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1.3 How do I learn to accompany? (Flamenco)


This article is from the Flamenco for Classical Guitarists FAQ, by Joshua Weage (jpweage@mtu.edu) with numerous contributions by others.

1.3 How do I learn to accompany? (Flamenco)

I wish the news were better. It's not quite as extreme as "go to Spain (with
a lot of money)", because you'll quickly encounter that anyway, but it can't
be done by ordering a book or tape. You've got to go find some flamencos.

1. Find another guitarist who accompanies and take lessons, or watch,
listen, spy, whatever :-)

2. Start building a collection of recordings (including videos if you can
get them), and listen, listen, listen. If you're just starting, the older
anthologies are usually better for picking out basic ideas. Contemporary
flamenco is pretty jazzy, and while the bones are there, they can be pretty
obscure. It helps to go shopping with a knowledgeable flamenco to find the
nuggets (if any) at your local stores. Obviously solo guitar recordings
aren't going to be too helpful. Neither are the Gypsy Kings for anything but
rumbas. Camaron and Paco (or Tomatito) are great models, but pretty hi-tech.

3. *After you can sustain compas* (regardless of some mistakes in notes, and
rough technique), find willing singers (!) and dancers, and practice with
them, the better the better. Therein is a dilemma. It is much easier (and
educational) for a student guitarist to follow a very good singer or dancer
than a fellow student (the blind leading the blind). But of course it's the
beginning singers and dancers who are willing to spend time with you.

If you're in a major metropolitan area, where live flamenco happens, this is
probably more feasible than you might think, because most performers in the
US teach (economic necessity). Here's what I'd do, assuming I found a group
(guitarist, singer, dancers) who seem to know what they're doing: Approach
the guitarist about lessons. If too busy or expensive, ask for competent
teachers s/he might know. If you can't afford the maestro, it may be that
one of their better students teaches too. You can get fundamentals from the
student and then "graduate". At the same time, inquire about the lead
dancer's classes, and make contact with some of the dance students. Student
dancers rarely have the chance to work on their own with guitarists, so
they're often eager to find ANYONE who plays. It can really help to pair up
with a compatible "buddy" and pool resources. One way around the "blind
leading blind" syndrome is for you and your buddy (student singer/dancer) to
arrange for a private for both of you with *both* pros just before or after a
rehearsal, when they'd both be there anyway. Probably worth it, even if
expensive. The flamencos I'm talking about will at least know you're serious
if you propose such a thing, and unless they're on ego trips, may well do
their best to accomodate you. Some guitar teachers accompany the classes of
the dancers with whom they work (or their students do), and of these some
will allow or encourage you to sit in. Invaluable. Recognize that dance
teachers have an interest in competent student guitarists, even if the
regular accompanist doesn't. If you are by hook or crook able to attend your
buddy's dance or cante class, you'll have a common frame of reference. After
you understand basic accompaniment, you'll be able to expand your knowledge
by just listening to a lot of people, and won't be so dependent on

All of this presupposes that you're *meanwhile* mastering the guitar itself,
classical and flamenco technique, etc. I don't have much to add to the
wealth of recommendations on that to be found in this group. My point is
that even if you take them all, and wind up with dazzling technique and a fat
repertoire of solos, you're not a flamenco guitarist by flamenco standards if
you can't accompany singers and dancers. To paraphrase the departed master
(Sabicas), who advised guitarists who wanted to become soloists: Spend 20
years accompanying cante; spend 20 years accompanying baile; now you're ready
to think about solos. He did his time concurrently, but now and then
apologized for having started soloing "too early."

The three rules of accompaniment:

1) Stay in compas.

2) Stay in compas.

3) Stay in compas.

Compas is Spanish for 1) rhythm, generally, 2) measure -- a coherent unit of
rhythm, 3) the characteristic rhythm of a particular form. Thus, "he has
good compas" means he has a good sense of rhythm. "The introduction is 4
compas long" means something like (but not exactly) "it's four measures
long." "I play this in the compas of tientos" means I play it with the same
rhythm you'd hear in tientos.

The backbone of all forms in flamenco that have compas at all (some of the
lyrical songs don't) is the compas. Hopefully, you will play the right notes
or chords at the right time, but mistakes of that kind are quickly history.

Singers and dancers will forgive you many many sour notes, and terrible
tone. Unfortunately, they can't work with you at all if you provide them a
hesitant, uneven, or false rhythmic basis. For accompaniment, compas is
King. It's also the Achilles heel of many classical guitarists coming into
flamenco, unless they do lots of ensemble work, or are blessed at birth with
excellent compas. Classical guitar practice is typically solitary, and
tempts one to always go back and fix things. You can't do that when

It's easy to show that you can provide minimal accompaniment without pitch
at all (much less fine tone), but not without good compas: simply damp all
the strings with the left hand, and play accurate percussive rhythm with the
right hand for a singer doing bulerias. S/he'll do just fine. On the other
hand, if you play all the chords perfectly but add or drop just one beat
every 48, the song (or dance) will falter towards chaos (unless the other guy
is very quick at covering), and s/he'll be ready to strangle you.

Compas, compas, compas.


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previous page: 1.2 What makes a guitarist a "flamenco" guitarist?
page up: Flamenco for Classical Guitarists FAQ
next page: 1.4 How can I get a taste of what flamenco accompaniment feels like before going to all this effort?