Buying a flamenco guitar can be a difficult task. After twenty five years performing and collecting guitars I started understanding how to pick a good flamenco guitar. Here are some tips:
The smell: All handmade flamenco guitars have a distinct smell. the inside of the guitar smells of cider and rosewood. The smell remains even after twenty years!
The neck: Hold the guitar as if it was a rifle and check the angle of the neck. Don’t panic if the neck has a slight curvature! Most guitar necks are slightly curved when the strings are tensed. If the curvature is clearly visible then the neck may not be well calibrated.
The tuning: All guitars must have a correct tuning or else you are in trouble! Most flamenco guitars built after the Ninties usually tune properly because progress in technology allowed guitar makers to improve the tuning of the instruments. Play the E note on the twelfths fret of the 6th string and then play the harmonic on the 12th fret of the same string. They must have exactly the same tuning. Do the same on all strings.
The sound: A Flamenco guitar must have a crisp sound but not hollow. Look for a meaty and woody sound. Volume is not an issue: Loud guitars may have too many harmonics sounding at the same time that makes the notes less defined.
The wood: Cheap wood usually makes bad guitars. Good wood costs more and makes the guitars more expensive to build. There are, however,some exception: some guitars built with cheap wood can sound reasonably good (1 out of a 100!) and some guitars built with first class wood can sound mediocre the reason being that the assembling process also determines the quality of the sound.Second hand guitars can with some dents here and there usually are good value for money.
Old guitars (up to 25 years) usually sound better but some times they loose the crisp edge in the sound. The guitar can end up too “castigada” that means it has been played aggressively throughout the years and has lost it’s resonance. It is important to ask the seller if the guitar has been revarnished. In order to revarnish a guitar it must be sand papered. Consequenly, the top will become thinner and may develop cracks.
Ramon : Does your father, Valeriano, still make guitars?
Rafael : No, he has retired. I am now making the guitars with the help of my nephews and sister Chari.
Ramon : Do you reinforce the necks of your guitars?
Rafael : My guitars are not reinforced with a metal rod inside the neck because we use high quality and well seasoned Cedar. We have a quality control on all the Cedar we use to build the necks:if the wood is not good we do not use it. The proof is that we have not had one single complain with guitar necks failing to hold the tension of the strings since 1997.
Ramon : Is it natural that the neck of a guitars bends after 10 or more years?
Rafael : I have seen guitars that are over 50 years old and the neck is still in perfect conditions. As i said , if you select good wood it is rare to ever have problems. The reason guitar makers use metal rods inside the neck is because they buy the necks already cut to size and they haven’t got quality control on the selection of the wood. Mass production guitars leads to lower quality control.
Ramon : For how long and where do you season your wood?
Rafael : Most of my wood is bought from specific dealers that select wood for musical instrument. I then season the wood here. The wood i use has been seasoned for at least 10 year. The good thing about seasoning wood here in the sierra is that there are big changes in temperature and humidity. We have very hot summers and cold winters. Temperature changes are good for wood and makes it more stable.
Ramon : Where does the wood come from?
Rafael : The Cypress comes from Spain, all the rest from abroad. Germany, North Italy, etc. Wood for guitars can only be bought from dealers that use wood specifically for instruments. The wood used for instruments is light and not dense. Usually this sort of wood is not good for furniture.
Ramon : Do you prefer Spruce or Cider tops?
Rafael : I like Spruce because it ages better and it looks better .
I make Cider top guitars because there is a demand for them. Funnily enough there wasn’t a demand for them until the eighties. Before then, guitars where only made out of Spruce.
Ramon : Why do flamenco guitars have a distinct smell?
Rafael : Even after decades a handmade flamenco guitars never loose their smell of Rosewood and Cypress. If a guitar hasn’t got an intense smell of wood that means they were made with synthetic fast drying glues. That is not good for the sound of the guitar. You need slow setting glues to increase the quality of sound.
Ramon : What lenght of neck do you use?
Rafael : I normally like to use guitars that are 65cm long from bone to bone. I occasionally make them also 66cm long. It is a delicate compromise between tension and comfort. Flamenco guitarist like their guitars to sound bright, with an instant attack on the note, comfortable and that don’t rattle(Chasquear) too much.
A little bit of rattling sound is necessary for the flamenco sound. You will never find a guitar with a comfortable neck that doesn’t rattle a little!. It is hard to guess the sound flamenco guitarists like because there are so many different ways of playing flamenco: some people have a heavy hand so they need high tension and bright sounds, others have a light touch and need softer tension and rounder sounds. Since the constant use of microphones the sound requirements of flamenco guitars have changed.
I currently perform with a Bernal “Sueno” model. I am very happy with the sound. I also have a Hermanos Conde that is excellent for recording and precision tuning but the sueno sounds warmer. The neck is very comfortable, the action is low, the sound is very flamenco and most important it is not too expensive. Unfortunately Sueno model has been discontinued. Bernal guitars have a good range of models. The Prodigio Especial is the basic professional model. It is hand made, Cypress sides, Ebony neck, Cedar or Spruce tops. Sometimes it is worth spending a little more and buying the the next model up. Not necessarily will quality be reflected in the price.
I currently import and sell Bernal guitars. I select and test each guitar individually before buying them and if the guitar doesn’t convince me it will stay in the shop! Finally, most important of all: The guitars I select will not cost you a penny more than the asking price in Bernal’s workshop in Spain!
£800.00 (Plus hard case)
The guitar has been tested and selected among several others.