A flamenco guitar is not just any guitar equipped with tap plates. Nor is it simply a matter of tonewood choice (i.e. rosewood vs. cypress).
Historically, guitars were not differentiated along “classical” or “flamenco” lines. The choice of woods was dictated predominantly by the musician’s budget. In 19th and early 20th centuries Spain, cheaper, locally sourced cypress was used for the less expensive guitars. The more expensive imported rosewoods and maple were reserved for those who could afford the steeper price. Although cypress remains the traditional choice for flamenco guitars, it is by no means a “budget” tonewood. Ironically, current market price for a good set of Mediterranean cypress is significantly higher than, for example, East Indian rosewood.
Today, flamenco guitarists enjoy guitars made from a variety of tonewoods. The list includes Mediterranean cypress, Monterey cypress, Alaskan yellow cedar, European and American species of maples, Brazilian rosewood, East Indian Rosewood, Cocobolo, Ziricote, Madagascar rosewood, African blackwood, and many others. Whatever the choice of tonewood, certain parameters must be “just right”:
Low, comfortable action To accomplish this goal, the luthier must pay careful attention to the guitar’s neck set angle. Additionally, bridge and fingerboard proportions and geometry must be carefully aligned with the guitars neck set, as well as soundboard doming. Fret work must be done precisely. While typical classical guitar action (spacing between the top of 12th fret and the bottom of the strings above the 12th fret) is around 3mm or more, flamenco guitar action is usually brought down to about 2.2mm or less. The difference in feel and responsiveness is significant.
Fast response Achieving this goal requires planning at the design and construction stages. Appropriate distribution of mass, soundboard bracing and bridge design considerations all contribute to the final outcome. I feel that a flamenco guitar needs to be very sensitive and have a percussive quality. Its response time to string input has to be very immediate, accommodating the fast-paced, percussive nature of flamenco music.
Clean, percussive “golpe” sound (tapping on the soundboard) Over-built soundboard with a poorly-executed bracing strategy will not only hamper the tone and character of guitar’s sound, but will also negatively impact the sound of golpes. Achieving sufficiently responsive and percussive golpes requires attention and care at the construction/bracing stages of the guitar.
Optimum distance between guitar’s soundboard/tap plates. Typical classical guitar geometry does not allow for optimum string distance between tap plates and the strings. Flamenco guitar bridges are generally lower in profile. Neck set angle is also frequently different than that of classical guitars. Both of these elements allow for the strings to lie closer to the soundboard/tap plates, facilitating optimum golpe playing.
Whether a blanca or a negra, an expertly-constructed flamenco guitar is a joy to play!