The “TOQUE” or flamenco guitar:
La guitarra es una montaña con dos vertientes.
Una es la flamenca; la otra, la clásica.
Ambas igualmente admirables.
The guitar is a mountain with 2 slopes
One is the flamenco, the other classical
Both are equally admirable
Originally in Flamenco, there was the « cante » (singing), that was performed « a palo seco » i.e. unaccompanied. Flamenco guitar appeared relatively late, in the middle of the 19th century, more precisely around 1850. That was the time when flamenco was performed on the stages, a need for felt for a musical accompaniment to enhance and give more substance to the singing, and to make it more pleasant to the ear, notably for the public of the «cafés cantantes».
Flamenco guitar then started as background music. The guitar remained secondary in flamenco for a long time, before becoming an important component of this art form, and inseparable from it. Further, flamenco guitar underwent a rapid evolution that neither the cante nor baile (dance) experienced.
Among the guitarists that left their mark on the early history of flamenco, let us mention Monolo de Badajoz, Melchor de Marchena, Manolo de Huelva, and more specifically Ramon Montoya and Niño Ricardo. The latter two most definitely changed the status of the guitar from a secondary role to that of an important instrument that stands alone. They pioneered a rapid evolution in flamenco guitar, that continues to this day.
Ramon Montoya (1879-1949) is a legend in the history of flamenco guitar. Born in 1880, he created many new elements in the way the instrument is played, and introduced a large number of phrasings that have since then become part and parcel of the traditional flamenco repertoire. In particular, he invented the solo Rondeña, that was the first toque specifically written for guitar; previous toques were derived from various cantes. His compositions contributed a lot to develop the technique of flamenco guitar, as they required great virtuosity, mainly when playing the numerous arpeggios that he included.
Niño Ricardo (1904-1972) was an accompanist of genius, the favorite it is said of Pastora Pavon, La Niña de los Peines. He created a style that still profoundly marks most the current guitarists, a mix of sensibility and virtuosity. He also created a large number of « falsetas » still played nowadays.
Sabicas is another mythical figure of flamenco guitar. His real name is Agustin Castellon Campos (1912-1990). With him, flamenco guitar acquired international renown and conquered world stages. He went to New York in 1936 with the famous dancer Carmen Amaya. He permanently settled there, and quickly climbed the ladder of international fame.
Flamenco guitar has much evolved since Sabicas, more so than the cante or the baile. Its current performers, to name a few, are Manuel Cano, Manolo Sanlucar, Paco Peña, Moraito, Vicente Amigo, Enrique de Melchor, and last but not least the guitarist that bears a household name: Paco de Lucia.
Paco de Lucia perfected a style that gave a new direction to flamenco guitar. His playing is distinguished by an extraordinary attack, an extreme ease in the left hand, and a picado of incredible speed. His long years of practice (he was born in 1947, and started guitar training at the age of 7 years) and his natural talent led him to go beyond mere technique to find new harmonies and chords, and to open new pathways for flamenco without it loosing its essential qualities. According to Paco Peña, « Paco de Lucia is a genius, as were Sabicas and Ricardo. He uses many harmonies borrowed from Jazz or South American music, but he does it very intelligently. He looks for effect, but always keeps the language of flamenco».
Morphology of a flamenco guitar:
A flamenco guitar differs from its classical sister by several (more or less stable) characteristics, namely a smaller size and weight that give it greater mobility.
It is less heavy than the classical guitar, and its body is made with different woods, usually epicea or cedar for the table, and cypress for the side and the bottom. These difference explain why it seems to have a more nervous, a more dynamic sound. Flamenco guitar has a more « percussive » sound that a classical guitar, with less resonance and volume. On the other hand, its sound is more « brilliant ». Also a flamenco guitar is easier to play because the strings are closer to the fret board.
A flamenco guitar often has a transparent protective layer between the sound hole and the bridge to protect the wood from scratching by the fingernails during the "golpes".
Traditionally, the tuning pegs were made of wood, and were inserted perpendicularly so that tuning was done by winding the strings. Nowadays, the tuning pegs are similar to those of the classical guitar, more practical and allowing more reliable tuning.
Role of the flamenco guitar:
The flamenco guitar plays a role in flamenco as an accompaniment instrument, but also as a solo instrument that stands alone.
The role of the flamenco guitar is three-fold when it accompanies the « cante ». First, it opens a sonorous space where the cantaor traces and modulates his singing; second, it serves as an inspiration for the cantaor; and last, it allows the cantaor to rest and catch his breath.
The guitar of accompaniment must of course rigorously follow the rhythm, the compas that is specific to each palo, and perform variations called « falsetas » that are pleasant adornments nevertheless always faithful to the palo.
Nowadays the solo flamenco guitarist is able to play, on the model of traditional palos, extremely complex pieces. With the rapid evolution of the flamenco guitar in terms of both technique and creativity, current guitarists have given the flamenco guitar its international seal of nobility, and continue to contribute to a renewing and widening of its repertoire.
Technique of the flamenco guitar:
The technique of flamenco guitar differs markedly from the technique of classical guitar.
§ First, the position of the guitarist is different: while the classical guitarist holds the guitar tilted and resting on his left thigh, the flamenco guitarist crosses his legs and rests the guitar on his right (higher) thigh.
§ When the flamenco guitarists finger pick, they rest the thumb on the surface of the guitar as a fulcrum, and the second and third fingers on the string next to the one being played. This creates a more powerful sound and a greater sonority than in classical guitar.
§ The way the thumb is used is also characteristic of the toque flamenco. When the thumb is playing, the third finger rests on the plate to give the thumb more strength and more precision in plucking the is plucked.
§ The " alzapua " consists in strumming the thumb from bottom to top, functioning like a plectrum (i.e. is moved up and down). It is a technique exclusively found in flamenco.
§ Let us also mention the « rasgueo » or « rasgueado », that consists in opening in succession the fingers of the right hand (starting with the 5th), i.e. running the fingers of the right hand over the strings individually but in a continuous rotation. There are many classes of « rasgueos »: the rasgueo of 5, the ragueo of 4, and the ragueo of 3 (the latter invented by Sabicas), depending on the number of fingers used.
§ Let us mention also the “golpe” or tap. The rhythmical accents are placed by tapping with the ring finger (sometimes middle finger or both middle and ring finger) of the right hand on the “golpeador” (piece of plastic to protect the guitar top), bringing both nail and flesh into contact with it.
§ Finally, the « tremolo» which consists in playing the same string consecutively with the 2nd, the 4th, the 3rd, then the 2nd finger. The tremolo uses 4 fingers in flamenco, while a classical guitarist will use only 3 (4th, 3rd and 2nd in this order).