[page in progress]
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…