When someone asks me what a good flamenco guitar sounds like I say: “The guitar sounds like a great flamenco singer.” I build flamenco guitars with Cypress and Spruce and give them the dry metallic voices of the flamenco singers. Every human singer has a unique voice, and so does every guitar.
The guitar maker Eugene Clark was kind and patient enough to introduce me to the aesthetics and traditional building methods of the Spanish school. He generously shared his knowledge of how flamenco guitars are constructed. By visiting Clark at his workbench over a two year period in the late 1990’s I was invited to observe him perform restorations on flamenco guitars by makers such as Santos Hernandez, Gerundino Fernandez, Manuel de La Chica, Francisco Barba, Faustino Conde, Manuel Bellido and many others. Those sessions of in depth study of these masters shaped my approach to making flamenco guitars. The plantillas (outline patterns), rosette inlay motifs, headstocks and heel carvings are designs I use were created through close study of the work of the Spanish masters.
I play guitar, but I’m not a great guitarist. I knew that to build flamenco guitars I had to go to Spain to hear the flamenco guitar in context in Andalucia. I have traveled to Spain twice to hear flamenco and hear the guitar being played with a singer. How did I get to hear flamenco in intimate gatherings? I can say you hang out, you wait, you demonstrate attention and politeness. Most of all try not to say too many stupid things, and if you do, try to laugh at yourself. Eventually the flamenco people notice that you deeply desire to hear that sound and feel its presence in your bones, and they invite you. Paying up by buying drinks is always recommended.
Two exceptional American flamenco guitarists taught me about flamenco guitar sound. While I was in Spain I took lessons from long time Madrid resident and master flamenco guitarist David Serva. Back home in California Jason McGuire selflessly extended his hospitality and knowledge to me.
In the Spanish language the body of music that makes up flamenco guitar is called El toque. It means literally “the touch”. David and Jason are both great guitarists who cajole, pull, tempt and call out the sound of the guitar by how they press a thumb through a set of six strings or lightly flick the tip of a finger off one string. Watching and listening to David and Jason over the years has made me understand how a guitar should feel under your hands and how a flamenco guitarist brings out a singers voice from a box of cypress.
Any person who is an aficionado of flamenco has a list of singers, dancers palmas players, guitarists and jaleo givers they love as performers. I like Fernanda de Utrera and Chocolate to name a couple, but then who does not? Aficionados usually have a mentor or teacher who answers questions about flamenco – I want to mention two that have answered a lot of my questions. Pablo Shalmy and Keni Parker, which is how they are known in the flamenco world. Over many, many beers at his kitchen counter Sr. Pablo walked me through the history of flamenco. And Keni Parker – he’s a model of soulful guitar playing and aficion, the unending love for flamenco.