Is Spanish guitar hard to learn?

Is Spanish guitar hard to learn?

Spanish guitar and flamenco music are highly respected in the guitar world for their virtuosic playing and technique. It is easy to fall in love with the sounds of Spanish guitar, but is it hard to learn?

Spanish guitar is challenging because of the complex finger techniques and the amount of styles and rhythmic structures there are to learn. The flamenco style of playing is also physically demanding.

Learning to play Spanish guitar is highly rewarding, and the music is culturally rich and fascinating. Flamenco music is very rhythmic and volume driven, and is typically played to accompany Flamenco singers and dancers. 

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What are the main challenges of learning Spanish guitar?

For most learners, the main challenges of Spanish guitar are:

  • Right hand technique
  • Strumming styles
  • Complex rhythms
  • Improvisation

The ultimate challenge lies in combining these techniques and using them in quick succession within the music. 

Flamenco fingerstyle and strumming

Spanish guitar is based on advanced fingerstyle techniques that utilize the thumb and fingers to individually play the strings.

What makes the right hand technique particularly challenging in Spanish guitar is the various types of finger strokes and rapid strumming techniques and the speed at which they are performed.

Apoyando is a method of plucking used for a full sound and firm tone. It is known in English as the “rest stroke”, describing how the finger pulls through the string and rests on the adjacent string. 

Tirando is the “free stroke”, where the finger does not touch any adjacent strings after plucking a string. Although less stable than apoyando, it is more versatile because the fingers are not restricted by being planted on a string.  

Another key playing technique is the palm mute, which creates a muted sound by placing the side of the palm near the bridge to partly damping the vibration of the string. 

Spanish guitar music can get physical using rapid strumming techniques like resguardo and alzapua where the fingers flesh and/or nails are used in a specific way to play multiple strings (see the section “Rhythmic Techniques” below).  

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Flamenco also involves tapping on the guitar for percussive effects. There are a variety of finger taps and flourishes used by the player to give the music its percussive tone and feel.  

Rhythm and improvisation

Flamenco rhythms are usually grouped into 12, 4, or 3 beats, and each rhythmic unit is called a compás. Every style, called palos, utilizes different compás with accents on certain beats of the rhythm. 

Many of the rhythmic patterns are extremely fast and syncopated. Syncopated rhythms are off-beat patterns that are generally difficult to perform for beginners.

The sheer number of compás and styles to memorize is a significant challenge. There are 32 styles and over 750 variants of these flamenco styles to learn. 

In addition, flamenco music has been passed down orally and is not usually in written form. This requires a solid mental grasp of the rhythms and styles and how to apply them.

Spanish guitarists must know what styles to use in performance, and much of the music is brought together on the fly.

In flamenco, the guitarist must follow the singer or dancer, who may switch things up, so you must be both knowledgeable and flexible

Spontaneity and improvisation are integral to the flamenco style, and improvisation is a difficult skill to train. 

Can you learn Spanish guitar on your own?

It will be extremely difficult to learn Spanish guitar on your own.

In fact, it is harder to teach yourself Spanish guitar than other styles of guitar, mostly because of the complexity of the picking hand techniques, improvisatory nature, and vast range of styles to understand. 

Spanish guitar and flamenco music is passed down orally, so learners are expected to pick up the style and patterns of each piece by ear without sheet music.

While you may be able to teach yourself some melodies and progressions, it will be difficult to learn which styles and patterns are appropriate for specific situations.

In flamenco, guitarists are confronted with both cante (song) and baile (dance) and must have at least an idea of what to do when playing for each.

Often, the performers communicate among themselves through musical cues, without the use of words. 

How long does it take to learn flamenco?

To become proficient at playing flamenco guitar, it will take most people at least five years.

The specific song forms and methods of picking and strumming are very detailed and require a lot of study and practice to completely master. 

Within the first six month of study, you can learn basic patterns such as the phrygian scale and the Andalusian cadence.

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The chord progressions of the Andalusian cadence are usually four chords, Am-G-F-E7, and is the backbone to most flamenco music. 

As a total beginner, you can also learn the technical basics like proper hand placement and develop some coordination on the compás and rasgueados at very slow speeds within the first six months.  

After a year of playing, you will likely be able to perform short melodies, or falsetas, to accompany singers and have at least a few compás patterns in your fingers.

Once you’ve gained experience playing for three or four years, you will be able to play soleares, tangos, and bulareas

What’s the easiest way to learn flamenco?

To begin learning flamenco, start with studying the origins of the flamenco style and culture, and emerge yourself in the music.

Listen to the music of great flamenco guitarists, such as Mario Esudero, Sabicas, ​Niño Ricardo, and Ramon Montoya, to gain familiarity with the sounds, flavors, and rhythms of flamenco. 

Many teachers recommend learning the palmas, or the hand clapping patterns that play an essential role in flamenco music.

The palmas help establish tempo and understanding of the palos, and clapping also helps players internalize the rhythms.

When first beginning to play flamenco guitar, start with learning the fingerstyle, picking and strumming techniques individually and slowly. Be patient as you develop the muscles, and pay close attention to the shape of your hand. 

Move on to developing the picado and rasgueo techniques. Picado describes playing single notes with either the index or middle finger, and rasgueo is a strumming technique that requires the rotation of the wrist and all of the fingers. 

Flamenco does not have “songs” and is approached in “palos”, or styles. Each palo offers its own structure and complexities.

A popular palo that is good to begin learning is the soleá. 

Is it hard to learn the rhythm for Spanish guitar?

Compás and palos

There are multiple rhythms, or compás to learn for Spanish guitar, and many of them involve rapid playing. Compás are the rhythmic structures that are at the heart of flamenco music, and they are difficult to perform.

The compás are used to create the various palos, or styles of the music. These structures are performed at different tempos, or speeds, using unique strumming and picking techniques

In the soleá style of flamenco, each musical phrase occupies 12 beats and is usually played at a tempo of 70-120 BPM. This 12 beat cycle has accents on beats 3, 6, 10, and 12. 

The same structure from solea is used in bulerías, but it is sped up to around 220 to 240 BPM.

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Alegrías has a rhythm consisting of 12 beats as well, at lively speeds and accents on 3, 6, 8, 10, and 12. Structurally, it is one of the strictest forms of flamenco. 

When you include all of the variations of compás and palos, there are hundreds you can learn to play.

All of these rhythms and styles require a deep understanding of the music and extreme precision of technique to perform well. 

Rhythmic techniques

Flamenco rhythmic strumming techniques are played rapidly and aggressively, so they are physically very demanding.

Spanish guitarists must take good care of their fingernails and keep them at an appropriate length as well as train for hours to play these intricate patterns. 

Some rhythms are performed using the rasgueado technique of strumming. In rasgueado, the fingernails are used, with the fingers performing downstrokes and the thumb an upstroke through the strings.

Each finger of the strumming hand is used in quick succession to achieve rapid, rhythmic patterns.

A second rhythmic technique that uses the thumb is called alzapúa, in which both single-line notes and/or strums are played with the thumb moving up and down quickly. These are combined in succession to achieve a unique sound.

There is also the tremolo, which is a rapid repetition of a single treble note that uses a specific finger pattern for the picking hand to achieve either 3-note or 4-note tremolo. 

A popular technique used in flamenco music is the golpe, where the fingers tap on the soundboard of the guitar above or below the strings.

A golpeador, which is a plastic plate, must be equipped to protect the surface of the guitar for this technique. 

Is it harder to start with Spanish guitar or classical guitar?

In terms of technique, Spanish guitar is often considered harder to start with than classical because there are more techniques to learn.

In the classical style, the guitar is supported over an inclined leg with the neck elevated and the lower bout resting on the thigh of the non-inclined leg.

In contrast, Flamenco guitarists usually cross their legs and hold the guitar on top, with the neck more parallel to the floor, which to some can feel less comfortable. 

A large part of studying classical guitar is becoming fluent at reading standard music notation. In the flamenco world, music is often learned by ear, so memorization is a key challenge.

Flamenco players also use different postures, strumming patterns, and techniques compared to classical guitar players. For example, flamenco guitarists play closer to the bridge when strumming or plucking to create a harsher sound

Professionals often recommend starting with the classical guitar. The techniques and theory learned on classical guitar transfer well to many styles of playing, including flamenco and Spanish guitar.

Classical guitar repertoire does get extremely difficult, and the classical guitarist must be a fluent music reader to succeed. Flamenco is significantly more rhythmic, and is felt rather than read.

Is it hard to learn Spanish guitar with a steel-string guitar?

Because steel strings are harder and have a lot more tension than nylon strings, it is much harder to learn Spanish guitar with a steel-string guitar. 

Steel strings will be much tougher on both the fretting hand and the picking hand and will likely limit your progress as Flamenco requires vigorous use of the fingernails to play. 

Classical or flamenco guitars also have wider necks compared to “acoustic”, steel-string guitars. This creates wider spacing between the strings which is well-adapted to fingerstyle playing.

If all you have is a steel-string guitar, you can certainly get started on it, but a nylon string classical or flamenco guitar will greatly help you in your journey to learning the Spanish guitar.