I have noticed a general misconception that the flamenco guitar is thinner and smaller than the classical guitar. The truth, according to expert luthiers and guitar historians like Richard Bruné(4), is that both the classical and flamenco guitars are historically identical in construction in terms of dimensions, bracing patterns, and woods(1).
The modern classical or flamenco guitar was developed in Spain by luthier Antonio de Torres in the 1800s. He later improved his design for concert guitarist Julian Arcas in the late 1800s, and the new Torres design was quickly accepted as the highest standard of comfort and sound production, which to date continues to be regarded as the standard design for the Spanish guitar(2 & 3). This guitar construction included a rosewood back and sides along with a spruce top. These wood choices are what many now consider the standard for classical guitar construction — although many classical guitars are also built with cedar tops instead.
During the Torres era, guitars built with imported rosewood for the back and sides were accessible almost exclusively to wealthy musicians due to the cost of rosewood(1). Musicians from lower economic classes couldn’t afford rosewood, but they could afford locally grown cypress. And since flamenco was developed primarily by musicians and dancers from lower economic classes, cypress backs and sides became the top (and only) choice for flamenco guitarists for years(1).
The unique sounds from each wood quickly became characteristics of each style of music. Whereas rosewood produces more sustain and warmer tones, cypress produces more attack (less sustain) and brighter tones. Warmer tones and increased sustain are generally desirable for solo guitar (e.g., classical), and brighter tones with more attack are generally preferred for accompanying singing, dancing, and playing in ensembles (e.g., flamenco).
Nowadays, classical and flamenco guitarists alike choose either rosewood or cypress guitars based on their preferences in tone and attack. I, for example, have one of each that I use in both solo and ensemble situations because I love both sounds. Paco de Lucía used a rosewood back and sides guitar almost exclusively to play both solo guitar and in his ensembles. And I know plenty of classical guitarists who prefer cypress.
The only other minor differences nowadays between classical and flamenco guitars are that the latter typically have a lower action (string height) and a clear golpeador (tap-plate) installed on the top. But both of these are ultimately preferences irrespective of the genre one plays. For example, you may like a flamenco guitar with high action or a classical one with a golpeador.
The thinner and smaller “flamenco” guitars that we see today are only smaller and thinner, plug-in versions of the standard construction mentioned above. They were created fairly recently in order to add pick-ups to plug them into an amplifier and to be played comfortably standing up while using a strap (e.g., Gipsy Kings).
When buying a guitar look for 4 primary things: 1) solid wood construction, 2) maximum comfort, 3) a beautiful sound, and 4) lots of easily produced volume.
Aside from that, I always recommend having a tap plate (golpeador) installed on your guitar whether you purchase a classical or flamenco. The addition of a golpeador does not diminish the quality of the guitar’s sound at all. And at the end of the day, it’s better to have one and never use it than to not have one and wish you did.
I also recommend a medium to low action although, again, this is ultimately a personal preference that can be quickly and easily modified by a luthier simply by adjusting the saddle and/or nut. Lower action makes playing easier but it also increases the probability of string buzz. My guitar action is 1mm at the 1st fret, 2mm at the 6th, and 3mm at the 12th. This produces a tiny bit of desirable buzz when I increase my volume a lot. Go for a higher action if you don’t want buzz.
In case you’re interested, I have a custom cypress guitar (spruce top) by Richard Bruné and a custom rosewood guitar (spruce top) by Marshall Bruné, and can’t imagine having anything better than these two amazing instruments. Marshall is taking orders so if you want one please contact him and use Promo Code “DIEGO” for $500 off of a custom build.
You can also check out some good beginner to intermediate guitars on my website store that I have personally tried and liked.
Riojas, Eusebio. El Guitarrista Julian Arcas: SUs Relaciones con Málaga. Extracto de la revista Jábega, Nº 84, año 2000. Centro de Ediciones de la DIputación de Málaga (www.cedma.com).
For guitar lessons, lectures, workshops, and educational performances please contact me below as well or at firstname.lastname@example.org.