The Mystique and Fury of Spanish Flamenco Guitar

Color detail of hands playing of an old, acoustic guitar.

Key Points

  • Spanish flamenco guitars have a rich, magical history, dating back to the 1700s.

  • A Spanish flamenco guitar has several notable differences from a classical guitar.

  • This article provides some resources for getting started including tablature, flamenco guitar chords, and best vendors.

While time travel doesn’t exist (yet!), authentic flamenco performances are pretty close. If you’ve ever found yourself lucky enough to witness a flamenco show, you know the type of magical power they have. You are immediately transported to an enchanting, charismatic, and almost otherwordly place — all brought to life by a skilled musician’s playing of the Spanish flamenco guitar.

This mystical power wasn’t just created by accident, though. Flamenco music — as well as the Spanish flamenco guitar itself — has a rich, fascinating history involving everything from romance to Gypsies to music that is passed down through many generations.

Flamenco guitar rests against concrete wall near wooden log

A Brief History of Flamenco Music

Flamenco music is a fusion form of music, in the same genus as jazz. It was developed in the Andalusia region of Spain, which is the southernmost area of Spain. Andalusia was culturally diversified by its proximity to north Africa, as well as its involvement in the colonization of Latin America.

The fusion of traditional Andalusian folk songs with Afro-Latin musical sensibilities, Romany Gypsy subculture, and a bit of Italian opera birthed a new genre of music. With an equal emphasis on song (cante), dance (baile), and instrumentation (toque), flamenco music has always been performative — to be experienced both auditorially and visually.

As a dance-oriented type of folk music, flamenco incorporates rhythmic shoe tapping of dancers into the songs. Performers also use castanets to add to the percussive element of the genre.

18th Century

Though written descriptions of flamenco music began to be documented in the late 1700s, it was probably formed half a century earlier. Peter Manuel comments, “flamenco derived from an ancient and private tradition which the Gypsies brought with them when they migrated from India some six or more centuries ago.”

At the time, guitars were expensive and hard to come by, so flamenco music was not as guitar-centric. Guitars were also smaller with five double strings, creating a different sound than modern guitars.

Before the guitar became widely available, flamenco music was more vocal-oriented.

Man plays flamenco guitar with fedora on

19th Century

The evolution of the guitar created a new phase of flamenco in the mid-nineteenth century.

Its five double strings were replaced by six individual strings — as found on modern guitars — and the body and neck of the guitar were enlarged to produce a louder sound. With these improvements, flamenco music became much more guitar-centric.

A distinct style of flamenco guitar playing emerged, with a unique sophistication and technical virtuosity.

Around the same time, flamenco music became en vogue. It was performed mostly in singing cafes and at raucous parties attended by aristocrats. As flamenco music became commercialized, musicians had to adapt to the tastes of a widening, international audience; the popularization of any style of music makes it more universally appreciated, but often compromises the integrity of the style in some form.

20th Century

In the mid-twentieth century, Spain was under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

To foster a unifying national spirit and to attract international tourism, flamenco was advertised as the singular music of Spanish identity. There was a backlash from many flamenco performers, who protested the stifling censorship of the Franco regime and its appropriation of flamenco for autocratic purposes.

Since the 1980s, flamenco music has been infused with other styles of music — pop, Cuban, and American blues — and reached a larger international appreciation.

The flamenco guitar remains the musical cornerstone of the genre. Whereas it was initially used to accompany vocals in flamenco music, the greater emphasis historically shifted from vocals to guitar and resulted in more instrumental compositions.

The Difference Between Classical and Flamenco Guitars

Spanish luthier Antonio de Torres receives near-universal credit for designing both the modern classical guitar and flamenco guitar in the 1860s. Most examples of flamenco guitars from this period were constructed of cypress, as it was cheaper and more abundant.

The flamenco guitar is a modified type of classical guitar. Some are still made with cypress, though spruce has become the standard wood for the tops of both classical guitars and flamenco. Spruce is favored for its transparency and vibrancy.

The back and sides of flamenco guitars are created using rosewood or other hardwoods, as in flamenco negra guitars, which produce a louder volume and a somewhat darker tone than that of a classical guitar.

Flamenco guitars are lighter, with thinner tops than classical guitars. This causes the sound of a flamenco guitar to be brighter and more percussive than a classical guitar. Another key difference is flamenco guitars have slightly thinner necks than classical guitars, which allows for easier playability of the technical mechanisms so characteristic of flamenco music — faster tempo, quicker notes, rapid arpeggios, and trills.

The action of flamenco guitars is lower than classical guitars, meaning the strings are physically lower to the fretboard on a flamenco guitar. Classical guitars are set up to sound like rippling water, capable of producing near-zero string buzz at the expense of playability. Flamenco music embraces the string buzz for its atonal, percussive, component — a rhythmic utilization of the instrument not found in traditional classical music.

Silhouette of flamenco guitar player and dancer

Flamenco guitars respond more quickly when played than classical guitars, but the attenuation time of flamenco guitars is shorter than classical guitars. This is advantageous in flamenco music, as it is characterized by frequent chord changes and runs of notes played in quick succession. When played on a classical guitar, flamenco music tends to bleed together, due to the longer attenuation time of classical guitars.

Both classical guitars and flamenco guitars are strung with nylon strings. Both were strung with strings made of silk-wound sheep intestines before the application of nylon in 1948.

Guitarists playing flamenco music sometimes tap the top of the guitar in time with the music for rhythmic embellishment. Flamenco guitars were often made with plastic plates on both sides of the soundhole to protect the guitar from these percussive fingernail taps.

As the tapping technique golpe has somewhat fallen out of style, most modern flamenco guitars do not feature these protective plastic plates anymore. For the most part, the white plates have been done away with, but some guitars do still have clear plastic ones.

Flamenco guitar players usually pluck the strings closer to the bridge than classical guitar players. The resulting sound is harsher and more nasal than when strings are plucked at the soundhole.

Is Flamenco Guitar Hard To Learn?

The simple answer to this question: Yes and no.

Flamenco guitars are played fingerstyle, so any guitar player without much experience in fingerpicking will find it difficult to play flamenco music. Having little to no fingerpicking skills and diving straight into flamenco music is a lot like trying to drive a motorcycle before learning how to ride a bicycle.

Most traditional flamenco guitar players grow their fingernails on their strumming hand, which makes the strings sound more percussive when plucked and increases the volume. It is not necessary to have long fingernails to play flamenco, especially for beginners or guitarists who just want to dabble.

Flamenco music is sometimes written in standard 4/4 time signature, but just as often it is written in 3/4, 6/8, or 12/8 time signatures, with changes in time signature occurring within a single song. Learning to play in different time signatures takes some getting used to.

Improvisation is a major component of flamenco guitar playing. A proficient flamenco guitarist must be able to make up musical passages on the spot.

Flamenco guitar rests on sidewalk against brick wall

Flamenco guitar playing is often very technical and always extremely expressive, which makes it simultaneously physically exhausting and emotionally draining.

Playing flamenco rhythm guitar is not particularly difficult: it requires mainly adopting a different strumming pattern and becoming familiar with some chord structures and progressions not used in most popular western music. Competency in flamenco rhythm guitar can be developed with a couple of months of intensive practice.

Learning to play lead flamenco guitar is comparatively difficult and requires more physical dexterity and musical acumen. Flamenco music employs complex guitar phrasing — the ordering, duration and inflection of the notes played. Even with prior experience playing lead guitar fingerstyle, mastering flamenco guitar is a process that takes several years.

A flamenco performance can be helmed by a solo guitarist who alternates between playing rhythm and lead passages, but with the addition of a second guitarist dedicated to playing only the rhythm, while the other guitarist plays lead, the result is synergistic.

Flamenco Guitars For Sale

The term “Spanish guitar” is a bit of a misnomer that people indiscriminately use when referring to either classical or flamenco guitars. Spanish guitar encompasses the modern design of a six-string guitar, which was invented in Spain. Calling a flamenco guitar a Spanish guitar is the equivalent of saying French champagne.

Hands play a flamenco guitar

Flamenco guitars do not have to be made in Spain to be considered flamenco. Flamenco guitars are made by many different manufacturers all around the world. Some of the most notable include Alvarez, Cordoba Music Group, Ramirez, and Alhambra Guitarras.

Have a look at these in further detail:


Alvarez is a multinational guitar manufacturer that makes high-quality yet affordable acoustic, classical, and flamenco guitars.

At $489 MSRP, Alvarez’s CF6 Cadiz flamenco guitar is relatively new to the market after an extensive research and development excursion to Andalusia to study how the old master luthiers made their guitars. Sporting a solid Sitka spruce AA top, cypress back and sides, and a beautiful natural gloss finish, the Alvarez CF6 Cadiz punches above its price class.

Cordoba Music Group

California’s Cordoba Music Group is a reputable designer of both classical and flamenco guitars made in authentic tradition. The company’s namesake is even taken from a town in Andalusia, the birthplace of flamenco music.

The GK Studio model — MSRP $799 — is a top seller by third-party vendors. The acoustic/electric GK Studio flamenco guitar features a solid spruce top, cypress back and sides, and an onboard Fishman Presys Blend preamp.

Man plays flamenco guitar while looking out window


The Rolls-Royce of flamenco and classical guitar manufacturers is Ramirez. Since 1882, this company consistently makes the world’s most prized flamenco guitars.

Rameriz offers a select line of handcrafted flamenco guitars made in Madrid that begin at 4,000 euros and top out at around 9,000 euros. Their factory-built studio line flamenco guitar is relatively more affordable at 2,000 euros. Some of the most prominent flamenco guitars are indeed still made in Spain.

Alhambra Guitarras

Incorporated in 1956, Alhambra Guitarras, made in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alicante, Spain, is a respected manufacturer of mid-priced flamenco guitars.

Alhambra produces two lines of flamenco guitars: conservatory and student. The student line is the more stripped-down and affordable of the two and is appropriate for beginners. The conservatory line is for professionals and those who take flamenco seriously.

A flagship example of Alhambra craftspersonship is the 5 Fp Op Piñana. This flamenco guitar is a true flamenco negra guitar, with Indian rosewood used for the back and sides of the guitar and cedar used for the top. It is a great example of a modern interpretation of a classic flamenco guitar and is available in acoustic/electric format with an onboard preamp.

Flamenco Guitar Chords

The main mode used in flamenco music is the Phrygian scale, a kind of major/minor hybrid that heavily incorporates A minor, F major, G major, and E major and E minor interchangeably.

Multiple variations of these chord voicings are employed: dominant 7ths, added 9ths, and suspended 4ths, to name a few. These give the chords colorful embellishments and make them sound more exotic.

Guitar Tablature for Popular Flamenco Songs

Flamenco guitar is typically learned and passed down from person to person. Because of this, historically, little of it has been transcribed.

For a general overview of the different styles of flamenco guitar pieces, consult Ravenna Flamenco, a website that uses videos, downloadable guitar tabs, and helpful explanations for each section of a piece.

Flamenco, Not Flamingo

Flamenco is a lyrical, pulsating style of Spanish music in which its history and myriad cultures are commingled.

The transmission of emotions like fear, joy, passion, and anger is intimate, immediate, and perceptible to even the spectator who does not speak the language. It is similar to opera but more participatory and exciting.

For music aficionados and tourists in search of authentic culture, no trip to Spain is complete without experiencing a flamenco performance. You can find some of the best in metropolitan cities like Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia, but to get closer to the source try Seville or Granada, both are located in the region where flamenco music originated.

Just don’t ask your concierge to recommend a “flamingo” show!

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