood. During the time that Antonio Torres was defining classical and flamenco guitar construction, Spanish cypress wood was used because of local availability and low cost and was generally used for flamenco guitars although some of Torres' most famous classical guitars were constructed with Spanish cypress. Wooden tuning pegs were less expensive than tuners and became associated with flamenco guitars as well. Today, however, the cost of cypress from Spain and Italy is two to four times that of Indian rosewood, approaching the cost of the expensive Brazilian rosewood. The Spanish guitarist, Paco de Lucia, popularized the use of the flamenco negra. The use of denser rosewood gives flamenco guitars a fuller and richer tone approaching that of classical guitars. However, if a guitarist has a strong attack, with a low action, the rosewood negra still yields the familiar flamenco sound and attack.
In the flamenco guitar, the soundboard is typically constructed of spruce while in the classical guitar, cedar is more common. Spanish cedar is the preferred wood for the neck of a flamenco guitar as it is a bit lighter in weight than mahogany. Both types of wood are used for classical guitar necks.
Even though flamenco guitars are designed for a particular style of music, they make an excellent vehicle for the expression of classical, jazz and Latin music as well.
Recently, I began adding graphite epoxy composite neck reinforcement under the fingerboard and inset into the neck on all concert models. It is not seen on the finished neck but adds a measure of protection against warping. The material is many times stronger than steel and weighs little more than the wood it replaces. Another new technique I'm using is wood to finish the fretboard to reduce the possibility of the fingerboard drying out, cupping and causing cracks on the top. If a repairman were ever to replace the fingerboard, the finish on the ebony would need to be removed before applying heat.
Lester DeVoe founded the San Jose Classical Guitar Society, soon called the South Bay Guitar Society, in February of 1986. A talented luthier with an international reputation, Lester's guitars have been owned by great players, particularly flamenco guitarists such as Paco de Lucia, Juan Martín and the late Sabícas. For several years he and his family lived on a farm in Maine. A few years ago they relocated to Nipomo, California. Contact Lester at Lester DeVoe, 680 Camino Roble, Nipomo, California 93444. Phone/fax: (805) 931-0313. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.