Flamenco Guitar Toques and Palos

List of Common Flamenco Guitar Toques/Palos (styles of flamenco) and their Compás:

Soleares
Alegrías
Bulerías
Soleá

Fandangos
Fandango de Huelva
Granaína/Granadinas
Malagueña

Siguiriyas
Serranas

Tangos
Farruca
Garrotín
Tarantas/Tarantos
Tientos

Ida y Vuelta
Colombianas
Guajiras
Rumba

Other Toques
Sevillanas
Zambra
Zapateado

Learning Flamenco guitar is a riveting adventure, full of historical intrigue and technical challenges. For those of us who haven’t lived extensively in Spain or other places where flamenco music is an integral part of life, it can be difficult to get your bearings or gain even a basic understanding of where to get started.

Perhaps the best introductory approach is to become familiar with the most common flamenco styles, known as palos or toques (from the guitarist perspective).

El Jaleo, a painting of flamenco dancer and guitarists by John Singer Sargent
El Jaleo, painting by John Singer Sargent

What is flamenco Toque or Palo?

A flamenco toque or palo may be better understood as a musical form (compositional structure), as each one signifies the specific rhythm and tempo, key or mode, harmonic patterns, and appropriate melodic phrasing elements that have been established, developed, and transmitted over centuries.

So instead of saying a piece is played Andante in 3/4 time, E phrygian mode, and then describing accent marks and chord progressions, one can simply say this is a “Soleá” toque, and know generally what to expect.

While flamenco guitar is usually improvisational based on the norms of a given toque, there are well-known compositions, familiar ‘licks’, and standard phrases that players will incorporate on a regular basis.¹

What’s the difference between Palo and Toque?

First of all, what’s the difference between a palo and toque in flamenco? The short answer is there is no practical difference other than palo is a more general term to describe the classification system whereas toque is guitar-specific.

The word palo in Spanish has several definitions, but in this context a “branch” or “suit of cards” is the best translation as it refers to a categorization or classification system.

The word toque, meaning “to touch”, refers to the same exact system but from the guitarist perspective. Secondly, the term ‘tocoar‘ refers to a particular guitarist, and their particular repertoire and style of playing.

Paco de Lucía holding his flamenco guitar
Paco de Lucía, flamenco guitarist and composer

The Flamenco palos system is extremely robust, with dozens of regional, historical, and of course musical distinctions that allow performers and listeners identify which palo is being played.

The codified Flamenco palo system has been classified in many different ways,² but can fundamentally be broken down by cante (singing), toque (guitar playing), and baile (dance). Since our focus is on flamenco guitar (toque), the remainder of this article will refer to the Flamenco style as toque.

To get a better sense of what a toque is, it’s worth referring to an excerpt by Juan Martín’s El Arte Flamenco de la Guitarra:

“There is no exact English equivalent for ‘toque’…. but as you become more familiar with Flamenco you will soon find that the different toques are easily distinguished. Each has a characteristic and recurring pattern of beats and accents (i.e. its compás) and it also has its own kinds of key and harmonic structure. As a result, it has not only a particular rhythmic form but also a characteristic sound and range of expression.”

– Juan Martín, El Arte Flamenco de la Guitarra: Volume 1

As Martín so eloquently describes, once you become familiar with the various toques, their rhythmic structures (compás), harmonic and even melodic nuances, you’ll be able to quickly identify which style is being played–ultimately allowing you to understand and enjoy flamenco music in a more intimate and purposeful way!

List of Common & Popular Toques

Here’s the list and basic description of the most common popular flamenco guitar toques and subcategories, classified by origin and compás:

Soleares

Soleares (plural of Soleá) is considered by many to be the most important and fundamental toque in flamenco guitar pedagogy. As Juan Martín states, “the rhythm of Soleares takes you deep into the heart of Flamenco, for it is a toque which embodies many of Flamenco’s most vital elements of rhythm and harmony and from which many other toques are derived. In Andalucía, every student of the flamenco guitar will start with it.”

Like many aspects of Flamenco, historical origins of the Soleares are uncertain and highly controversial. However, the Soleares became most well-known in the regions of Seville and Cadíz.

The basic compás for Soleares (Soleá), the most widely used in all Flamenco music is:

The basic Solea (Soleares) Compás rhythm cycle with accent marks on the 3, 6, 8, 10, and 12 beat.
Basic Soleares Compás, accents on beats 3, 6, 8, 10, and 12

Alegrías

Alegrías (meaning joy) are a lively branch of Soleares (usually 100-180 BPM) that originated in Cadíz. Alegrías are in a major key (typically E major or A major), and are popular to perform with a dancer or as a solo.

The Alegría includes two sections for the dancer: the silencio, in which a minor key is introduced; and the escobilla, which includes a virtuosic guitar solo and gradual increase in rhythm.

Bulerías

Bulerías is the fastest branch of Soleares, with a lively, intense dissonance that compliments the advanced rhythmic structure of the compás. Bulerías are possibly the most popular, yet also the most virtuosic and demanding for flamenco guitarists. There are many variations of the Bulería compás and accent patterns, which you can learn about here.

Soleá

Synonymous with the name Soleares, Soleá is a slow, solemn, and majestic form that likely comes from the Spanish word soledad, meaning solitude or loneliness. Soleá is known as the “Mother of Flamenco”.

Tragedy, death, and desperation are the common subject matter for the Soleá cante (singers), feelings that are evoked in the guitar playing as well. After a long night of dancing and singing lively toques, the Soleá may be played as a melancholy conclusion. When the drinks are finished and there’s a stillness in the air when sun is on the verge of rising, play the Soleá.

Fandangos

Compared to other toques, Fandangos have a shorter rhythmic cycle that may feel more familiar to musicians trained in classical or other Western music styles. Fandangos were influenced from Arab-Moorish music, and Portuguese music.

Flamenco Fandangos have a 3/4 rhythm (previously 6/8, now 3/4 or 3/8), with an accent on the first beat. Some Fandangos are very metric and appropriate for dance, whereas others have more of a free-form atmosphere (known as en toque libre or “very freely”).

Fandango de Huelva

Within the Fandango toque are regional styles known as ‘fandangos locales’, of which Fandangos de Huelva is one. Unlike the toque libre fandango styles, Fandangos de Huelva follows a strict compás structure that can be danced to.

The 12 beat compás of Fandango de Huelva is broken down into beats of 3 as seen here:

Fandangos de Huelva 12 beat compás, silent beats are indicated with quarter rests.
Fandangos de Huelva Compás, silent beats indicated with quarter rests

Granaína/Granadinas

Granadinas or Granaína is a variant of the Granada fandangos. Granaína is relatively slow, with a freeing rhythm (toque libre) and rich embellishments that convey both a dreamlike and flowing quality. The Granaína is unique in that it’s in Phrygian mode based on the B note.

Malagueña

Malagueñas are another toque libre fandango from the area of Málaga. The Malagueña began as a relatively fast metric form in 6/8 time to accompany dance, then slowed the tempo down and added more embellishments in the 19th century.

Later, guitarists like Ramón Montoya (1879-1949) began playing Malagueñas freely, while still incorporating the distinctive melodic phrases that gave rise to the form’s popularity.

Siguiriyas

Siguiriyas, also spelled seguiriyas, siguerillas, or siguirillas, is a deep, expressive style evoking a tragic feeling similar to the Soleá. Slow, somber, and sentimental, the Siguiriyas compás follows the 12 beat cycle but with a different accent pattern than the Soleares as seen here:

Siguiriya Compás with accent marks and simpler counting system
Siguiriya Compás with accent marks and simpler counting system

Serranas

Serranas originated as a melodious Siguiriya style in the rural Ronda (Málaga) area. The guitarist Silverio Franconetti (1831-1889) is said to have developed the Serrana form in his performance interpretations.

Serranas have a characteristic emphasis on melodic “third” intervals, whereas most flamenco melodies are only minor second or major second apart.

Tangos

First, it’s important to note that Flamenco Tangos are unrelated to the Latin-American form by the same name found in Argentina. Tangos are joyous, upbeat, and follow a relatively straightforward four-beat rhythm structure displayed in 4/4/ time.

Tangos are known for coming from the regions of Cadíz (most prominent), Jerez, Málaga, and Seville.

Farruca

The Farruca, thought to originate in Galicia, Spain, was traditionally danced by men with no singing component. The Farruca is played in A minor, with a compás of two measures of 4/4 time signature with accents on beats 1, 3, 5, and 7 as seen here:

Farruca Compás  of 8 beat cycle with accented beats on 1, 3, 5, and 7.
Farruca Compás and accented beats

Garrotín

The Garrotín is a festive and cheerful style in major mode, 2/4 time. The Garrotín originated in northern Spain near Asturias, and can include singing or dancing as well as guitar accompaniment. The renowned flamenco singer La Niña de los Peines helped popularize the Garrotín.

Tarantas/Tarantos

Tarantas is a quintessential toque libre, with very lofty, repetitive ligado phrases (hammer ons/pull offs). Tarrantas have a characteristic technique called arrastre, in which the right hand ring finger (a) drags from the high to the low strings in a quick successive manner (similar to an upstroke but a bit slower and disconnected). Tarantas are commonly notated with no measure bar lines to indicate the free manner in which in should be played.

The Tarantos contrasts to the toque libre Tarantas, with a strong rhythmic feel structured in a compás of 4s (2/4 or 4/4 time). The key signature and basic chord structure of Tarantos is the same as Tarantas (two sharps), so their harmonic relationship is clear and distinct.

Tientos

The Tientos is often danced, and is a bit slower than other tangos. However every Tientos does speed up and become a tango by the end following the dance escobilla sections. The Tientos four beat compás can be counted with accents on beats 2 and 4.

There is a distinctive syncopation in the rhythm, one of the simplest variations can be seen here:

Tientos Compás simple variation with syncopation.
Basic Tientos Compás

Ida y Vuelta

The Spanish expression Ida y Vuelta (“departure and return” or “round trip”) refers to palos that were exported from Spain to the New World, particularly Cuba, where they evolved with African and Native American music influences. These styles were then imported back to Spain via immigrants returning from those regions.

Colombianas

The famous flamenco singer Pepe Marchena is said to have created the Colombiana (or Colombina) in 1931. The guitarist Ramon Montoya accompanied Marchena in recordings of the Colombiana the following year. Colombianas are in a major mode and follow a 4-beat compás similar to the Rumba:

Flamenco Colombiana basic compás rhythm with accents.
Basic Colombiana Compás

Guajiras

Guajiras is a toque based on a Cuban rural genre known as Punto Guajira Cubana. The Guajira is in a major mode, and follows a 12 beat compás similar to the Solea, with accents on beats 3, 6, 8, 10, and 12. Guajiras is in a major mode, with a characteristic descending melodic phrase in the bass from F# to F to E. For more info on the Guajiras compás and examples, check out this page.

Rumba

The Rumba, meaning “party”, originated in Havana, Cuba. The flamenco Rumba became popular in the late 20th century by artists such as Paco de Lucia, and Rodrigo Y Gabriella and Gipsy Kings, among others. The Rumba is in a minor mode, and notated in 4/4 time.

However, the Rumba’s rhythmic structure is alternatively thought of as 8 beats (3+3+2) in a single measure. The Rumba’s characteristic accents on beats 1, 4, and 7, give the Rumba an exciting drive:

Rumba 4/4 Rhythm with a cycle of 3+3+2 structure, including accents on 1, 4, and 7.
Basic Rumba Rhythmic Cycle

Other Toques

• Sevillanas

Sevillanas are a lively, popular toque with dance accompaniment, usually notated in 3/4 time similar to the Fandango rhythm. Sevillanas are usually grouped together as four Sevillanas–short individual renditions played sequentially one after the other in different keys or modes.

Sevillanas begin with a series of rhythmic rasgueado, followed by a brief melodic sequence (salida), followed by more reasgueado, then the full melody (copla). The third copla is usually a slight variation from the previous two.

Zambra

Zambra is a flamenco style that originated in Granada and Almeira. The Zambra is believed to have derived from earlier Moorish dance styles, and thus the melodies usually have an arabesque quality.

Zambras are very metric, typically have a bouncy, alternating bass on strong beats. To play a Zambra, guitarists will usually tune their guitar bass string down to drop D.

Zapateado

Zapateado is a lively style in 6/8 time and popular dance form (in Spanish, zapato means shoe). The form appeared in Cadíz, but similar forms have also been found in Mexico (the Zapateo). Guitarists usually play the Zapateado in C major, although Sabicas has a unique well-known composition “Zapateado in Re” (D major).

Footnotes

¹ Parallels can be drawn to jazz guitarists learning licks and solos of famous jazz predecessors. Contemporary players will often incorporate and/or elaborate on these phrases on the spot during a performance as an homage.

² Another way to classify these styles is by mood: cante jondo (serious and solemn), cante chico (lighter and festive), and cante intermedio (a style that doesn’t fit into either category).

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