The difference between Classical and Flamenco Guitars

What is the difference between classical and flamenco guitars?

This was a simple enough question to answer before about 1970 because classical and flamenco guitars were very different as indeed was the music and the players of the two styles.

The classical guitar was the larger of the two. The back and sides were made from either Indian or Brazilian Rosewood and the face from either Spruce or Cedar.

This large bodied guitar gave a deep, rich, sonorous sound. It could perhaps be described as a thick, rounded sound. Although these guitars did have volume they also projected very well so that a classical guitarist playing in  a concert hall with very good acoustics such as the Wigmore Hall or the Queen Elizabeth Hall could be heard right at the back without any microphone or amplification system.

These guitars were made for playing beautiful, sensitive classical guitar music.

The flamenco guitar was entirely different. It was made from Cypress for the back and sides and usually Spruce for the face or rarely Cedar.

This smaller bodied instrument gave a strong, percussive, forceful sound which was much more incisive than the classical instrument.

Although there may well have been flamenco guitar soloists right from the beginning of flamenco music and certainly there were notable flamenco soloists in the 1930’s and 1940’s these virtuoso players began to flourish from about mid 1960’s and especially early 1970’s or at least that is when they started to be frequently seen and heard in the concert halls throughout the world.

Flamenco guitarists in the early days of this art form tended to accompany flamenco dance and singing more often than playing solo. The flamenco guitar was made specifically to produce a strong sound with a lot of presence that was necessary so as to be heard through the percussive flamenco footwork. It was important that the note should not sustain too much; it should arrive quickly but also stop quite quickly without a long drawn out, fade out of sound. The strings had to be heard separately otherwise the notes would all mix together when playing flamenco techniques such as rasgueo (also called rajeo or rasgueado) and the resultant sound would be mushy which of course was precisely the opposite to what was needed.

The way of thinking began to change in the 1960’s. Certain ideas started to become more acceptable than they may have been prior to that time.

The flamenco guitarist wanted to be heard as a soloist and the classical guitarist became increasingly open minded and wanted to play music that was not strictly from the classical repertoire or to consider playing the existing repertoire perhaps with  a new fresh approach.

By this I mean when playing a piece by a South American composer such as Antonio Lauro or Augustín Barrios Mangoré the classical performer took an interest in the indigenous musical traditions of the South American countries that may have inspired such composers.

The classical guitarist  may have selected a guitar that was perhaps a little brighter or with a more immediate response.

Flamenco guitarists has always been moved by the intense message contained in flamenco singing and wanted to convey that same intensity in their playing.

Traditional Cypress flamenco guitars would certainly do this but there began a period of experimentation in which luthiers made flamenco guitars from typically classical woods such as Rosewood for back and sides while keeping the dimensions or build details of the instrument or what we say in Spanish ‘plantilla’ either identical to the Cypress guitar or with some small but important subtle changes.

The result was a flamenco guitar which while maintaining flamenco characteristics would also be able to produce some sounds which were more similar to the richness of the classical instrument, although we should be precise here. The guitarists were not seeking a change from a flamenco to classical sound, rather  a flamenco guitar with  added tonal characteristics.

It was hoped that these new flamenco guitars would help the player to better express the more soulful moods of flamenco.

Flamenco guitarists started to refer the lighter coloured Cypress guitar as ‘rubia’ or blonde and the  darker Rosewood guitar as ‘negra’ or black. Given that flamenco performers were especially drawn to the darker emotional sounds the word ‘negra’ was seen as a very positive, complimentary term. More recently the word ‘blanca’ or white is used instead of ‘rubia’ and that may be because luthiers nowadays tend to finish the guitars in a lighter coloured polish which allows the light colour of the Cypress wood to show through in contrast to flamenco instruments some years ago which were somewhat more honey coloured or even had something of an orange hue which may have been achieved by adding saffron to the polish.

I have heard it said that in the beginning of guitar making in Spain the first known luthier Antonio de Torres said that he did not make  a specifically classical or flamenco guitar, rather he made the guitar and it was up to the guitarist to play it in a classical or flamenco style.

Nowadays luthiers are offering a range of characteristics that make it possible for the guitarists to have a greater choice to suit their individual preferences.