Flamenco Guitar 101
Sometimes we find it only takes one or two people to help unlock the secrets of a city, to make introductions, help you make connections, to take you places, and to teach you things – and learning is an important part of what we’re doing this year.
In our experience, these people are often creative – musicians, artists, architects, chefs, and designers – and so it was that flamenco guitarist Sebastian Lapostol helped us discover Jerez through its flamenco. When he offered to take me to the workshop of master luthier Valeriano Bernal and give me a beginner’s lesson in flamenco guitar, I jumped at both chances. I’ll write more about our day trip to Bernal’s atelier in the next post.
We knock the ‘Hand of Fatima’ on the door to Sebastian’s house in Jerez. After months of seriously bad weather, at last it’s a blue-sky day. The interior courtyard is open to the sky and it’s delightful, as is the charming two-storey house with a terracotta tiled-courtyard with potted plants and geraniums, Moroccan lanterns, ceramic plates on the walls, hanging ferns, and a cat called Lailo. Coffee and sherry share equal billing as we start the flamenco guitar lesson.
“In flamenco, the guitarist is at the service of everyone else. The guitarist never leads with his playing (called toque) – they follow the rhythm of the dancing (baile) and singing (cante). Fights have ensued because the guitarist didn’t do so! But Paco de Lucía changed things.” Paco de Lucía is a pioneer of the modern flamenco style (controversially dabbling in jazz and other styles) but always sounding like a flamenco guitarist – and one of the best you’ll ever hear.
“The first year of learning flamenco guitar was boring as bat shit!” Sebastian reveals as we warm up in the courtyard. Sebastian describes to us how he came to study flamenco guitar without having mastered the instrument in any form whatsoever before arriving in Jerez. A daunting – perhaps even foolhardy – proposition given the level of virtuosity on display in the town, as well as the refined comprehension of the art form of any audience you play for in this flamenco-loco city. Play badly here and the locals will certainly know it.
I relate Sebastian’s experience to an old joke about visitors stopping to ask a farmer directions to a destination in Ireland. The farmer tells the travellers, “well, I wouldn’t be starting from here if I was you.” He laughs knowingly. Starting from zero, but with 100% enthusiasm, Sebastian now has serious chops on the instrument more than a dozen years later.
Flamenco is a mix of classical guitar finger-picking technique and the almost mysterious compás – a complex combination of the time signature and rhythm in flamenco. In Jerez you’ll see people everywhere intensely following the clapping (palmas) of the palmeros (the people who clap). This act goes some way in explaining the almost undecipherable code of the flamenco of Jerez.
But does being a guitarist give you a distinct advantage in learning flamenco?
“I would suggest learners start with a buleria (the classic Jerez form of flamenco), but from a classical guitar base,” Sebastian advises. “Most flamenco guitarists can’t even read music, so that’s not necessary. But there are certain techniques in classical music that will help you learn flamenco.” So for a guitarist playing Oasis singalong’s by a fireplace, an Oasis’s Greatest Hits chord book will be better utilized in the fireplace as kindling than on a music stand.
“False beginners is what they are called, someone who has a knowledge of the guitar,” Sebastian says, “But it’s not really similar at all…” For someone who grew up playing punk, this is not comforting news.
“There are three main techniques; arpeggio, notes of a chord played individually; alzapúa, using the thumb like a plectrum; and tremolo, which is playing the bass notes with the thumb and playing the treble notes in quick succession.”
Sebastian takes me through a sequence of notes, making me tap the rhythm out with my foot. The notes I can handle, but keeping the rhythm has me stumped. “Take your time with it, too,” Sebastian reassures me, “The slower buleria is often the best.”
“I cut this part in half so you can concentrate on learning the first half,” Sebastian explains, “So now let’s do the second half.” Now the notes are playing with my mind, as much as the rhythm. He play the piece again, embellishing with taps on the face of the guitar – a classic flamenco technique.
“Tapping on the face of the guitar will take some time to learn, like learning how to drive a manual car for the first time.” To be frank, tapping on the guitar while remembering to do everything else was starting to make me feel like I was in one of those movies where a guy has to land a jumbo jet having only made paper planes as a kid.
I run through the piece again, not worrying about the rhythm, just hitting the notes. “You’re almost there!” Sebastian reassures me. His flattery is perhaps aided by the glass of sherry he’s now finished.
“It’s slogging work, practicing flicking of the fingers – the technique called rasgueados that is so often associated with flamenco guitar,” he further reassures me, “I used to put a piece of foam behind the strings and practice for hours in front of the television.”
We run through the piece together. “This benefits from having some palmeros clapping behind us!” Being one of the guys who just claps in the background seems far more simple and appealing, but I still don’t understand the rhythm!
“Am I missing something?” I ask.
Sebastian laughs, “I would say that all the time when I was first learning!”
I now realise that becoming a flamenco guitarist who can hold his own would take years and being a classic ‘false beginner’ is not really helping. While I can understand what Sebastian is playing, the techniques to play it are foreign to me.
“I always find a glass of sherry helps my playing,” Sebastian says.
I think it will take much more than that to help mine.