The history of the flamenco guitar

For many visitors to Spain (and especially Andalusia) a visit to a flamenco show is at the top of their bucket list of travel experiences. The passion and drama of this iconic style of music and dance is famed the world over: it’s no coincidence the emoji most often used today to represent enjoyment or excitement is the woman in the swirling red dress and heels, one arm raised, the other circled behind her.

Flamenco dancer at a tablao in Seville, capital of Andalusia

Yes, flamenco is an intoxicating art form, comprising as it does, song (cante), dance (baile) and guitar playing (toque). But although it’s difficult to imagine a contemporary flamenco show without the hauntingly percussive accompaniment of the flamenco guitar, the origins of this instrument actually date back no more than 170 years, to the middle of the 19th century: for hundreds of years before that, flamenco was primarily a vocal music, with the voice resembling a primitive cry, or chant.

The cante was conducted a palo seco – with just the accompaniment of hand clapping, the striking of knuckles on a table, or with the tapping of a wooden staff to keep the time. 

Spellbinding performance by cantaor El Zambo, a palo seco at Casa Patas in Madrid

Flamenco music itself has existed on the Iberian Peninsula for some six centuries, originating in the hot and dry southernmost region of Spain that is the gateway to Africa: Andalusia. Here four distinct cultural groups lived alongside one another for hundreds of years; these were the Moors, the Christians, the Gitanos (descendants of a diaspora of Roma people from northern India between the 9th and 14th centuries) and Sephardic Jews. The intermingling of these groups and centuries of socio-cultural evolution produced a musical fusion that was unique to the region. They called the fruit of this coexistence flamenco

Legendary flamenco great, Cameron de la Isla: Tu Cariño Es Mi Castigo
(Your Love Is My Punishment). He was the first cantaor to achieve rockstar status

For most of the history of flamenco, it existed as a separate subculture among the underprivileged in society and was an outlet of the poor and oppressed. It is possible that this was one of the reasons why the guitar was not present until much later: the instrument was beyond the means of the impoverished musicians of the time. 

The lyrics of many Flamenco songs reflected on the experiences of the outcast and made reference to themes of love, life and death, with expressions of anguish and protest against the oppression the Jews, Muslims and Gypsies during and after the reign of the Catholic Monarchs in the 15th century.

The Catholic Monarchs Fernando and Isabel: Relief with gilt and polychromy
by Alonso de Mena

For a long time, Flamenco was a family orientated activity for this reason: they sang secretly at parties, weddings and Christenings and passed the music down through family dynasties. It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that Flamenco became a performing art, with the rise of the café cantante (what we now call a Flamenco tablao) in Andalucia, and later Madrid. In these noisy establishments, people met up with their friends to enjoy a vino or two, whilst being entertained by a group of singers, dancers and guitar players. 

A café cantante at the end of the 19th century

This was the Golden Age of Flamenco and one of the most important developments of the time was the conception of a standard Flamenco guitar, by master luthier Antonio de Torres Jurado. This would differ from the classical guitar of the time in that it would have an increased volume to compete with the loud taconeos (percussive footwork) of the bailaores (dancers) and the powerful voices of the cantaores (singers). Torres managed this by enlarging the body of the instrument and using lighter woods (cypress, instead of rosewood) for the back and sides. 

Guitar by Antonio de Torres, 1884: ‘The Invincible’

By the beginning of the 20th century however, the popularity of the café cantante was in decline and in the years up until the Civil War (1936-1939), flamenco moved from informal public houses to theatres and bull rings, in what was known as Opera Flamenco.

After the Civil War (1936-1939) flamenco performances diminished considerably. The Catholic church denounced flamenco as immodest and informal performances were prohibited by the Franco dictatorship. But by the middle of the 1950s, the Franco regime was suffering tremendous economic difficulty. The best way to combat the crisis, it was agreed, was to turn the country into the ultimate tourist destination. A genius idea to attract more visitors to the country took hold: an advertising campaign to
sell Spain as the land of the exotic female flamenco dancer. This was a resounding success, and millions of visitors started to take
their annual holiday in the country. The money pouring in funded the economic boom in Spain the 1960s. 

A poster designed by the state tourist board in the 1950s, Spain

By the time the dictator died in 1975, Flamenco had become irrevocably entwined with Spanish identity and it was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by Unesco in 2010.

The flamenco guitar has come to play an increasingly important role over the years, to the extent that the instrument is an independent genre today, with even greater international renown than vocal Flamenco.

Consequently, every Spanish manufacturer of repute, such as Admira, Alhambra, Camps, Prudencio Saez, Raimundo and Ramirez, designs and makes a separate collection of flamenco guitars today, usually from different woods to their classical guitar models, as flamenco requires a more powerful sound.

The Camps Primera A Flamenco Guitar, (shown above) for example, has a spruce top which produces a dynamic sound and great projection. This is a flamenco Blanca (so called because it has a pale, natural aesthetic), with a cypress back and sides which produce a loud and piercing sonority. A flamenco Negra is made in exactly the same way as a Blanca, but darker woods are used for the body, such as Indian rosewood, or cocobolo, which offer greater sustain and projection. This type of flamenco guitars is more focused in flamenco concert players and soloists.

Prudencio Saez 24 Flamenco negra guitar has a solid rosewood back
and sides

Spanish virtuoso Paco de Lucia can largely be credited with awakening the world to the mysterious power of the strong and proud emblem of Andalusia that is the flamenco guitar. A payo (non-gypsy) from Algeciras, he revolutionized the instrument at the end of the twentieth century and aside from his own illustrious career, inspired a new generation of gifted artists, who have carried flamenco into the 21st century.

Spanish virtuoso flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia plays Alegrias