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I’ve always loved flamenco, not just the guitar, but voice and dance as well. But, is it possible to play flamenco on a guitar with gut strings, and pluck those strings without fingernails? Not as we know it, for sure. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, all guitarists were using gut, and not all of them were playing with nails. Julian Arcas (1832 – 1882) (see my Players page) is known to have played without nails, and his repertoire included variations on Soleá, what some have called the mother of all flamenco song and dance forms.
In those days, there was less of a distinction between classical, popular, and flamenco styles. Nor were there distinctions between classical and flamenco guitars. Most guitars were made with cypress back and sides, while the more expensive exotic options included rosewood from Brazil. Over time, poorer flamenco players came to be associated with the cypress guitars, while more affluent middle and upper-class players insisted upon rosewood guitars. But essentially, in those early days, a guitar was a guitar.
Luckily, we have a tutor book from 1902, which specifically mentions flamenco styles on the cover, the Método De Guitarra (Flamenco) by Rafael Marin (1862 – ), which while being both progressive and influential, was also backwards looking. I’ll be focussing on the Method, as I find it fascinating. You can download a free copy of it HERE.
Many modern flamenco players have dismissed the method as being of little use to modern players, and for not giving a true insight into what the top virtuosi were doing back in 1902. This must be seen as something of a pity, as its 200-plus pages give many insights into not just what many intermediate-level guitarists were playing, but also to how varied guitar playing was at that time, even among flamenco musicians.
I plan to record a number of the studies contained within the book, in video and sound file. Please return as the study develops. I am using a pegged cypress guitar, made for me by luthier Stephen Faulk, based on those early instruments by the likes of Manuel Ramirez and Santos Hernandez, which is tuned a little lower than modern pitch – music was generally at a lower pitch in those days.
To get the ball rolling, here is the “Solea by Arcas” from page 205. While being unlike the modern form of the Soleá, it has an undeniable flamenco feel. The 6th string is tuned to D. Marin was twenty years old when Arcas died, and must have been influenced by the famous guitarist’s playing. Marin can be viewed as a link between Arcas and Ramon Montoya, who studied Marin’s Method.
Now, let’s look at some technical aspects discussed by Marin. Unfortunately, there is no currently-available English translation of the work, so, not being a very good with languages, I’ve had to use Google Translate, which I’ve then reinterpreted in an attempt to make sense of the text. You have the Spanish text to compare.
Scales – [Page 8] although “serious” guitarists use i and m, the flamenco style often uses the thumb. Marin references one Francisco Diaz, El Niño de Lucena, as being a master at this style. So important is this thumb technique, he discuses it in the first part of the book.
Tremolo – [Page 8] In Andalucía, it is hard to find many people who play it. Some prefer thumb and just two fingers, i and m, but if the passage is long and the tremolo continuous, he prefers to bring in the annular as well. Despite what Marin says here, he does give a beautiful study of extended tremolo with just two notes after the bass note: Exercise 12, Pages 55 to 58. Here is a video of that exercise:
I openly admit to finding tremolo very difficult, that is the classical pami, or flamenco piami. So, I’m delighted to learn that the pmi tremolo was known and used, although not universally. We now have historical evidence for playing pmi during the time of Francisco Tárrega.
Nails – he does advise using very short nails, but with the centres rendered smooth. Yet it is interesting that the music of Julián Arcas – a flesh player – was still thought flamenco enough for Marin’s book.
One of my favourite pieces in the book is the Petenera:
The book contains tab throughout, but appears to have been written by someone with a sense of humour. Anyone who only reads the tab part will form a very distorted view of early flamenco! Best avoid.
To be continued…
13 thoughts on “Flamenco”
¡Olé maestro! I grabbed that pdf straight away – I also am a lover of flameco. Now, the Arcas solea in the method definitely seems different than the original by Arcas – https://musescore.com/user/385716/scores/1797726
The original is rather long and not as jazzy…did Marin add/remove to his liking? Either way it sounds awesome – well done! Oh – I can translate some of the method for you too if you’d like.
Cheers, Tate. Yes, I know that LONG version. It can be beautiful, but it does ramble a bit. This one is more focussed. I’m not sure if it is edited, or it just came down through different players, each slightly altering/removing bits, or perhaps it is a “lost” composition (it’s not in his Collected Works) by Arcas, exactly as he wrote it? I don’t know, but I don’t think it matters too much. Clearly players would do their own thing, occasionally taking from others, much as flamenco players do today.
I’ll get back to you on the translation! It’s a long book…
Yea – I’ve always thought the original was a bit tedious! I like this one better!
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Thank you for your work on this. A really valuable documentation and exploration. Will look into this deeper but appears to be a valuable study of melodic material from the history of flamenco along with didactic material of the day,
Thanks for your comment. I’m glad that you see this early Method as important, and I hope you find many things in it of interest. I’m not a flamenco player, so your background will help you see things I miss.
Great work! Very musical interepretations and great tone with no nails. I like the dark video style too.
Thanks, Ricardo. Glad you like it.
An immediate impression, if I may give it , is that the solea sounds more like a fandango .Like one played by the much traveled folk guitarist Davey Graham in the sixties . There is no compas , timing of beats , for solea . Given that this is a important part of guitar history your bringing to life with much ‘alegria’ in your playing. Not sure I could do the same with what are basically study pieces . Thank You . Craig McTaggart Herts UK
Thanks for the comment, Craig. Good points. Obviously the Solea bears little resemblance to the Solea we know today. Although published in 1902, much of the book has roots deep in the 19th century, when Spanish music was fashionable in Europe. I don’t see the book as bad flamenco, more as showing a popular style. Whether we agree with it or not (and I’m merely exploring it) the book was certainly influential on players who are regarded even today as flamenco players. The music is not the most profound, far from it, but I still think it is worth hearing. To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what I make of it, but I’ve enjoyed exploring it, and it has raised a question or two, which is no bad thing, I think. Thanks for your comments, Craig.
Do you still have this Faulk guitar? It’s range of sound is amazing – between your recordings here and Faulk’s own scalding “hot off the bench” demo. Do you use the instrument for other repertoire?
No, I sold it some time ago. I developed problems with my left hand, and had to change to guitars with thin necks, so it had to go. Not that it was very thick, but I now require thin necks, usually that involves carbon fibre rods in the neck to give strength, allowing them to be thinner. It was an excellent guitar. Too bad. However, I’m happy with what I have now. Cheers.
I would like to know your findings about picado and playing without nails like me.
I’ve no idea, as I don’t do picado. Sorry