Learning Flamenco Guitar: The Family Way, Teachers, and Assorted Methods

BY THÉRÈSE WASSILY SABA | From the Summer 2019 Issue of Classical Guitar

The great flamenco virtuoso Paco de Lucía learned all that he knew from watching and listening to other performers and then practicing with a strong focus on what he was trying to achieve in his own playing. At home, he was surrounded by flamenco performers—his father, Antonio Sánchez, and his older brother, Ramón de Algeciras, were guitarists, and his brother, Pepe de Lucía, is a flamenco singer. And many other musicians would visit the family home, returning with his father and brother after gigs and playing together for pleasure. Antonio Sánchez himself had been taught by the legendary flamenco master guitarist Melchor de Marchena. 

This passing on of knowledge from one generation to the next is a tradition that continues in flamenco to this day. Of course, it is not only that guitarists teach guitarists; there are so many examples of guitarists learning to perfect the art of flamenco guitar by accompanying singers. Flamenco guitarist Tomatito still refers to flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla as his “guiding light” (luz de guía) for all that he taught him in the many years that he was Camarón’s accompanist. Flamenco has set forms—such as the soleares, seguiryas and alegrías—that have particular rhythmic patterns and chord progressions. However, it is in the accompaniment of the singing that the guitarist really learns to develop these set structures creatively, as they must harmonically and rhythmically follow the nuances of the singer. This is no easy task, as the singers artfully and dramatically weave around the melody with long melismas—singing a single syllable with multiple changes of notes to ornament it. Choosing chords that will enhance these melodic lines is a large part of the art of accompaniment for flamenco guitarists. There is also much to be learned when a guitarist is accompanying flamenco dance, although then the demands of rhythmic precision take precedence over the subtle harmonic choices.

Not all of today’s leading flamenco guitarists have been born into flamenco families. Gerardo Núñez from Jerez de la Frontera began his early studies in a local flamenco school, where his old teacher would show the group of young students a strumming pattern or a falseta—a melodic phrase—and the guitarists would be expected to sit and repeat it. But it wasn’t long before Núñez’s talent became evident to everyone and he was able to move into the professional performing circuit, where he continued to learn as he played. Núñez began his career at the age of 14, accompanying such renowned singers as Terremoto, El Borrico, La Paquera, and José el de la Tomasa; that provided another level of training for the young guitarist. 

With the arrival of the first flamenco recordings in the 20th century, musicians were suddenly able to listen over and over again to the recordings of their heroes in an attempt to emulate their style; a new way to learn that did not require sitting at the knee of a master musician or watching a live performance. For example, before developing his own sound, Paco de Lucía was a great admirer of flamenco guitarist Niño Ricardo (1904–1972) and listened for countless hours to Ricardo’s recordings (many made in the 1950s and ’60s) and attempted to copy his style. Like so many of the flamenco artists of his time and before, Paco did not learn to read music. That came much later in life, when his international career had already been established, and only for the sake of collaborating with non-flamenco musicians. Thus, the oral tradition requires intensive listening and highly developed memory skills.

Many of the current generation of flamenco performers still speak about the help they received from Paco (who died in 2014); he really did do so much to raise the level of performance and maintain high standards in flamenco. Another equally important flamenco guitarist who has mentored many of the next generation of flamenco performers is Manolo Sanlúcar. Flamenco guitarist Vicente Amigo played his first concert when he was just 12 or 13 years old at a Paco Peña guitar course in Córdoba. He then studied with Sanlúcar and later became part of his flamenco group, touring throughout the world for six years. 

Although the oral tradition has been the most typical way to learn flamenco guitar, there have also been popular method books. One of the earliest, specifically aimed at flamenco guitarists, was created by Rafael Marín—his Método de Guitarra (flamenco) por música y cifra was published in Madrid in 1902. Marín had studied both flamenco guitar and classical guitar with great maestros of his time—flamenco with Paco Lucena (1855–1930) and classical with Francisco Tárrega (1852–1909). An earlier guitar method, Nuevo método elemental de cifra, para aprender á tocar por si solo la guitarra, published in Madrid in 1860 by Matías de Jorge Rubio, also has a few pieces in a flamenco style and offers some guidance on playing rasgueados and golpes (percussive tapping on the front of the guitar with the “a” finger of the right hand) on certain accents in the style of flamenco guitarists. (Rubio is better-known for his methods penned for the mandolin-like bandurria, also popular in Spain.)

Today, we have the great luxury of multimedia-format flamenco guitar methods, where we can be guided by a combination of the printed page in manuscript and tablature, accompanied by recorded music and video clips. One of my favorite writers of contemporary flamenco guitar methods is Juan Martín (who studied under both Niño Ricardo and Paco de Lucía). He has several, all of which are excellent. The first to catch on was the still-popular El Arte Flamenco de la Guitarra, which came out in 1978 and was accompanied by a music cassette tape (and a CD in later reprints), and more recently a series of books published by Mel Bay, including two volumes of Play Solo Flamenco Guitar with Juan Martín (each containing a CD and DVD) and Essential
Flamenco Guitar, Vol.1
(with two DVDs; there are two more volumes projected for the series). With each new release, Martín manages to capture more of the fine nuances of flamenco that players will need. 

One of the ongoing debates in the flamenco world has been whether a non-Gypsy Spanish person—a payo/paya—can capture the essence and the mystical duende of flamenco. After all, it has traditionally been quite a regionally and racially specific art form. However, some non-Spanish performers have certainly excelled and received the well-deserved acceptance of their art. For instance, Israeli guitarist Adam del Monte is not Spanish, yet he premiered his flamenco opera, Llantos 1492, at the 2019 Tucson Desert Song Festival in January. In speaking with the Arizona Jewish Post, he took time to think back to his beginnings: “He recounts a time when his parents left him with Gypsies at the age of seven in the Sacromonte neighborhood in Granada, Spain. He lived in cave dwellings built from the 16th century, after Jewish and Muslim populations were expelled from their homes, intermixing with the nomadic Gypsies and adopting some of their customs.” Del Monte summarizes that old style of teaching perfectly, when he says: “It takes a village to teach flamenco.” Fortunately, Adam del Monte has transported all of his knowledge to share with his students in the guitar department of the University of Southern California, where he has been teaching flamenco and classical guitar since 2000.