Classical vs. Flamenco Guitar Construction

Most books say that a flamenco guitar is made of cypress, has wooden pegs and a tap plate on the face. This is too simplistic.

Compared to modern classical guitars, modern flamenco guitars generally have: shallower bodies, no neck relief (and sometimes negative neck relief before string tension), a thinner top, little or no doming of the top, a neck with more inclination, thinner bracing (and/or less bracing), a lower saddle, lower frets, and lower string height at the bridge and 12th fret. These features contribute to a less sustaining, more percussive sound with some string "buzz", and an "easy" action.

Nearly all modern classical and flamenco guitars are derived directly from Antonio Torres' work a century ago in southern Spain (See Jose Romanillos' wonderful book, Antonio de Torres: GuitarMaker--His Life and Work, 1997). His guitars were distinguished from earlier guitars by a combination of features including: fan bracing (various types, including the "Bouche" bracing), 650mm scale length, refined not ostentatious ornamentation, domed soundboard, deeper and wider body, and modern proportions (e.g., 3 to 4 ratio of upper to lower bout).

In the last century, guitarmakers in Spain did not distinguish between classical and flamenco guitars. In crudest terms, there were simply cheap guitars and fine guitars. In my article, "Félix Manzanero and his Collección of Antique Guitars," (American Lutherie, no. 41, spring, 1995) there is a photo of a label of a 1880 guitar made by Jose Ramirez de Galarreta and his brother (Manuel) which documents the use of the phrases "Guitarras Sevillanas" and "Guitarras de Concierto". This label suggests that in the late 19th century the opposing concepts of Sevillanas and Concierto were used to convey a distinction between commonplace and expensive guitars.

In his article, "Cultural Origins of the Modern Guitar," (Soundboard, Fall 1997) Richard Bruné has argued that the modern flamenco guitar is closer to the 19th century guitar developed by Torres than modern 20th century classical guitars. In his very interesting and persuasive article he turns conventional thinking on its head and suggests that the flamenco guitar is not a specialized version of the classical guitar but vice versa, that the modern classical guitar is derived from an earlier flamenco-type instrument. Read this article it is very good.

Today, flamenco guitars are being made of cypress, rosewood ("black flamencos"), maple, sycamore or mukali. While classicals are traditionally made of rosewood, we find that both cypress and maple have been used for guitars intended for classical players made by great makers (e.g. Miguel Rodriguez of Cordoba and Antonio Torres). So, while flamenco guitars have generally been associated with light golden colored woods the real differences between modern flamencos and classicals are in design and construction.

Two additional remarks. In recent years, world class performers have embraced "flamencas negras", so-called "black flamencos" which are made of rosewood. Such guitars usually have more sustain than cypress guitars because the rosewood is stiffer and denser. The other point is that many players of jazz and popular music have discovered that flamenco guitars are very suited to their styles because of their fast action and percussive quality.

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