Choosing a flamenco guitar is not an easy task... First, it depends on your playing style, the way you express the music and your personal preferences. So the answer to the question ¿does a perfect flamenco guitar exist? is simple: IT DOESN'T EXIST.
It simply doesn't exist a perfect guitar for everybody and for every single style... but there are some features that may help you to find the guitar you are looking for. If you are unsure about the guitar you are after, this article may help you.
Aside from the guitarist, the flamenco guitar has its own sound that makes it different from the rest. So, which ones are these unique features of the flamenco guitar?
Quick attack: In a fine flamenco guitar, sound attacks quickly. After you play a note, the top vibrates rapidly and reaches the volume peak in a few mili seconds.
Short decay, short sustain.: The volume of each played note tends to decay quickly and it also falls in a short time. This concept of decay and sustain is what everybody knows as "dry guitar", and the shorter the duration of the note, the quicker it falls, the dryer the guitar is called. This parameters may vary a lot in between guitars, there is not a unique measurement and it depends on each musician's preferences. The thumb rule in traditional flamenco is the guitar to be dry, but nowadays the tendency in concerts is to play guitars with more sustain and more harmonic content, (altought this is a separate topic).
Frecuency balance: The flamenco guitar produces less energy in the bass frequency range and also reinfonces the middle-high range. It is said that the flamenco guitar sounds with higher trebles than the classical. This is a common mistake among guitar players. First, the concept of "more or less treble" has nothing to do with that, but with the pitch of the notes, so every note played on a flamenco guitar has the same "pitch" as the equivalent note on the classical, on the piano or on the trumpet. The origin of this error is in the perception of the whole instrument sound, because it is true that the flamenco guitar produces less "energy" on the basses so this makes the instrument to appear to be more brilliant, with more clarity in the sound, and that would be the right word. A fine classical guitar generates more power per string in general... so, why classical guitars doesn't sound right when playing flamenco?
Before explaining why flamencas have this features, let's watch a video of a flamenco guitar playing on Seguiriya style, one of the most traditional ones.
After listening to a flamenco guitar, let me try to explay you why the previously discussed features work so well with the flamenco playing style:
Why a quick attack?: Flamenco is a very racial music, very passionate and expressive. Percussion is part of this music, even on a harmonic/melodic instrument like guitar, the rythm and percussion is a fundamental part. Many flamenco styles are quick tempo, so the musician needs an instrument that produces notes faster. For the reason, on flamenco playing, quick attack guitars are the queens.
Why a short decay and sustain?: For the same reason, the flamenco musician needs the instrument to be ready for the next note. The previous note must fall off quickly and let pass the next one without making a mess on the sound. Especially on quick and rythmic styles, this a key factor. For this reason the classical guitar with long sustain tends to sound less defined when played using flamenco style.
Why balanced frequencies?: Just because of the very flamenco techniques and because it is an instrument that was born to acompany the singer and the dancer, a good frequency balance makes the flamenco guitar ideal. With techniques like rasgueado, golpes, alzapúa... very traditional in flamenco (and in general in "accompaniment instruments"), the clarity in the sound is a must. For this reason, the concert classical guitar, with a lot of energy per string and its long sustain, doesn't fit well with this techniques.
Below you can watch a few videos playing several flamenco styles and talking a bit about them and the features that makes the guitar to perform great on flamenco style.
Comfort, playability, is possibly the most repeated word when talking about the flamenco guitar, but actually this a concept for ALL instruments. Every musician wants a very comfortable instrument, so it is not exclusive of the flamenco guitar. Let's discuss this topic using some assertions in the flamenco guitar world.
Flamenco guitar must be soft: Error. The concept of "hardness" or "softness" is commonly mixed up with the concept of action. The action is the distance in between the fret crown and the bottom of the string. Obviously, the lower the action, the nearer the strings to the fretboard so they will be more easy to be pressed. But his action has a limit and it depends on the musician and the way he plays, more than of the instrument itself.
Flamenco guitar must have 2mm action: Error. There is no defined action that converts a guitar into a flamenco guitar. This measurement depends totally on the player preferences. So, why two guitars with the same action may feel so different? Here we have some other key factors like the scale lenght, strings tension and the instrument construction style, and here is where the role of the guitar maker takes place.
Flamenco guitar needs a lot of tension: Error. The tension you feel when playing depends on several factors, mainly the strings, the scale length and the top. The strain is the force that the strings exert from the bridge to headstock, that's all. For that reason, you can notice variation on the same guitar depending on which set of strings you are using, but again, this is a personal preference. It is true that a high tension tends to reduce the amplitude in the vibration of the string, helping to reduce the fretting noise and allowing the top to produce more volume (although you have to play harder).
Flamenco guitar must have long scale: Error. But it is true that the long scale helps in achieving a higher tension, and everything that comes with it. Anyway, it is not a mandatory feature. The only criteria you should follow when chosing the scale lenght for your guitar is the extension of your hand palm. Here is where the guitar makes has to compensate for scale lenght and adjust the tension accordingly, and this is not an easy task, otherwise, everybody would be a great maker.
Flamenco guitar strings must be close to the top: Error. Traditionaly it was said that the flamenco guitar must have the string very close to the top, up the point of holding a cigarette en between the top and strings right in front of the bridge. It is true that having the strings near to the top, because of physics reasons that cannot be covered in this article, helps achieving a more percussive sound, quick atack and quick decay: very flamenco features. This height is known as saddle height and corresponds to the bridge height plus the protuding bone. Nowadays there is not a correct or right measurement, and it totally depends on the player. But it is true that for the flamenco technique, we tend to use saddle heights in between 6 and 10mm.
Now that you know the most important features about the flamenco guitar sound and feeling, it is the moment to open the eyes and choose for the aesthetics. It makes no sense to discuss on this topic because there is no unique criteria about this. The only thing to mention is that traditionally the flamenco guitar has been built using Spanish Cypress, but we all know that there are great flamenco guitars built with rosewood and many other woods. Today, there are no limits.
The topic about finishing is a separate topic, and well worthing to write its own article... maybe next time!!
Thanks for reading, and I really hope this article was useful for you. Don't hesitate to contact me if you have questions by clicking here.