5 Flamenco Musical Instruments You Should Know

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Flamenco music is full of wild, extravagant rhythms, percussive instruments, and excellent music. But how does it come together? One of the more fascinating aspects of Flamenco music is that its seemingly disparate influences and harmonies create an elaborate musical whole. 

In this post, we’re going to explore some of the instruments used in flamenco music that are crucial to giving Flamenco its distinctive sound.

1. Flamenco (Spanish Guitar) 

For years, Flamenco musicians used classical guitars to accompany Flamenco music. Since they use nylon instead of metal strings, the sound they create blends well with other Flamenco instruments. 

However, as time went on, Flamenco musicians began seeking a more distinctively Spanish sound for their instruments. This led to the invention of the Flamenco or Spanish Guitar

The Flamenco has six strings like the classical guitar, but the shape of the body, ribs, and soundbox are slightly different.

The materials used also changed and Spanish guitars are typically made from spruce, cedar, or mahogany wood

Because of the change in material and the altered shape, the sound Flamencos produce is lighter, brighter, and higher than a typical classical guitar. 

They also differ in the way that they’re placed. Flamenco guitarists strum it using the rasgueado technique.

Instead of a plectrum, players strum with one finger or thumb to allow more agility in their playing.

Atypically for guitarists, a Flamenco player strums using the outside of the nail rather than the pads of the fingers. The result is a recognizably Flamenco sound. 

2. Cajon 

The Cajon is a percussive instrument introduced to Flamenco music in the 1970s. It has a box-like appearance, and the musician sits on the cajon while rhythmically beating the sides and top. 

A cajon is made of thick, resonant wood. This is true of all sides of the box-shaped cajon except the front, which typically comes from plywood to give it a more resonant tone. 

But the cajon is more than a box. A hole cut in the back allows the musician to access bass notes. They do this by rapping the surrounding area with their fists or using the heel of the hand. 

Additionally, the top of the cajon features snares on the inside. Rapping on this part of the cajon taps into higher registers.

The sound it creates is a sharp, high-pitched sound. Players can produce it by rapping the top either with the base of the palm, or their fingers. 

Cajon players use their feet to tune the instrument and introduce new pitches as necessary. 

3. Castanets (Palillos)

Fans of Bizet’s Carmen have probably seen Castanets in action since the composer’s musical tour through Basque and Andalusian culture integrates various cultural sounds and styles, including a brief voyage into Flamenco. 

One of these borrowed dances is the Seguidilla, the predecessor of modern Sevillanas dancing or folk dancing native to Seville.

This kind of dance features the castanet prominently, as the singer or dancer clicks the castanets in time to the dancing music. 

Like the Cajon, castanets are percussion instruments. Sometimes also called Palillos, they are a part of the clapper instrument classification along with instruments like the whip. 

The performer works castanets in pairs. Each pair uses a cord to connect the shells, which can be ivory, wood, or any other percussive surface.

The musician holds them between their fingers. As a rule, the left-hand castanet pair is lower-pitched and keeps a steady beat.

Conversely, the right-hand castanet set produces a higher sound and more complicated rhythmic line. 

4. Palmas 

Palmas is Spanish for hands. An unlikely instrument, but clapping is a vital part of Flamenco music. 

Flamenco music is a deeply rhythmic genre, and the use of claps helps accentuate the musical beats.

Depending on the clapping technique, singers and dancers can choose to emphasize different parts of the phrasing. 

The clapping also works the way drums do in pop music and propels the song forward by supplying the signers, dancers, and musicians with a constant tempo. 

There’s also more to clapping than beating your hands together. Flamenco palmas has several styles, including:

  • Fuertes 
  • Sordas 

Fuertes are hard, percussive claps. These are useful when reinforcing a beat or adding intensity to the music. They’re strong, steady, and can easily be heard over foot-stomping and fast-paced, intense Flamenco passages. 

Conversely, sordas are soft claps. Singers often use them to accompany vocal performances. They can also provide a harmonic contrast for guitar solos.

They’re subtler than Fuertes and accent and embellish phrases in Flamenco music. 

Palmas may sound like an insignificant contribution to Flamenco music. But in practice, it’s incredibly challenging.

Flamenco often has multiple musicians and performers doing different things, each in a different rhythm.

That means there is tremendous pressure on the palmas artist to provide a precise beat and keep everyone in time with one another, even if they’re accenting distinct off-beats, beats, and syncopations. 

5. Vocals 

In addition to dance and guitar, Vocals, sometimes called Cante, are a vital part of Flamenco music. 

Stylistically, the Flamenco vocal technique is a hodgepodge of competing influences. As a result of drawing from several musical traditions, cante incorporates:

  • Islamic monochords
  • Pizmonim modes and Jewish scale 
  • Mozarabic Christian influences 
  • Traveler or Romany folk techniques 

You can hear these influences at play in Flamenco music, from the ‘wailing tone’ tonality of Jewish modalism to the scale system and its long, expansive bars. 

Flamenco vocal music began as a way for Andalusians to sing about everyday concerns like love and hardship, and as time went on, it moved outside of the home and spread to cafes and dances.

From there, it was a short leap to the Flamenco music we know and recognize today. 

Like any type of vocal music, there are several kinds of cante. Light, bright melodies about love and happiness are cantes chicos. These can go quite quickly, and some of the most familiar to the novice Flamenco dancer is the tango. 

Cantes grandes are slower, expansive, and thematically about death and grief. The seguidilla, sonas and tonas are all styles of cantes grandes

You can further categorize vocals by the prominence of the singer since some Flamenco music spotlights the vocals and some highlights the instruments or dancer. 

Conclusion 

Flamenco music came from a combination of cultures, and you can hear many of them in the Flamenco music we know and love today. 

It uses a range of instruments from hands to guitar to create its stylized vocal color.

The result is a rich and complex musical sound that makes for excellent listening but is even better for dancing.

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.