A Brief Lesson On The History Of Spanish Guitar
Spanish and flamenco guitar are on one hand very similar to their classical counterpart yet on the other hand they are also totally different, it all depends upon how closely you look.
The history of Spanish guitar is long and varied tracing back hundreds of years. In order for it to enjoy its current fame and popularity around the world we really have to thank the wonderful players and geniuses of the Spanish guitar who have popularized the instrument and modernized the music.
The recordings and renowned concert performances of such players as Paco Pena, Sabicas and Paco de Lucia ensured that the beautiful mystery of this music would continue to chant the world many decades after its conception.
The Early History Of Guitars In Spain
Looking closely at the topic of Spanish guitar history we must first realize that the flamenco guitar is just one of them, it is simply the most well known of all the Spanish guitar styles. Around the mid 1800s this legacy was born in a region of Spain called Andalucia. The first guitars were made by local Andalucian luthiers and were relatively cheap being made from popular woods such as Cyprus. Since these materials were being sourced at a local level it may be production of flamenco guitars cheaper to afford. Imported woods such as Rosewood or Maple were not being utilized. This fact based largely upon cost and savings would have a dramatic effect upon flamenco as a style of music and in fact heavily influence its sound. No one at the time probably realized this.
In a further effort to also reduce costs wooden pegs were used rather than the more expensive machine heads, some modern makers in a nod to this tradition continue to use them even though they may not necessary perform better than their modern equivalents. They do however help to make the guitar light and more balanced to hold. This again would have an effect on the sound of the music. First off the earliest pioneers or Spanish guitar playing the flamenco style were in fact poor traveling Spanish gypsies. Being poor they could only afford the cheapest of instruments however these guitars were in fact the first original flamenco guitars.
Due to the way the availability of certain kinds of woods have become rarer and harder to get these days the price of an authentically built flamenco guitar is now very expensive. Mediterranean Cypress is more difficult to find than Indian Rosewood for example.
How This History Shaped The Sound
It is clear from what we discussed off Spanish guitar history so far that the unique sound of flamenco in particular came about much by accident than purposeful design. The use of more easily available woods and construction materials resulted in a different kind of sounding guitar. They responded more quickly and the notes would decay faster. This allows flamenco guitarists to perform flurries of notes and still maintain clarity and avoid muddiness. In fact flamenco guitars are actually extremely percussive instruments and do not carry a lot of sustain, instead they are built for volume and attack.
The Importance Of Cyprus Woods
The dimensions of Spanish flamenco guitars are typically smaller than classical guitars. Due to the fact that they are typically constructed from Cyprus wood they also feel much lighter to hold. Another difference is that flamenco guitarists enjoy and look for an action where the strings are very close to the fret board. This allows the strings to lie closer to the sound board which aids in performing a signature flamenco guitar technique known as "golpes" or hits. The low action of the strings does produce some buzzing sounds however it is perfectly acceptable in Spanish guitar music and even considered desirable as it is more authentic.
We have already discovered that Cyprus is the most typical kind of wood used in the construction of authentic flamenco guitars. Mediterranean Cypress in particular is of a yellowish color and carries an extremely strong smell. The great thing about this kind of wood is that the smell is often so strong that it never fully disappears even on very old instruments. Maintaining your guitar tightly enclosed in a quality guitar case only helps to preserve this scent. Due to the nature of Cyprus wood it is possible for it to maintain its strength at very thin diameters helping to produce that classic biting flamenco tone of Spanish guitar.
The Modern Use Of Woods In Spanish Guitars
Around the beginning of the 20th century some makers of Spanish guitars started to incorporate maple and other works such as European Pear Wood into the construction of their guitars. They would use these woods for the construction of the backs and sides while maintaining the top Cyprus. this results in a guitar which sustains more but feels heavier and is more mellow in its nature than harshly percussive.
Historically Famous Spanish Guitar Makers and Luthiers
Buying a top-quality flamenco guitar from a well-established and famous brand maker is going to be expensive today and even require a long wait while they make it for you. While there are non-Spanish flamenco guitar makers who have justifiably earned respect from the quality of their instruments the best guitarists still traditionally come from makers within Spain especially in Madrid.
Antonio de Torres (1817 - 1892). Antonio de Torres made simple Spanish guitars primarily from Cyprus woods which were cheap to buy at the time. Consequently many of the earliest flamenco guitar players used his guitars. Another famous flamenco guitar manufacturer is José Ramirez (1858 - 1923) whose legacy still remains to this day having passed the brand and the knowledge of how to build these guitars down through the generations.
A study of Spanish guitar history shows us that popularity of the flamenco style, influence and sound is quite dominant even though it's really only just one part of the history of guitar music is Spain. The development of these guitars directly shaped the sound and techniques of the music in the most innocent way possible. It's a tribute to human nature and our ability to make the most of what we are given to work with.