A man playing a Spanish-style guitar

How to Play Spanish Style Guitar

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Some of the coolest things a trained guitar player can do is heavy metal shredding or Spanish style guitar. They are entirely different genres and picking styles, but they are both impressive to most listeners as they find the flow and speed incredible.

If you want to be fluent in classical or flamenco methods, it will take plenty of slow and deliberate practice. Here is a great online guitar lesson on music theory and techniques for playing Spanish style guitar.

What Is Spanish style guitar?

This description can apply to a few different overlapping styles that apply to acoustic nylon-string guitar playing from Mediterranean regions that were influenced by North African and Spanish music. In this music, we rely on fingerpicking and slightly exaggerated hand and arm movements. If you have learned guitar from a Western flat-picking pop and rock perspective, you will need to liven your hand, wrist, and fingers up!

If you are looking to buy just the right acoustic for playing this style, note that classical guitars usually have higher action for less string buzz and flamenco styles have lower action for speed. However, almost any nylon string guitar will have a large enough fretboard to accommodate this style of play.

The main sound you get will come from how you pluck the downstrokes and upstrokes with your fingers. Some players even grow their fingernails out to aid in this, though it’s not necessary to go that far to get a decent Spanish style vibe on a classical guitar.

The best way to approach it is to learn the basic scales and chords used along with the most common techniques. And most of all, be sure to listen to a lot of the exact style you want to play. If you do not immerse yourself in the sounds of the genre, it will be hard to do.

Get Your Music Noticed!

The music theory of Spanish style guitar

Most Spanish and flamenco guitar is often based around a very old classical chord progression known as the Andalusian cadence. These chords are made up of the Phrygian and Phrygian Dominant modes. These two guitar scales have an exotic and unique vibe compared to the usual major scale of 1 2 3 4 5 6 7.

Phrygian is 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
Phrygian Dominant is 1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7

If you play both scales, you will see that it makes a difference in the overall sound if we use a b3 versus a 3. These scales are close to the minor or Aeolian mode, except for the b2. These Phrygian and Aeolian modes form a common descending chord progression, like iv-III-II-I — in A minor, that’s Am-G-F-E. Play those guitar chords in an open position arpeggiated manner and it will have a Spanish and flamenco feel. Remember an arpeggio is where you play individual notes of the chord as opposed to all at once.

Of course, these aren’t the only chords and progressions used in the genre, but they are very common and a good place to start. After you play the open positions, move up the fretboard and find the other positions. As you get better at the basic chords, extend them with maj7, 7, 11, and 13 chords like E7-E13-E7-Am or E-Am-G6-Fmaj7. There is also a lot of chromatic movement because of the b2 so try an A-Bb-A-Bb. Check out a guitar chord chart for a refresher.

Any variation we add to the chords will be derived from the Phrygian scales above. Even without any proper techniques those chords and sequences should provide the right sound; now you just need the guitar fingerpicking and groove down.

Common techniques used in Spanish style guitar

When you play the chords above, you will be holding your guitar in a seated position and close to your body while using your thumb, index, middle, and ring finger in a fingerstyle guitar technique. Sometimes the pinky is used, but first get your other four down. In tabs, they are labeled like this:

  • Thumb: P
  • Index: I
  • Middle: M
  • Ring: A
  • Pinky: C

In Spanish style guitar, there are many different “rasgueado” or strums, but the main theme is hitting each finger on the strings and then quickly doing an upstroke of each finger the opposite way. The key is to do it so fast and smooth that you almost don’t hear the individual notes. All techniques in this guitar genre are all about fluidity and keeping with the rhythm of the music.

Before you try difficult strums, first play an easy one with your thumb and three fingers, strike down with your thumb on the low bass and then play the higher treble strings upward with your three fingers all at once. Play that over the chord progression above and once you are comfortable, slowly move one finger at a time over the treble strings — ring, middle, index — then reverse back the other way.

The amount of pressure we apply to the strings is important for whether we want an intense or light sound. Next, we can add more thumb down strokes onto other bass strings as we alternate to finger upstrokes on the treble.

As it gets easier, try to keep a pattern going in your arpeggios; don’t just pluck each one fast, they need similar repetition. The ultimate goal is to be able to precisely pluck each individual string with separate fingers and at a high speed (which will realistically take months of practice).

Further Spanish style guitar study

There are many specific fingerings and techniques for different styles of flamenco, Spanish, and classical guitar — the key to learning them will be deliberate and daily practice. Whether you want to play older compositions from hundreds of years ago or modern guitarists that mix Spanish and Romani styles is up to you. Both will take dedication to train your fingers to move in a quick and independent manner.

If you need help learning the rhythms of these styles, listen to music examples and play along with them. The rhythm you use will determine whether you get a classical or flamenco vibe. Another great practice method is to search for Spanish-style backing tracks to play the Am-G-F-E over — just use a variety of fingerpicked arpeggiated patterns.

Spanish style guitar encompasses a huge variety of music and guitar techniques, but they all have emotive fingerpicking as a hallmark. If you have an acoustic nylon stringed guitar, pick it up and try some Phrygian notes and chords to play those styles. Like many other guitar techniques, it will not be an overnight process to successfully play flamenco or classical music. But if you stick with it, eventually you can impress almost anyone with rhythmic rasgueado runs!

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About Shawn Leonhardt

Shawn Leonhardt is a freelance writer for Guitar Tricks, the original online guitar lessons program since 1998. With over four million members, Guitar Tricks is the premier guitar lessons platform for beginner guitarists and advanced players alike.

1 thoughts on “How to Play Spanish Style Guitar

  1. You really do need to grow your fingernails on your right hand (if right-handed). Playing with just your fingertips makes the sound too dull and quiet. You can try finger picks but I find them awkward to use. I do, however, sometimes use a thumb pick.

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