Falling in love with the sounds of flamenco guitar is easy, and this music is fun to learn to play too. Guitar teacher David W. is here to help you learn the basic terms and techniques you’ll learn…
Some folks get interested in flamenco through its virtuosic guitar playing, rhythmic dancing and colorful dresses, or the expressive nature of Gypsy singing. For guitarists of other styles, playing flamenco is among the most respected styles in the world thanks to its sound, tonality, and technique.
Since flamenco guitar has shared roots with classical guitar technique, it will help if you are at least familiar with a bit about the classical guitar. If you are a complete beginner to guitar, no problem!
Understanding Flamenco Guitar
Want to learn flamenco guitar? As you may know, it’s traditionally played on a nylon-string (classical) style guitar, using not a pick but the fingers and nails of the right hand to drive the sound. The left hand is used much the same as in other styles, with some tonal and positional particularities. The right hand is related to classical technique in some regards, but as we’ll see there are some big differences.
First, an analogy: Imagine that the guitar is a car, driving you down some Andalusian country road. Your right hand works the gas and brakes, and the left hand is the steering wheel. There are foundational rhythms that you can play with the right hand that can be applied to any chord or melody, given the technique you are using.
What are these right hand techniques? We will cover each of the foundational right hand techniques for flamenco guitar later on in this article. But let’s start with some basic terminology relating to the art.
Spanish Terminology for Classical and Flamenco Guitar
Terminology is important to learning flamenco guitar, partly because flamenco comes from Spain. Here we’ll cover terms used to describe musical elements, parts of the guitar, guitar technique in general, as well as those particular to flamenco that are an integral part of the journey. Just as you have learned to say “pizza” and “sushi”, these words are easy to learn and will enrich your life by connecting you to a colorful world and its unique art.
Here are some basic terms describing some fundamental parts of a flamenco performance:
palo = song style (eg; Solea, Tangos, Bulerias, Alegrias, etc.)
cante = flamenco singing
toque = flamenco guitar playing
baile = flamenco dance
palmas = rhythmic hand claps that accompany a performance
falseta = a prepared or improvised guitar-focused interlude between sung verses or dance sections, or as a compositional development in its own right
This is terminology that relates to the guitar itself, and accessories used in flamenco:
guitarra = guitar
cejilla = capo
golpeador = tap plate
cuerdas = strings
acordes = chords
When notating the music played on classical and flamenco guitar, we use the following terms and abbreviations for right hand technique:
pulgar = thumb (notated as “p”)
indice = index finger (notated as “i”)
medio = middle finger (notated as “m”)
anular = ring finger (notated as “a”)
rosado = pinky (not used as a term, notated as “x”)
These are the techniques used in flamenco guitar, with a focus on the right hand in this article. With the exception of arpeggio, they are more specific to flamenco than to classical music:
arpeggio = plucking individual notes of a chord, e.g: p, i, m, a, m, i.
picado = playing single note melodies using i, m.
rasgueo = raking across the strings using x, a, m, i, and sometimes including p.
abanico = a sub-category of rasgueo, using either p, i, and m, or p and ma.
alzapua = using the thumb (p) to articulate a combination of single notes and parts of chords.
arrastre = raking backwards (high to low) over the strings using the ring (anular, a) finger.
golpe = tapping the body of the guitar, on the tap plate (golpeador) using ma (middle and ring fingers together), or just the ring finger (a).
Right Hand Flamenco Guitar Techniques
These techniques can be dizzying to watch live up close and in person, but I hope to demystify them a bit here:
arpeggio and picado
As mentioned earlier, right hand technique for flamenco guitar is to a degree built on classical technique, with some additions. The classical component consists of arpeggios, and the use of alternating index and middle (i, m) for melodies. The arpeggiated figures in flamenco are particular, but you can use exercises from classical repertoire to build the needed dexterity.
Picado is one technique used to play single note melodies in flamenco, and is played with a short, percussive stroke that is muted immediately after playing each note. To build your picado, just apply an alternating i, m sequence to any of the scales that you’ve learned; while keeping the notes short and “punchy”.
pulgar – the thumb: melody and alzapua
The right hand thumb warrants special study, as it is used in arpeggio and alzapua, as well as in melodies. A major difference with classical technique is that the thumb is almost exclusively played with a rest-stroke (apoyando). This means that when you strike the string, your thumb pushes down through the active string, coming to a brief resting position on the adjacent string below.
This gives a more penetrating action that is louder, more percussive; and also unique in tone. Alzapua is a highly specialized technique that gives a unique effect. The thumb performs up and down strokes through both single and multiple strings, striking both through parts of chords and single notes on the bass strings.
The thumb is used also used in an approach alternating with the index finger, for a unique effect. Start with the following sequence on the open E strings (index on high E, and thumb on low E): p i, p i, p i, p i.
Then, begin changing the notes of the bass using the left hand, one for every 2 or 4 thumb strokes. You’ll find that the open high E string provides a nice pedal-like accompaniment to your bass melody. Alternately, leave the low E open, and change notes on the high E string (right hand is still playing with the index finger), for a brighter sound accompanied by the droning low E played with the thumb.
Perhaps the most renowned of flamenco guitar techniques is the rasgueo (aka “rasgueado”). This technique is unique to flamenco, and doesn’t find a truly comparable counterpart in classical guitar technique.
If you’ve played some rasgueo in a classical piece, it was likely borrowed from flamenco in some fashion. The first one you should try is just stroking up and down through all strings with the index finger, while making a chord with the left hand: up i, down i.
If you’re using fingers and no thumb, the only finger that makes an up stroke is the index. All others (middle, ring and pinky; m, a, x) only make down strokes. Try these basic right hand sequences to get yourself started:
-down x, down a, down m, down i, up i. -up i, down m, down i.
Repeat these patterns to increase your sense of relaxed control, changing chords as you’re comfortable.
These exercises really do take some time to develop so that they sound authentic and feel natural, so don’t give up. Spending a little time (5-20 minutes) every day is better than sitting for an hour or more at a time once a week or less.
Of course, lessons do help! If you can find a guitar teacher in your area, or one that is available through skype, do so to help you get on the right track. In general, try alternating between loud and soft dynamics. This way, you give your muscles a bit of a break, as well as build relaxed control, which is both sustainable and eventually will sound better than playing with too much tension.
The payoff is immense when you can play this music, even a little bit! And getting the basics down opens up the potential to play with others, which magnifies your enjoyment and propels you even further on your musical journey. Good luck and happy strumming.
David W. is a guitar teacher in Berkeley, CA. An instructor for more than fifteen years, David can also help students focus on classical, flamenco, or bass guitar. Learn more about David here!
Photo by waferboard