Flamenco Guitars: Advice on Buying

Introduction
Playability
String Spacing
Strings Tight or Loose
Taking Measurements or Requesting These
Making Changes to the Instrument: Yes and No
What it Sounds Like
Volume
Projection
Balance
Responsiveness
Slow or Fast
Sweet or Aggressive
Appearance
Machine Heads or Pegs
Conclusion


Introduction

Before I move on to some ideas on buying flamenco guitars I will provide links to some of my other blogs which discuss two flamenco guitars that I absolutely recommend.

These are:

Gerundino Flamenco Guitars

Pablo Requena Flamenco Guitars

If you already are a flamenco guitarist you may already know quite a lot about flamenco guitars in general but if you are beginning to play flamenco guitar now you may also find it interesting to read:

The Difference between Classical and Flamenco Guitars

If you would like to hear some of my flamenco guitars you can click on the sound examples to hear one of my Gerundino guitars or click on my videos page to see videos on my Pablo Requena guitar.

From time to time guitarists approach me to ask for advice on buying a flamenco guitar.

Sometimes the simplest answer feels like it will be the best answer.

If you like it, buy it; if you do not like it do not buy it.

Up until now I have avoided trying to guide guitarists on guitar purchase because I have not wanted to influence their decision.

I have never wanted to suggest an idea, have the guitarist act upon that idea only to find months later that they are not really happy with the guitar that they have bought.

I still think that ideally guitarists should know what they are doing and be able to make their own decisions. If you have to ask about a guitar it might be that the guitar is not right for you.

As far as guitars are concerned I have tended to think along the lines: If you have to ask me if you should marry your girlfriend or boyfriend perhaps you should not.

Given that choosing a guitar is somewhat less serious than choosing a person to spend the rest of your life with and somewhat easier and less expensive to change if you should find it does not work out I have now decided to share my experience with other guitarists.

I do not aim to tell you what you should do but instead to help you to ask the questions that are important to you.
There are several factors that will have varying degrees of importance depending on how you play, what you are looking for and what you expect for the price you are considering paying.

Playability

Some people would consider that playability is a strange characteristic to consider first. One idea is that you should consider if the guitar is a good guitar and then worry about learning to handle it over the months.
I am not so sure. I think one of the most important things is that the guitar should fit your hands and suit your style of playing.
Ask yourself: is it too tight or too loose, too big or too small. Do you feel that you cannot get your fingers around the neck? As you place your arm around the top bout does it feel massive or so small that you cannot get a good grip on it?
What about the width of the finger board. This is not the same as the feel of the thickness and shape of the neck but rather a matter of how far the top E string is from the bottom E string, or put another way when you play a descending passage from treble to bass is it a very long way to get to the bass E string. If it is you need to ask yourself if you will be able to overcome this in the future. That is: do you need more time to play the guitar and improve and strengthen your playing or is it a matter of the guitar finger board not feeling right in your hand.
There is also the matter of how much effort is needed to push the strings down to the frets. Is it comfortable or does it require a great deal of effort?
Please do not make assumptions: it is possible that you have not had enough time to develop strength and control but it could simply be that the guitar does not suit you.

String Spacing

You would imagine that all flamenco guitars have the strings set at the same distance apart from each other but that is not the case. The distance from one string to another can vary with different luthiers. In addition we can feel that it varies even if there is no evidence of that when taking measurements. This is because our perception of one characteristic can be influenced by the way in which we are reacting to all of the characteristics within the instrument. Factors such as neck length, shape and thickness can affect how far apart or close together we feel the strings are placed.

Strings: Tight or Loose

Tight or loose will also be important to us in general but perhaps more so with regards to the plucking hand (right or left depending on which you are).
We need to feel that the string is with us. Our playing of the strings causes them to move but we need them to move back to our finger so fast that each string is ready for the next note. That is to say that when we pluck a string there is a certain amount of movement. Do the strings feel floppy so that you feel that you have to make an extra effort to find the string? This is not good.
The other extreme is that the strings have no give; it becomes a battle between your fingers (which may be a contributory factor to excessive finger nail wearing) and the over tight strings.
We do need the strings to feel comfortable for us but we must be very careful here.
We need to ask ourselves what we are going to play on the guitar. The problem sometimes can be that when we go to a shop or to visit a luthier we may feel a little awkward or embarrassed. We do not want to play the guitar too much or too hard so we end up not playing the guitar as we would normally do for fear of causing scratches to the instrument and thus inconveniencing the seller.
The consequence of this is that we may not play the guitar enough to really get an idea of how it feels. We may have the impression that the strings are a little tight when in fact they are not particularly tight; we just need to become a little more familiar with that particular guitar.

Taking Measurements or Requesting These

Some guitarists feel that knowing a guitar’s dimensions and even the system used to build that guitar (plans/plantillas) will help them to seek out the guitar that is right for them. If that is your case then obviously this is the right way for you to approach a greater understanding of a flamenco guitar.
My experience is that two guitars even by the same luthier can appear to have identical dimensions and yet be completely different instruments in a whole range of characteristics.
Simply asking what the string length or scale is might not be as helpful as we hoped. We learn that string length can vary in measurements such as 650,655,660 mm and we imagine that there is a string length that works best for us. We think that one will be too long or the other will be too short and that will affect not only playability but also how the guitar sounds.
I really do not think it is that simple. A long scale may feel perfect depending on so many other guitar characteristics and of course each guitarist’s playing style.
So I would strongly recommend keeping an open mind.

Making Changes to the Instrument: Yes and No

Will asking the luthier to alter the height of the string help? Will lowering the string make things easier? Perhaps yes but it might lead to another set of problems.
Yes of course string height can be changed. In fact some luthiers sell their guitars with two different guitar bridge bones (the white strip of bone that is fitted in the bridge and that the strings lay over before they enter the holes for tying).
Some guitarists like to change their bridge bone, lowering or heightening (closer to or further away from the guitar face and frets) the strings as climatic conditions change over the year or sometimes as they travel from one climate to another. Sometimes string height is adjusted together with a change of string type, not just of brand but also varying string characteristics available within the same brand.
So yes there is fine tuning that we can do but and this is the big but: if you are thinking of doing some of these things because you are not happy with the guitar my experience is that those changes will not make enough difference (or perhaps the right kind of difference) for you to be happy with the guitar.
Trying to make adjustments to change the whole essence of the guitar that you are considering buying is probably not a good idea.

What it sounds like

Wouldn’t it be great if we could always find flamenco guitars that are absolutely perfect, that had all the flamenco characteristics that we like and in great abundance.
Sometimes that happens or it very nearly does and that is a very happy day. Sometimes we get everything we hope for in one guitar and that guitar is the only guitar we will ever need. Other times we get very close to that situation but sometimes perhaps due to our available budget we may choose to consider a guitar that has many but not all the characteristics that we desire.
This might be for example when we are looking for a second guitar to use in work environments where we would prefer not to use our best concert instrument.
We do not want to make compromises but it can help us to think through what we are looking for in sound, how important and necessary each element is to us and what we are prepared to have less of in exchange for having more of other elements.

Volume

I have often read that volume is not so important. After all nowadays there are very good microphones. Yes this is true but only up to a point.
We do need to be able to hear the guitar and it must have power. This is easy to understand when accompanying flamenco dancers. Even with an amplifier the guitar must have presence; it must feel like a strong, powerful loud guitar. The amplification of a powerful guitar is not the same as the amplification of a weak guitar.
But when playing solo and quietly volume is also very important. When we play a harmonic softly we need the guitar to have lots of reserves of strength so that the gentle sound of the harmonic should be heard cleanly without us having to over play the string.
This is true of any delicate playing. We need to be able to produce delicate sounds in flamenco so we need a guitar that can do that. But even when playing at a normal volume we need a guitar that will produce the sound without us having to pluck too hard.
There reaches a point where over plucking will give extra sounds that we do not want such as too much hitting on the fret or so to speak a kind of plastic sound when playing free stroke or tirando/horquilla.

Projection

Projection is not the same as volume.
We can ask ourselves: where is the sound? Is the sound close to us or is it at the back of the room or everywhere?
Naturally this will be affected by room acoustics but the right guitar can help.
I have heard classical guitarists produce perfect notes that reach right to the back of large auditoriums without the use of any amplification.
Yes of course the acoustics help us as do our expectations: that is to say the way the classical guitarist delivers their performance can ready our ears to receive minute details. We are attentive to receiving the sounds.
Flamenco guitarists should also have these expectations if that is what they seek.
So in addition to our efforts in playing the guitar must be capable of projecting outwards to our audience.

Balance

What is the point of having massive bass if the treble is weak and the mid range is not defined?

We want the guitar to sound good for every note.

I have watched flamenco guitarists making what I consider to be a big mistake when trying out flamenco guitars.
They produce their best alzapúa in the bass or rasgueado or thumb technique often together with golpe. They get a real boom, the guitar feels like a canon and they are happy. But there is a great deal more to a flamenco guitar than how big we can make the bass sound.
Guitarists can be keen to talk about the pitch at which the guitar face is made. A low pitch is said to be good, it produces a low sound which apparently we want for flamenco. Well yes we do but it is not that simple. If the sound is low and hollow as if it comes from a deep cave it may not help us to produce our music. So I would not be too obsessive about the low bass.
When I look at a guitar I like to play several pieces which use the whole range and see how the guitar works for me overall because that is exactly what I will be doing when I have the guitar.
So I think we need to avoid over emphasis on only one or a few isolated characteristics.

Responsiveness

How hard do we want to work to make the guitar work?

The easy answer is that we do not want to work at all. The guitar must jump to life at the slightest touch. To a certain extent that is true but we do have to be careful here. We also want to be in control of our playing. We want the guitar to work with us, not independently of us. So yes we do want the guitar to respond to our touch, we never want to have to labour over the instrument but we do want to be able to vary what is happening. Or put another way as we vary our touch we want that precision to be apparent in the resulting music.

Slow or fast

This is perhaps similar but not identical to responsiveness. A note arrives, it lives for a while and then it dies off. How soon do we want the note to arrive, how long do we want the note to last and how quickly should it come to an end? This can be something of a nightmare as we want the best of both worlds.
Very often when playing flamenco we need an immediate arrival of the note which should last for a very short time and stop quickly without a gradual slow decrease.
But that is not always the case.
Sometimes we want to feel the note as it arrives, feel it grow and hold it for a very long time allowing its emotion to linger.
You would think it must surely be impossible to get all of this in the one same guitar but I am often surprised at how well luthiers do manage to achieve that perfect state.
If a guitar does not produce all of these characteristics in equal measure that is not a fault in the guitar at all. It is the character of that particular guitar and for many guitarists a very welcome characteristic.
It is perfectly natural to specifically seek out flamenco guitars that have a greater prominence of some of these characteristics over others.
So it should never be a matter of thinking in terms of good or bad, desirable or undesirable. It is more useful to think in terms of what is appropriate for what we need.

Sweet or Aggressive

My own opinion is that too much of either may limit my musical expression. I do need aggressive flamenco guitars that have a bright, cutting sound either for accompanying dancers or for playing solo. But I also need elements of sweetness so that I can properly express the pathos and tenderness that is so essential to so much of flamenco and that is important both when playing solo and when accompanying flamenco singing.
Some guitarists prefer a sound that could be described as dry and this can be very attractive for certain situations but in my case I prefer a guitar that is bright and that sings out.

Appearance

Recently I was at the workshop of a very eminent flamenco and classical guitar luthier and he explained to me that almost every single thing on the guitar has a purpose. Nothing on the guitar is merely for decoration or at least in the case of great luthier made guitars that is not its first or main function.
The rosette around the sound hole not only decorates the guitar but most importantly provides reinforcement to an area where an opening (the sound hole itself) exists. Therefore a real rosette that is set into the wood of the face provides reinforcement in addition to decoration whereas a sticker can only exist as a decoration.
As far as I know the reason for joining the back and sides with strips of a different usually darker wood is to make it easier to take the guitar apart for repair. Traditionally and still nowadays animal glue has been used which can be heated up and thus softens. This then makes it easier to separate the back from the sides and then work inside the guitar.

Straight neck

Sometimes guitarists look to see how straight a neck is. A bowed or bent neck is never good but luthiers do work on the finger board so that it is not universally the same thickness at all points. This is sometimes called producing relief in the fingerboard. This is to provide more freedom of movement to a string at certain points to thus avoid or at least minimise unwanted buzzing which we must remember is an entirely different matter to highly desired flamenco percussivness.

Machine Heads or Pegs

Flamenco guitarists often like wooden pegs in preference to metal machine heads. This preference is sometimes so important to flamenco guitarists that now wooden pegs have been produced which contain an inner hidden mechanism which allows them to work in a similar fashion to machine heads while still maintaining the appearance of the traditional flamenco peg.
There is also the idea that as pegs weigh less than machine heads the flamenco guitar head with pegs will be correspondingly lighter than the machine head counterpart and this is better especially when holding the guitar in the traditional flamenco position. This is the position that you can see me use in my photos and videos.
I have not studied the matter of different weight very closely but I have thought that given that far more wood has to be removed to fit machine heads than the six holes for the wooden pegs this should go part way to compensate for the higher machine head weight.
I much prefer machine heads as they make it much easier for me to make very fine tuning adjustments while in performance. I find that pegs can need two hands or at least more attention and time in the turning. I would prefer not to have to do this in performance whether in one of my solo recitals or when accompanying a flamenco dancer or singer.
The machine head allows me to make very quick and accurate adjustments to tuning without interrupting the flow of the music.

Conclusion

When all this is said and done it still comes down to a simple matter of if you like the guitar then consider buying it but if you do not like it I would think it over because in my experience guitars that we do not like the first day do not grow on us.

There are many guitars to choose from but as I know that people like recommendations I can say that I have guitars that I find to be extraordinarily good in all aspects and these are made by Gerundino who passed away and now it is so difficult to find his guitars or by Pablo Requena who is a present day maker. Everyone who has played or listened to me play my Requena wants it or wishes they had got one the same.

I have no business percentages with Requena but I can say that for me his flamenco guitars have every thing you ever dreamed of in a flamenco guitar and in massive amounts.

Perhaps you might enjoy reading my article on my Gerundino Flamenco Guitars and I have details on one Gerundino Flamenco Guitar for Sale

I have also written a review of my Flamenco Guitar by Pablo Requena