Both the sweet, mellow sound of a classical guitar and the growling rasp of a flamenco guitar have lured many a musician into the world of nylon-stringed instruments. Nylon-string guitars have been played by the likes of Paul McCartney of the Beatles and the world-renowned classical virtuoso Andrés Segovia. Choosing between a flamenco guitar and a classical guitar can seem a daunting task for the beginner. There are many technical differences between the two types of guitar. The first real question a buyer must ask is: What kind of sound do I want to produce? Having answered that, you can then turn your attention to finding the best-suited instrument for your fingers. Like a great bottle of wine, nylon-string guitars have many long-tested and developed shades of tonality. Flamenco and classical guitars range in price from around $200 to well over $30,000 for an entirely hand-built, master-grade instrument. There are various well-known brands, including Martin, Fender, Yamaha, Cordoba, Takamine, Ibanez, and Ramirez. Knowing the basic differences between flamenco and classical guitars should help you choose an instrument that falls into your budget and playing style.
Features of Flamenco Guitars
Flamenco guitars, while similar in looks to standard classical guitars, are built for a specific style of music. The percussive tapping on the instrument requires a snappy, bright top such as spruce, as well as the addition of “golpeadores” (clear, sometimes colored tap plates) to protect the top from the player’s fingernails. In order to achieve that raspy, growling sound, the back and sides are often made of cypress, a light and resonant wood. Flamenco guitars also have a very low “action”, or string height, in order to facilitate the playing of fast, multi-note “picados,” or runs up and down the neck of the guitar. Chords often have a fuzzy, yet crisp quality to their sound. A little bit of buzzing at the frets is also the norm, due to the lower string height. The bridge of a good flamenco guitar is also considerably lower and flatter in profile. This makes right hand techniques such as “rasgueado” (quite literally, a raking of the strings ) or the rhumba strum much easier to produce. Flamenco guitars are generally lightweight, open sounding instruments designed to produce deep basses and bright trebles. By comparison to standard classical guitars, flamenco guitars also have much thinner necks. In general, these characteristics make Flamenco guitars easier for playing this enjoyable, passionate and exciting type of music. The fretboards run a standard 52mm wide at the nut. If you’re transitioning from an electric or steel string guitar it may take some time to get used to the difference. A simple rosette usually adorns the top of most flamenco guitars. Many guitarists will also have a “cejilla” (Spanish for capo) on hand to facilitate playing in different keys for accompaniment with singers.
Features of A Classical Guitar
Standard classical guitars will generally have cedar or spruce tops. These tops are devoid of any pick guard or tap plates because those can impede the instrument’s sound. The back and sides of a flamenco guitar come in a variety of woods from Brazilian rosewood to cocobolo. It is also not uncommon to see woods such as walnut, maple or mahogany used for the back and sides. The majority of classical guitars have Indian rosewood backs and sides, in part because of its density, durability and availability. Indian rosewood typically produces a deep, loud, resonant sound box. Necks on classical guitars are usually hewn from cedar or mahogany, and run slightly thicker than those on a flamenco guitar Furthermore, the action is much higher at the nut and saddle, in order to produce clear, bell-like tones. Glossy lacquers or French polish (a type of finish) usually adorn the classical guitar. Most luthiers, including the major manufacturers, will add their own signature rosette to the top of the guitar. Though chords are strummed at times, classical guitars are designed more for the individual note. Therefore you will find the sustain to be much greater than that of a flamenco guitar, the notes of which, die off fairly quickly once they are played. All of these characteristics put together, produce a guitar with deep resonant basses and bell like trebles that ring out loud. Listen for powerful, sustained single notes. Classical guitars are also marked by much more subtle overtones, and a sweeter, darker, more mellow timber. Again, adjusting to the wider fret board may make transitioning from other guitars a bit difficult, but well worth the effort in terms of tone and musicality.
Which Should You Choose
That much being said, it’s always best to do a little research before delving into the world of Flamenco and Classical guitars. You should try to play as many guitars as possible. The guitar you never expected to sound so great, often ends up being the one you pick. Keep in mind that many Flamenco musicians play modified classical guitars, and plenty of classical musicians play flamenco guitars.There are also a good number of crossover instruments available to purchase. A crossover classical guitar is a guitar that plays equally well in both types of music. Jazz musicians often amplify classical and flamenco guitars because this allows them to play with greater articulation. What’s more, nylon strings are just easier on the fingers, whatever your level of skill. If it feels good in your hands and on your fingers, then it’s probably the right guitar, even if it only cost you $60 at some garage sale thirty years ago.
This article is part of our Sam Ash Customer Columns Series and was written by fellow musician Greg Nelson. Greg is a self-described flamenco and classical guitar aficionado. You can reach him at [email protected]