Flamenco Guitar Techniques and Terms

Flamenco Guitar Techniques and Terms

Although a flamenco guitar is built much like a steel-string acoustic guitar, flamenco performance involves very different playing techniques. And if you've just started out in the genre or the instrument, you might be unsure of which flamenco guitar techniques to start out with. We've gathered together some of the most important flamenco guitar techniques and terms to know.

The Top 10 Flamenco Guitar Techniques

1. Por Arriba

This is a common mode of playing flamenco -- it refers to playing in E-Phrygian mode. If you're unfamiliar with modes, a mode is essentially a collection of tones and semitones that make up a scale. The Phrygian mode is somewhat "dark" sounding, and it's often used in film scores. It's also common in flamenco and other forms of Spanish music.

Many people who hear guitarists playing in Phrygian mode describe it as sounding a bit "Middle-Eastern." This video demonstrates that sound. And if you're ready to start playing por arriba, it will also show you the Phrygian scale to help you get started.

2. Rasgueado

Since it's such an expressive genre, flamenco guitar requires the use of many different strumming techniques. Rasgueado is an especially dramatic right-hand one. There are several different variations of this technique, but the most common one involves letting the pinky, ring, middle, and index finger flick across the strings. Often, the thumb is added in at the end.

Rasgueado (sometimes called rasgueos) is a rhythm technique that's often performed very quickly. And while it sounds impressive, it can be frustrating to learn at first. This video lesson (below - left) takes you through a few variants. Make sure that you practice each one slowly to get the technique down -- you don't need to start strumming at high speed right away. Plus, if you don't quite master the technique, you run the risk of developing a finger or hand injury down the line.

This interesting video (top - right) might give you an idea of how to start learning this valuable right-hand technique. It shows Pepe Romero, a renowned professional guitarist, teaching the art of rasgueado to a student at Celedonio Romero Guitar Institute.

3. Alzapua

Alzapua is a valuable right-hand flamenco guitar technique that's commonly used for basslines. Its name comes from the word "alzar," which means "to raise." This technique involves using the thumb to play notes in quick succession by using alternating upstrokes and downstrokes. It's used in virtually all flamenco music -- from classic pieces to new Gipsy Kings songs.

If you have some experience playing lead guitar, alzapua works like alternate picking. You're using your thumb like a pick, and you'll strike a string on the downstroke while letting your thumb hit it on the upstroke, too. This video lesson provides an excellent walkthrough.

Alzapua can be used either on single strings or on whole chords, so it can add character to a rhythm or to a melody. It sounds especially beautiful when combined with a series of hammer-ons and pull-offs.

But just like many other techniques, alzapua can cause injury if it's not done properly. As you saw in the video lesson, you'll need to make sure you don't completely isolate your thumb. There's certainly thumb movement involved in alzapua, but there's some forearm motion as well. If you're teaching yourself to play, it can be helpful to watch videos of experienced guitarists or take online lessons to make sure you're using the right technique.

Alzapua can take a bit of time to master, and plenty of newer guitarists have trouble developing enough speed. This video takes you through some exercises to help you get more comfortable with it.

4. Picado

There are several places where classical guitar and flamenco guitar overlap and the right-hand picado technique is one of them. Picado sounds simple in theory -- it's a technique where you alternate picking with your index finger and middle finger. It's commonly used for soloing or playing a melody. Occasionally, other fingers are alternated, but most classical and flamenco players alternate between the index finger and middle finger.

Playing picado involves using a rest stroke. In guitar, a rest stroke is a right-hand finger stroke through a string that ends in the finger resting on the string above. For example, if you use your index finger to pluck the first string and stop it on the second string, you've just completed a rest stroke. In flamenco guitar, playing with rest strokes is also called playing apoyando.

If you're learning to play with the picado technique, you may have already discovered that the challenge is to not repeat right-hand fingers. As this video lesson (below left) shows, it can be very tempting to use the same finger twice. The reason you shouldn't repeat fingers when you play picado is speed. While using the same finger twice in a row doesn't seem like an issue when you're practicing slower exercises, it can cause serious problems if you're playing an extremely up-tempo piece.

When learning to play picado on a flamenco guitar, remember to make very small movements with your fingers (and to play slowly at first). As an experienced guitarist knows, broad strokes with your fingers mean that it takes a while for the finger to come back to the strings. As this video lesson (above - right) mentions, anchoring your thumb on the low E-string can help you stay coordinated as you pluck the higher strings. If you're ready to incorporate your left hand, play a chromatic scale on one string as you practice.

5. Tremolo

Even if you know next to nothing about flamenco guitar, you've likely heard the flamenco version of the tremolo in a piece called Malaguena -- this arrangement (below left) will likely sound familiar. This type of tremolo sounds beautiful but can be a little difficult to master. But don't be intimidated by speed -- as with any right-hand flamenco technique, this one will need to be played slowly (with good technique) before you move on to playing faster.

This right-hand technique is also used in a similar way by classical guitarists. This video (above - right) offers a beautiful example of a tremolo on a classical guitar. In both flamenco and classical music, a well-executed tremolo creates the illusion of two guitars playing at once -- you have the main melody line with a quieter, rapid-fire backdrop.

Most flamenco guitarists use a five-note flamenco tremolo that was developed by Don Ramón Montoya. In this pattern, the bass strings are plucked by the thumb. Right after this stroke, treble strings are struck four times in quick succession with the index finger, the middle finger, the ring finger, and then the index finger again.

To see a master guitarist teach a student how to play flamenco with a tremolo, check out this detailed and helpful video lesson.

6. Cejilla

This one isn't necessarily a right-hand technique or a left-hand technique -- it's more of a helpful device. A cejilla is a capo. And as you know if you already play guitar, a capo is a device that can press down on the strings at any fret. It's a useful device for changing the key of a song. Plus, strategically placing a capo can somewhat change the overall tonal character of a guitar.

The word "cejilla" technically refers to a specific capo design that originated in the 1700s. The cejilla featured a leather strap that went behind the neck, and it had a wooden block that went across the strings. The block and the strap were connected by a single guitar string. The string could be tightened or loosened by a tuning peg at the top of a wooden block. And if you're a very traditional-minded player, you can still buy handmade cejillas made like this today.

You may have seen the notation "C2" used to indicate that a piece is to be played with a capo at the second fret. The C denotes the capo, and the number after it specifies where that capo should be placed. However, the "C" doesn't actually stand for "capo" -- it stands for "cejilla."

If you're a flamenco guitarist who performs with vocalists, a capo can make it very easy to change the key of a song to fit the vocalist's range. It's also a great tool for newer players. It can be tough for beginners to play barre chords or to stretch their fingers to play chords in the first position, and a capo makes that a little easier on your left hand. If you're curious about how playing with a capo can help you as a flamenco player, check out this interesting video.

7. Golpe

The word "golpe" just means "strike." And in flamenco guitar, it refers to striking the guitar as a percussive technique. Before you dive headfirst into incorporating golpe into your strumming technique or rhythm pattern, though, you need to make sure you protect your guitar. Flamenco players do this with a "golpeador," which is similar to a pickguard. Typically, a golpeador is a transparent or white plastic piece that adheres to the guitar right under the soundhole as well as right over it. You might sometimes hear a golpeador described as a "tap plate."

Though it sounds simple, golpe can actually involve several different techniques when used in flamenco performance. For example, you can strike the golpeador with a nail for a sharper sound, or with a palm for a more "fleshy" sound.

But how do you incorporate this right-hand percussive technique into your playing? As this helpful video lesson shows you, golpe can sometimes be used in conjunction with a downstroke while picking or strumming, and it can also be used as a standalone percussive technique. 

Some flamenco guitarists strike the golpeador and play a note at the same time -- in this case, the tap serves to accentuate the note. Golpe is a lot of fun to do and is a very useful flamenco guitar technique -- just make sure you don't overdo it!

8. Ligado

You might sometimes hear ligado described as a slur technique, which means it just refers to the use of hammer-ons and pull-offs in flamenco guitar. If you're already a guitarist, you've probably incorporated hammer-ons and pull-offs into your playing.

But if you haven't, you just need to know that a hammer-on means that you shift to a higher note by "hammering" a finger onto a string. For example, if you pluck the open low E string (the sixth string) and then press a finger to the first fret, that's a hammer-on -- you'll hear the note go up from an E to an F.

A pull-off means that a note will go down in pitch after you remove a finger. So if you fret an F note on the sixth string, play it, and then remove your finger, you'll hear the note go down from an F to an E. That's a pull-off.

If you're ready to start incorporating ligado into your playing, this video lesson gives you a great introduction. And as you'll likely see, these techniques are often applied at a very quick tempo in flamenco music. Ligado can involve any of the left-hand fingers anywhere on the fretboard. It's an art that requires a great deal of precision. But once you master it, it can truly revolutionize your guitar playing.

9. Por Medio

We mentioned above that playing por arriba means playing guitar in E-Phrygian mode. To play por medio is to play in A-Phrygian, the other traditional mode in which flamenco is played. Both of these scales can be used to play the "Andalusian cadence," or a progression of chords that you'll commonly hear used in flamenco. This helpful video (below - left) gives you a quick intro to common chord shapes you'll need when playing por medio.

Of course, if you're just starting to play flamenco guitar, you may not be ready to fully dive into all of the related music theory. But if you'd like some guidance on the A-Phrygian (por medio) and E-Phrygian (por arriba) scales and how they work, check out this helpful video introduction (above - right).

10. Tirando

We mentioned earlier that in flamenco guitar playing, playing with a rest stroke (called apoyando) means playing through a string and then letting the finger rest on the next physically higher string. The opposite of a rest stroke is a free stroke, which is called tirando.

Playing tirando means that you're moving a finger through a string to play it, and that finger isn't coming to rest on (or even touch) another string. For example, in a flamenco tremolo, the right hand is playing notes apoyando on the bass strings as the other fingers play the treble strings tirando.

You've likely played tirando at some point without recognizing it. But if you're working on this right-hand technique, it can be frustrating to accidentally bump the bass strings after a free stroke and sound an unwelcome note. It may help to think of it like this: when you're playing apoyando, think of moving your finger towards the soundhole. This will help keep it close enough to the strings that it's easy to make your finger rest on an adjacent string.

When playing tirando, think of the stroke as moving parallel to the soundboard. That way, you're moving in the right direction while avoiding accidental string hits.

Especially on nylon strings, playing tirando and playing apoyando can deliver impressively different sound effects -- after all, classical players typically use many more free strokes than flamenco guitarists do. If you want to hear the difference, check out this useful demonstration.

Ready to Start Learning?

Flamenco is a complex, evocative genre that's challenging to learn. But it's certainly a worthwhile endeavor. Teaching yourself to play flamenco guitar can certainly work, but many players progress faster when they learn from a professional guitarist.

The good news is that you don't have to pay for private flamenco guitar lessons in order to learn from a professional. An online guitar course can be a great way to become a better player, and you don't even need to travel to take one. There's a course out there for any ability level -- whether you want to master guitar basics, learn about different styles of music, or are looking to discover more advanced flamenco techniques, an online course is an outstanding way to take your playing to the next level and have fun while you're doing it.

Final Thoughts

If you're looking for different hand techniques or other skills to expand your abilities as a flamenco guitarist or are getting ready to jump into flamenco guitar lessons, we hope that our list has given you some ideas to get started. What do you think? Are there any techniques we should have included? Please let us know in the comments, and don't forget to like and share if you found it useful!              

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