If you live anywhere but Spain, you might think of the flamenco guitar as a solo instrument.
Popular recordings from artists such Paco de Lucía, Vicente Amigo, Gerardo Nuñez or, in an earlier generation, Sabicas or Carlos Montoya, or from flamenco-inspired artists such as Strunz and Farah or Ottmar Liebert feature the guitar either as a solo instrument or as a lead instrument floating on top of rhythmic instruments. However the primary role of the guitar in flamenco is as an accompanist, The guitarist's first job is to follow and support the singer and/or dancer. A good flamenco guitarist is more like a faithful workhorse than a show pony.
To perform this role well, a flamenco guitarist should be comfortable in four areas:
Falsetas: Short guitar solos, generally composed rather than improvised. A guitarist will often play a falseta at the beginning of a piece to set the key, tempo and mood of a piece. Some guitarists stick with the same collection of traditional falsetas for years. Others continuously collect and create new falsetas. A good flamenco guitarist is adept at selecting the right falseta for the right moment.
Cante accompaniment: Cante accompaniment is at once the most basic and most challenging task for a flamenco guitarist. Flamenco singers sing a collection of traditional and original flamenco letras. The guitarist must know the underlying harmony associated with each of these letras. As the singer extends or changes these basic letras, the guitarist must be able to accompany those changes in a way which supports the singer. Great accompanists have a knack for supporting the singer while offering a contrasting voice which lends depth to the performance.
Baile accompaniment: In some palos, such as the Soleá or the Alegrías, the guitarist is called upon to play fixed melodic/harmonic patterns, escobillas, which give the dancer a solid basis for solo footwork. In other palos such as bulerías, the guitarist works in close interplay with the dancer, sharing and contrasting rhythms.
Compás/Ritmo: At times, the guitarist's role is simply to keep the rhythm going as the singer or dancer prepares for their next letra or solo. Playing one or two chords with decoration and rhythmic interest, the guitarist keeps the music flowing.
You'll find each of these four aspects of flamenco guitar playing represented in each palo presented in the Flamenco Básico series. Here, we've included a little additional background information to help you master each of them.
As always, we urge you to compare what you learn through the Flamenco Básico series to what you hear in the recordings listed on the Recommended Listening page. On this page, we introduce you to the most basic materials of flamenco guitar playing, flamenco chords and scales.
Basic Flamenco Chords
Flamenco Guitar Keys
Much of flamenco music is played in one of two keys por medio and por arriba. These keys get their names from the positions of the two primary chords on the neck of the guitar.
Por medio is the key of A. The A chord lies in the middle (medio) of the fretboard.
Por arriba is the key of E. The E chord lies higher (arriba) on the fretboard.
The basic chords of each key form the Cadencia Andaluz , the Andalusian Cadence (iv- III - II - I):
In A (por medio) these chords are: Dm - C - Bb - A
In E (por arriba) these chords are: Am - G - F - E
Like great cooks, flamenco guitarists use creativity to produce a fantastic array of music from these essential ingredients by changing them slightly to fit their needs.
Por Arriba Chords
The Flamenco E chord
What could be more flamenco for a new flamenco player to play than a big, fat E chord?
Nothing, that's what.
The Flamenco F chord
Now here's where it gets interesting. As you'll soon learn if you follow the life we've planned out for you, flamenco delights in ambiguity.
As you see in the two 'open-string' versions of the F chord, the chord includes notes from the E chord. It's very common in flamenco to have chord voicings which straddle two different harmonies, allowing the guitarist to pivot in either direction.
These ambiguous voicings give flamenco guitar it's character. They are particularly useful in accompanying singers where the melodic line may be ambiguous as well.
The Flamenco G chord
If you already play guitar, you'll notice that the glamenco G chord tends not to include the high G in the 1st string you'd normally expect to see.
Both g and g# can be used melodically in flamenco and this voicing avoids a direct clash between those pitches.
The Flamenco Am chord
Here's another example of harmonic ambiguity in flamenco. The first version of the Am shown is the standard voicing which is clearly an A minor chord.
The second voicing shows the same chord with an 'F' added on the 4th string. Whether the ear perceives this chord as an Am with added F or as a Fmaj7 chord depends on the context of the surrounding chords and harmony.
The same kind of functional ambiguity can be found in the Dm chord in por medio key.
Por Medio Chords
The Flamenco A chord
A couple of features distinguish the "A" chord used in flamenco from the one you're probably used to playing.
First, you'll notice that the 1st finger holds down both the 4th and the 3rd strings. This can be a little uncomfortable at first since the finger has to "break" at the first joint to allow the 1st string to ring. Once you're used to it, however, you'll find that it is a very strong chord position which allows you to move the 3rd and 4th fingers to add other notes quite easily without changing the basic position.
Also, notice that I've add the b-flat on the third string in parentheses. This is because this note is so often added to the chord for rhythmic purposes that it could be thought of as part of the basic chord, in the same way blues and rock guitarists so often accent rhythm with the note on the 4th fret of the 5th string.
To get an idea of how this works, play the basic bulerías compás, using down strokes on beats 12, 3 , 6, 8, and 10 and adding the b-flat for the other beats, like this . . .
and you'll start to hear how useful this note is in creating rhythm with one chord.
The Flamenco Bb chord
The Bb chord in flamenco is a chameleon that can change into a dozen different harmonies while retaining its essential harmonic function.
All the bass notes shown in parentheses can be added to the essential two-fingered chord formed on the 2nd and 3rd strings to add rhythmic or harmonic interest to the chord.
They can also create a secondary, passing harmony. For example, add the C (3rd fret/5thstring) and the E (2nd fret/4th string) and you get a C9 chord. Add the G (3rd fret/6th string) and you get a G minor. These secondary harmonies enrich the harmonic language, particularly when accompanying a singer.
You can hear a great example of this in Paco de Lucia's accompaniment of Camarón on Cada Vez Que Nos Miramos" on their 1970 recording, listed on the Recommended Listening page.
This basic Bb structure is the one used in the 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th falsetes in the Tangos on Flamenco Básico 1: Tientos and Tangos.
The Flamenco C chord
Like the Dm chord, the C chord doesn't get modified much in traditional flamenco guitar accompaniment. The most common variation you'll see is the addition of a G in the bass (3rd fret/6th string)
The Flamenco Dm chord
Since it's the first chord of the cadencia andaluz, the D minor chord in traditional flamenco doesn't get modified very much. It needs to clearly signal the movement from the the basic Bb-A pattern to the Dm-C-Bb-A pattern. You can hear this in the Tangos and Tientos featured on Flamenco Básico 1: Tientos and Tangos.
It's useful to compare the sound of a true cadencia andaluz (Dm - C- Bb - A)
to the sound of a Bb chord with a D - C- Bb bass line resolving to A.
Basic Flamenco Scales
Below, we've provided the fingerings for the por arriba (E) and the por medio (A) scales. The notes in red are the roots of each scale, E and A respectively. The first version of each scale is the standard phrygian scale. The second version of each raises the third degree of the scale to accommodate the major chord that is the foundation for each of the scales. In performance, you'll find youself alternating between each form, depending on the underlying harmony.
Por Arriba Scale
Por Medio Scale
The art of transcribing flamenco guitar music for yourself is so extraordinarily helpful for even the most beginning of beginner guitarists that we strongly recommended you start transcribing as soon as possible rather than learning from a book or studying transcriptions written out by others.
We've designed the CDs in the Flamenco Básico series so that, with a little effort and the hints and guidelines provided in the booklets, you learn how to transcribe the music on the recordings for yourself.
All you need to begin transcribing flamenco guitar is a basic understanding of the underlying form of the piece you're trying to learn, a basic knowledge of flamenco chords and scales as shown above, and lots and lots of patience.
Also, it helps to have great transcription software. We use Transcribe from Seventh String music. Available for both the Mac and the PC, It allows you to take a track from any CD, mp3, or digital recording and slow it down without changing the pitch. You can select any part of any piece of music, narrowing it down to one note at a time if you want to. Transcribe also shows you a graph displaying which pitches are found in any musical moment you select.
Seventh String also offers great advice on the art of transcription.