Flamenco is a regional, and therefore very specialized, form of music that is closely associated with the dance style of the same name and genre. Though it comes in many "palos" (forms), it is known for its intensely fast rhythms and melodies. The instruments involved in making Flamenco music are very specifically designed for the genre. The guitars, as well as the percussive instruments, are a unique mixture of more common Spanish instruments and specially designed ones.
Classical (Spanish) Guitar
Before the advent of the modified Flamenco Guitar (see Section 2), the classical guitar (a six-stringed acoustic instrument), or in Flamenco's case, the Spanish guitar, was used in Flamenco music to play the chords and melody. Classical guitars are typically made of spruce or cedar. Because of the use of low-tension gut and nylon strings, as opposed to the metal strings used on many modern acoustic guitars, the classical guitar has a particularly deep and reverberant tonal quality. Finger-picking is usually used to play the classical guitar, but in Flamenco, strumming patterns, or "rasgueado" in Spanish, are common. In modern Flamenco music, the classical guitar is often played along with the Flamenco guitar to play either the underlying chords or the melody of a song.
The Flamenco guitar is similar to the classical guitar, but different in material, construction and, therefore, sound. Like the classical guitar from which it descended, the Flamenco guitar is a six-stringed acoustic instrument. The front and sides of the body of the guitar, as well as the neck and headstock, are made of different types of woods. Spruce, cedar and mahogany are all common woods used to build the Flamenco guitar. This, combined with the lightness and smaller size in comparison to the classical guitar, makes the Flamenco guitar quite a bit higher pitched and more percussive than its classical sibling. It is the more rhythmic of the two, and the Flamenco player will strum the chords that underlie the classical guitar's using "rasgueado" (strumming patterns), or both the chords and melody on the Flamenco guitar.
Introduced into Flamenco music in the 1970s, a cajon, literally meaning crate or drawer in Spanish, is a specially designed box upon which the player sits while slapping the front and top edge to produce percussive sounds. The back of the cajon has a hole cut in order to release lower notes, which are played either with the side of the fist or the heel of the palm. The top inside of the cajon is lined with snares, much like a snare drum, which produce a sharp sound when the top is hit (usually with the heel of the palm or the fingers). Many cajon players also use their feet to tune the cajon while playing in order to produce differently pitched notes to better suit the music. The cajon is made from thick wood on all sides but the front, which is made from plywood in order to allow for more resonant strikes.
Palillos, or castanets as they are more commonly known, are a hand percussion instrument made from two concave "shells" that are attached by string. The shells are made of stone, wood or, more commonly, fiberglass. Much like with claves of other Spanish music, the player strikes the two shells of the palillo together, often in a repetitive pattern, to create a high pitched and sharply contrasting clicking sound. Usually two pairs of palillos are used at the same time, with one sized and pitched differently than the other.
In Spanish, palmas means palms or hands. Palmas in Flamenco music refers to clapping, which is an essential rhythmic element to the genre for both musicians and dancers. The claps are used to accentuate the important beats of the song or to keep the fast tempo, much like drummers in modern popular music. There are many forms ("palos" in Spanish) of Flamenco music, and hard ("fuertes") and soft ("sordas") claps are used to denote any of the nuances among the forms. Softer claps are used during guitar or vocal solos, and harder claps are used during the more intense parts of songs, such as when dancers are stomping their feet or when the music gets particularly loud and feverishly fast.
Jacob Hyman is a blogger, freelance writer, and musician in New York. He has been writing for five years and has written for the G.W. Hatchet, Starved Magazine, HotIndieNews and eHow, among many others. Hyman attended The George Washington University in our nation's capital, where he majored in psychology and music.