Classical Guitar vs. Flamenco Guitar

Explore the origins, techniques, sound, and unique characteristics of the two beloved styles of classical and flamenco guitar.

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Classical guitar and flamenco guitar are two beloved styles of guitar playing that have roots in different regions of Spain. Classical guitar has its origins in the Baroque period and has evolved over centuries to become a highly refined and technically demanding art form. Flamenco guitar, on the other hand, emerged from the Andalusian region of Spain and is known for its passionate, improvisational style and percussive techniques.

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I’ve performed both styles but consider myself more of a classical player. Entering the flamenco guitar world is challenging because so much of it is about rhythmic forms called palos, and it can be “easier” to read traditional classical music instead.

In this article, I’ll explore the differences between these two styles, covering topics such as their historical background, instrument construction, playing techniques, repertoire, influential composers and performers, and cultural context.

Brogan’s Quick Take

Classical guitar is known for its technically demanding style and association with Western classical music, while flamenco guitar is a passionate, improvisational style deeply rooted in the culture and traditions of Andalusia, Spain. That said, artists in both traditions put in intense study and create amazing art with the instrument.

Classical Guitar vs. Flamenco: Historical Background

The classical guitar has its roots in the Baroque guitar, which was smaller and had five courses of strings. In the 19th century, the guitar underwent significant changes, with the addition of the sixth string and the use of fan bracing to increase the instrument’s volume and projection. The 20th century saw further innovations in classical guitar construction and technique, with the influence of players such as Andrés Segovia and Julian Bream.

Flamenco guitar has its origins in the Andalusian region of Spain, where it evolved from the Gitano musical traditions. The café cantante period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a crucial time in the development of flamenco guitar, as it became a prominent feature of flamenco performances in cafes and bars. In the post-war era, flamenco guitar continued to evolve, with the influence of players such as Paco de Lucía and Sabicas.

Classical vs. Flamenco Guitar Construction

The construction of classical and flamenco guitars differs in several key ways. Flamenco guitars often have a spruce top with cypress back and sides, which gives them a brighter, more percussive sound. Classical guitars, on the other hand, may use a variety of tonewoods, such as cedar, rosewood, or mahogany, which can deepen the instrument’s sound quality.

The thickness of the soundboard also plays a role in the tonal characteristics of each style of guitar. Flamenco guitars often have a thinner soundboard, which allows for greater volume and faster response. Classical guitars, in contrast, may have a slightly thicker soundboard, which provides a warmer, more complex tone.

Luthiery, or the art of guitar-making, involves a range of techniques and considerations. Hand-crafting techniques, such as the use of hide glue and traditional joinery methods, are often employed in the construction of both classical and flamenco guitars. The selection and seasoning of woods is also crucial, as it can have a significant impact on the instrument’s sound and durability.

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Guitar Techniques for Classical and Flamenco

Classical and flamenco guitar techniques differ significantly, reflecting the unique characteristics and demands of each style. In classical guitar playing, fingerpicking is the primary technique, with players using a combination of the thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers to pluck the strings. This technique allows for the playing of complex, multi-voice arrangements and the creation of a wide range of tonal colors.

Flamenco guitar, on the other hand, is known for its percussive tapping techniques, such as rasgueado and picado. Rasgueado involves the rapid strumming of the strings with the back of the fingernails, creating a quick, rhythmic sound. Picado is a technique that involves playing scales and runs with the index and middle fingers, often in rapid alternation.

Classical and flamenco guitarists both play tremolo, with the thumb plucking lower strings and the index, middle, and ring finger plucking the same higher string. But there’s a difference:

Classical TremoloFlamenco tremolo
Finger OrderThumb, ring, middle, indexThumb, index, ring, middle, index
Finger Notationp a m ip i a m i

The classical tremolo has four notes and the flamenco tremolo has five. You see that the flamenco tremolo involves the index finger twice in a single pattern. It’s tricky to learn, but once you have it down, it sounds like the notes are on fire.

Flamenco guitars generally have lower action than classical guitars and strings with lower tension. What this does is create a slight buzz on each note. This is something that flamenco players look for, because it gives the guitar a more percussive tone. The low action and light nylon guitar strings also make it easier to play fast runs and different techniques like alzapua, where you alternate striking with the right thumb and pulling off with the left hand.

Classical vs. Flamenco Guitar Posture

Another difference between these styles is posture. Classical guitarists raise the left leg with a footstool (or use a cushion or guitar support) and rest the curve of the guitar on the left leg. On the other hand, flamenco guitarists place the curve of the guitar on the right leg. They may use a footstool or they might not. Some flamenco players also balance the lower bout of the instrument on their thigh instead of the curve.

Basically, positioning the guitar on your right leg at this angle gives your right hand more freedom to quick rasgueados and picado runs alternating the index and middle fingers. While it looks incorrect from the classical standpoint to bend your wrist so far, you have better leverage for these types of techniques. The left hand isn’t so concerned with being able to perform wide stretches or counterpoint as it is in classical guitar.

That said, both styles are typically performed seated, and neither classical or flamenco guitars come with strap buttons. If you want to play classical guitar with a strap, they do make solutions that hook into the sound hole or around the headstock.

Should You Learn Classical or Flamenco Guitar?

The answer is, yes. You should learn both. I’ve spent more time studying and performing classical guitar music, but I’ve also performed flamenco pieces in my set. And not just Malaguena. If you’re looking to get into flamenco guitar, I recommend the book Play Solo Flamenco Guitar by Juan Martin. He does a great job explaining the different techniques and introducing them in a progressive way through solo pieces he’s written. I’ll link the book below:

Learning flamenco on a classical guitar with high action can be a bit tricky. I filed my guitar’s saddle down so the action was low enough to get a bite in the tone, but it’s still not set up like a flamenco instrument. For the real feel of a flamenco guitar, you can get any Cordoba instrument with an F like the F7 or F10. The Yamaha CG172SF is also a good beginner option.

Of course, learning classical guitar is also very rewarding. Check out my articles on classical guitar repertoire and the best classical guitars for recommendations on music and instruments.

Repertoire and Performance

The repertoire of classical and flamenco guitar is diverse and reflective of the unique histories and cultures of each style. Classical guitar repertoire spans several centuries, with key works from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and modern eras. Composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Fernando Sor, Francisco Tárrega, and Heitor Villa-Lobos have made significant contributions to the classical guitar canon.

Classical guitar is often performed as a solo instrument in concert halls and recital settings, with players using a combination of memorization and sheet music. Ensemble playing is also common, with guitars often featured in duos, trios, and larger chamber ensembles.

Flamenco guitar, in contrast, is closely tied to the traditional music and dance of the Andalusian region of Spain. Flamenco guitar is often performed as an accompaniment to singing and dance, with the guitarist providing rhythmic and harmonic support. Flamenco forms, known as palos, are the building blocks of flamenco music, each with its own distinct rhythm, harmony, and mood. Some popular palos include:

  • Soleá
  • Bulerías
  • Alegría
  • Fandango
  • Taranto

Improvisation is a key element of flamenco guitar, with players often using falsetas, or melodic phrases, to embellish and interpret the traditional forms.

Influential Composers and Performers

Throughout the history of classical and flamenco guitar, several influential composers and performers have shaped the development and evolution of each style. In the classical guitar world, performers such as Andrés Segovia and Julian Bream have been instrumental in expanding the technical and expressive possibilities of the instrument. Composers such as Joaquín Rodrigo and Manuel de Falla have written landmark works for the classical guitar, further cementing its place in the classical music canon.

In the world of flamenco guitar, performers such as Ramón Montoya and Niño Ricardo were pioneers in the development of the solo flamenco guitar style. Later performers such as Sabicas and Paco de Lucía further pushed the boundaries of the instrument, incorporating elements of jazz and world music into their playing.

Influential Classical GuitaristsInfluential Flamenco Guitarists
Andrés SegoviaRamón Montoya
Julian BreamNiño Ricardo
John WilliamsSabicas
Christopher ParkeningPaco de Lucía

Classical vs. Flamenco Guitar Cultural and Social Context

Classical and flamenco guitar are deeply rooted in the cultural and social contexts of their respective regions and histories. Classical guitar is often associated with the formal concert hall and the traditions of Western classical music.

Performances are typically focused on the interpretation of written scores, with players striving for technical precision and emotional depth. Audiences for classical guitar are often knowledgeable about the instrument’s history and repertoire, and appreciate the skill and artistry of the performer.

Flamenco guitar, on the other hand, is deeply connected to the culture and traditions of Andalusia, with roots in the music and dance of the Gitano community. Flamenco performances traditionally take place in intimate settings such as cafes and bars, with the guitar serving as an accompaniment to passionate singing and dancing.

Flamenco is more than just a musical style; it is a way of life that encompasses a rich tapestry of cultural traditions and social interactions. Flamenco guitarists are often deeply immersed in this culture, learning through oral tradition and apprenticeship with established performers.

Flamenco vs. Classical Guitar: Conclusion

Classical guitar and flamenco guitar are two distinct styles that have evolved from different cultural and historical contexts. While both styles involve the use of a guitar, they differ significantly in terms of instrument construction, playing techniques, repertoire, and performance settings.

Classical guitar is known for its refined, technically demanding style and its association with the traditions of Western classical music. Flamenco guitar, on the other hand, is a passionate, improvisational style that is deeply connected to the culture and traditions of Andalusia.

Despite their differences, both classical and flamenco guitar have made significant contributions to the world of music, and continue to captivate audiences with their unique sounds and styles. By understanding the key differences between these two styles, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the artistry and cultural significance of each.

Classical Guitar vs. Flamenco Guitar: FAQ

Below are a few frequently asked questions about the differences between classical and flamenco guitar.

What is the role of the guitar in flamenco music?

In flamenco music, the guitar serves as a vital accompaniment to passionate singing and dancing. The guitarist provides rhythmic and harmonic support, creating a foundation for the vocalist and dancer to build upon. The guitar also plays a key role in setting the mood and character of each palo (flamenco form) through its unique rhythms, chord progressions, and melodic embellishments.

How does the learning process differ between classical and flamenco guitar?

Classical guitar is typically learned through formal instruction, with a focus on reading sheet music, mastering proper technique, and interpreting written compositions. Flamenco guitar, on the other hand, is often learned through oral tradition and apprenticeship with established performers. Flamenco guitarists are deeply immersed in the culture, absorbing the rhythms, melodies, and techniques through observation, imitation, and hands-on experience.

What is the significance of the flamenco palos?

Flamenco palos are the traditional forms or styles of flamenco music, each with its own distinct rhythm, harmony, and mood. Some popular palos include Soleá, Bulerías, Alegría, Fandango, and Taranto. These forms serve as the building blocks of flamenco music, providing a structure for improvisation and personal expression. Each palo is associated with specific emotional content and cultural context, reflecting the rich history and traditions of Andalusia.

How have classical and flamenco guitar influenced each other?

Classical and flamenco guitar have influenced each other in various ways throughout their histories. Some classical guitarists, such as Andrés Segovia and Julian Bream, have incorporated elements of flamenco music into their repertoire, while flamenco guitarists like Paco de Lucía have drawn inspiration from classical techniques and compositions. This cross-pollination has led to the development of new playing styles, techniques, and musical forms, enriching both genres.

What are some common misconceptions about classical and flamenco guitar?

One common misconception is that classical guitar is always soft and delicate, while flamenco guitar is always loud and aggressive. In reality, both styles are capable of a wide range of dynamics and emotional expression. Another misconception is that flamenco guitar is purely improvisational, while classical guitar is strictly bound to written scores. While improvisation is a key element of flamenco, there is also a strong tradition of composed flamenco works, and classical guitarists often bring their own interpretive skills to the music they play.

How have technology and globalization affected classical and flamenco guitar?

Technology and globalization have had a significant impact on both classical and flamenco guitar. The internet has made it easier for guitarists to access instructional resources, connect with other musicians, and share their music with a wider audience. Advances in recording technology have also allowed for the creation of high-quality recordings, preserving the works of great guitarists for future generations. Globalization has led to the spread of classical and flamenco guitar beyond their traditional cultural boundaries, fostering cross-cultural exchange and the emergence of new hybrid styles.