by October Crifasi
“Can you you tell what this is?” guitarist Ben Woods asks upon my arrival at his Los Angeles studio, a gleeful smile on his face. In the background, I hear a gorgeous flamenco arrangement of a song I should recognize, but can’t quite pinpoint. “It’s for the new Judas Priest flamenco record,” he says. It is the most intricate and beautiful arrangement of Judas Priest I have ever heard.
With an impressive list of flamenco and hard-rock collaborations and performances to his credit Woods has crafted a unique and much sought-after sound and niche for himself, often referred to as “flamenco metal.” Whether it is with his trio, Heavy Mellow, or as the traditional flamenco duo of Flamenco LA with his partner and flamenco dancer, Arleen Hurtado, Woods is forever exploring new ways to break the boundaries of both genres.
You started out as a metal guitarist primarily. What led you to playing flamenco?
I was living in Seattle in the early ’90s and renting a house with a group of my musician friends. I was 18 or 19 at the time and playing lead guitar in a death-metal band. We rented out a room to a guy who ended up being a junkie. We came home one night to find that he had left and took my electric guitars and gear with him, never to be seen again. I needed to keep playing and still had my classical guitar, so I practiced on that. The more I played fast music on the nylon strings, the more I thought it sounded like Spanish music. I did some research and discovered that flamenco was what I liked. It was acoustic speed metal—aggressive, fast, and virtuosic—exactly everything I needed.
Did you study with anyone specific, or did you teach yourself?
I was very lucky to find flamenco instructors Marcos and Rubina Carmona. Marcos taught me in the traditional Spanish way, mano a mano. He would play me something and I would have to play it back to him. I would tape the
entire lesson, then go home and play along with it. I would do this for several hours a day.
You learned everything completely by ear?
Yes. We didn’t use sheet music, but he did provide some tablature. We started out with the soleá, which is the mother of all flamenco forms, then learned some tangos and rumbas, which are the 4/4 forms. Sevanillas, which is standard for all beginner flamenco students—guitarists as well as dancers—came next. We got into playing bulerías and fandangos later, as they are a little more complicated. I also ordered a ton of CDs from Spain each month and would try to figure out the licks and little patterns I heard in the recordings.
Eventually, Marcos and his wife, Rubina, a flamenco singer and dancer, told me that if I wanted to learn flamenco properly, I had to learn how to accompany the cante [singing], and the baile, [dancing] as well. I had to learn the unspoken communication of how a flamenco group works together.
I didn’t hesitate. I dove right in, accompanying flamenco classes several days a week and continued to do so for the next five or six years.
How is flamenco different from other forms of classical and contemporary guitar?
Flamenco is one of the only forms of music and dance where the musicians actually follow the dancer, not the other way around. In most dance forms, the dancers follow the music played by the musicians, but in flamenco it’s the dancer that sets the tempo. She can bring it up and down. She makes it intense or solemn. She can make us all stop on a dime. She gives unspoken dance cues that the musician can follow.
Musicians do give cues as well, to let the dancer know something like: “We just played 32 bars of this, and it may be a good time to wrap things up.” Or, if I’m playing a falseta—or little piece of music with a definite beginning, middle, and end—I will give a cue when it’s about to end so the dancer knows it’s about to be her turn to do something.
What role does the vocalist play?
The vocalist is the head on the totem pole. The hierarchy of a flamenco group is singer first, then dancer, guitar, percussionist, or bass player. Just like the dancer can set the tempo and breaks, the singer, with his cante, does the same thing. He—or she—sets the mood. He will sing verses and we have no idea how long or short he is going to make them. There are certain little vocal cues that you can listen for in the melody that signals the end.
You’ve spent several years performing traditional flamenco with a dancer, Arleen Hurtado, as Flamenco LA. What inspired the return to your metal roots in Heavy Mellow?
In 2010, I made a solo album and released it under the name Flametal. Heavy Mellow was the name of the record. I did all the guitar and cajón work myself. It was a series of metal covers done in the flamenco way.
I decided to put a trio together after that because the entire process was just too fun to do on my own. I immediately thought of nuevo-flamenco guitarist Luis Villegas. We have different styles, but they complement each other, I think, and he pushes me musically. Al Velasquez, a great rock percussionist, played cajón at first and now we work with Mike Bennett, who plays drums for Richie Kotzen. We’ve got a really good group together. I’m very proud of it.
When did the electric guitar enter into the arrangements?
Last year, while putting together the new Flametal album, I bought a cheap electric guitar to do the recording and realized, after playing it a bit, I liked the sound. I’ve been practicing how to perfect playing proper flamenco on the electric since then. When you’ve been playing the same thing on the same instrument for 20 years and then you suddenly realize you can play it on a new instrument, it’s very exciting. It has a totally different timbre.
What sort of technique adjustments have you had to make shifting to an electric?
It’s a totally different animal. I have to back up on my attack by about 80 percent. The string spacing is weird, so the right-hand technique takes practice—all the picado work causes your fingers to catch on the strings a little, so I’m using my fingernails.
What sort of reaction have you had from the flamenco community?
It’s not accepted at all. If I work with other flamenco people and I tell them I am going to be playing my electric, their reaction is, “No, you’re not. That’s not the way it’s done.”
Not everybody likes it yet, but that’s OK. I am playing the electric more in live performances with guitarists and dancers and it works just fine. Who’s to say what’s right? Everybody’s going to find their own path. Flamenco has a lot of different things for a lot of different people. You don’t always have to do it one way or the other.
In flamenco, everybody has their turn and everybody has their space. We’re there to support each other, not step on each other’s toes, and yes, it’s all improvised, but as long as you know all the rules, and you’re supportive of each other, that’s how it works. No other forms of music or dance works like that. I find it very interesting.
Click here for 3 tips on flamenco improvisation from Ben Woods!
This article was originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.
The issue also features Roland Dyens, Manuel Molina, a special focus on guitar education, news, reviews (CDs, sheet music, and live concerts), and much more.