I’ve twice been in guitar stores in recent weeks where a staff member working in the guitar department asked me to explain the difference between a classical and flamenco guitar. Shouldn’t I be the one asking them this question? I guess that because I am so much older than these guitar store employees they must think I’ve got the wisdom of experience to answer their question. I explain that although I’ve played guitar for over 50 years, I’m not a classical guitarist and have never owned a classical or flamenco guitar. Then I explain the difference between the a classical and flamenco guitar to them. After all, I do know stuff.
Whenever you hear someone ask a question it’s a good bet there are a bunch more people who also want to know the answer but never asked. So this one’s for you.
Antonio de Torres is often considered the father of modern classical guitar design. The distinction between flamenco, classical and popular styles of guitar music and guitar making had not yet been established during the mid 19th century when Torres worked. Torres built his guitars to the specifications of the customer, but also to the budget of the customer. Many of the design features distinguishing a classical guitar from a flamenco guitar that we recognize now, had not been formalized.
That was then. Now we recognize a number of distinctions between classical and flamenco guitars.
- Neck Angle: The neck angle of a flamenco guitar is typically less (shallower or flatter compared to the top) than for a classical guitar.
- Wood choices for top, back, sides and neck: Cypress is one of the more popular choices for flamenco bodies. Spruce tops are almost always used, not cedar, on a flamenco guitar. Cypress is occasionally used for the tops and necks as well.
- String height (action): Classical guitar string height at the 12th fret is about 3.0 mm for 1st string and 4.0 mm for 6th string. flamenco guitar string height is about 2.5 to 2.7 mm at the 1st string and about 3.0 to 3.2 mm at the 6th string. In other words, the action is lower on a flamenco guitar than it is on a classical guitar.
- Flamenco guitars have tap plates (golpeadors). This protects the soundboard from the tapping (golpe) that is part of the flamenco style of music.
- Wood thickness and bracing: Flamenco guitars are overall thinner and more lightly constructed than a classical guitar and thus weigh less.
- Body depth: The classical guitar body is generally deeper than a flamenco guitar.
- Tuning pegs: Vintage flamenco guitars had wooden tuning pegs. Some modern flamenco guitars keep this feature but most new flamenco instruments – and certainly all of the lower priced, mass produced varieties of flamenco guitars – use modern guitar tuners the same as used on classical guitars.
These design features in flamenco guitars produce a more percussive sounding guitar than a classical guitar. The notes on a flamenco guitar have stronger attack and a more rapid decay. This allows rapid, percussive playing of notes that remain distinct in sound.
By contrast, a classical guitar has greater sustain and perhaps more complexity.
A typical flamenco guitar is called a flamenco blanca (white) for the light colored cypress body. But a popular variation is the flamenco negra which has a rosewood body. This gives a darker sound with greater sustain more like a classical guitar but still allowing for rapid playing in the flamenco style.
Flamenco guitars are obviously the guitars of choice for accompanying flamenco music. Although those of us not into this style of music often perceive the dance as being the most important part of flamenco guitar playing, those who play the music say the most important aspect of flamenco is the the song or cante. The guitar is improvised accompaniment to the song.
Flamenco guitars are probably not a good instrument for traditional classical music pieces. However, flamenco guitars have been used by jazz and pop guitarists and can certainly be used for more than just flamenco music.