Flamenco Articles (6)

Altered Tunings in Flamenco Guitar by Alain Faucher

Translated into English by Paco Sevilla

For the musician, mode and tonality are tools used in the search for a specific atmosphere or character. On the guitar, these tools are sharpened and strengthened, as each tonality has its own mechanics, its own logic and fingerings.

The Good Lord, in His infinite generosity has enriched our instrument further by making it possible to change the tuning, giving it a wider harmonic scope (we could say “chromatic scope”, in the sense of a painter’s palette, if the word weren’t already used for naming certain scales).

Thus there are three different levels for the guitar composer : mode, key, tuning. Tuning was explored very early in Flamenco, at first out of mere inquisitiveness and in a rather anecdotal way, and later resolutely and methodically. This came to take on so much importance in the present day that it prompted us to chart its evolution. Without pretending to include every innovation, it will help in understanding how these tunings work, their contributions, and their future prospects.

I Altered Tunings in the Traditional Style
The guitar is tuned in E ; this gives it its native tonality. With two open strings in E, including the bass, the fingerings are naturally made easier, whether in Major, minor or Phrygian mode. The soleá , often called "madre del cante" is traditionally played in E, which we might, in turn, call the “mother tonality” of the guitar.
In its early history the flamenco guitar kept exclusively to the E tuning, until it ventured into trying something different. As a matter of fact it was sufficient to look towards its Classical older sister, whose omnipresent proximity could not help but offer inspiration.

1. The first excursion out of the original system appeared with the D tuning: the 6th string is lowered by one tone, and the instrument now has 2 open strings in D (4th and 6th). The first and obvious reason for this tuning is to use the six strings in the D tonality and mechanics, making available positions and fingerings for which the guitar is not well suited in the E tuning. Lowering the sixth string has another effect which is to reinforce the bass seating and extend the register of the instrument. Subjectively the guitar changes its dimensions, is expanded. Beyond this increase in space, the guitar has access to new harmonies, unexpected chords to the flamenco ear.

The D tuning came to flamenco through the instrumental guitar –unconnected with cante accompaniment. It seems that Ramón Montoya was the pioneer, with one of his early guajiras, but the D tuning was really popularized in the danzas moras, mostly those of Sabicas. In this case the choice for the sixth string in D was an attempt to imitate the Arabic lute with its deep ostinato bass. One can say that since Sabicas –with such compositions as "Amanecer arabe" - nobody has done it better. He signed other outstanding compositions in this tuning such as the Guajira melodica (partly inspired by Montoya’s version), his Zapateado and Seguiriya in D. This last, which escaped notice within his repertoire, was already preparing for the future : for the first time the D tuning appears in the phrygian mode.

Later on this tuning was used extensively and skillfully by Manuel Cano in the A Phrygian key with the advantage of enhancing the Dm chord and allowing an easy and superb B-flat chord (with F on the 6th string, 3rd fret). Here is a small excerpt from his siguiriya, Reniego:

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Serranito would also make the most of this tuning in his farruca, campanilleros and some popular Andalucian themes. Sabicas, too, would use it in his farrucas for three guitars. Last but not least, Paco de Lucía composed the Farruca de Lucía, a work that can be considered as the ultimate achievement in this form, as, with the possible exception of the classical and beautiful Limonera from Enrique de Melchor, nothing really notable has been done since.

Save the example by Manuel Cano and the exception of Sabicas’ siguiriya, the D tuning has been applied only to styles that do not belong to the central flamenco guitar repertoire. It’s all about recreative pieces, fantasias. At this stage, confined to the instrumental field, and generally only to peripheral styles, the D tuning remains a fringe phenomenon in the flamenco guitar.
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2. This also holds true for another tuning introduced into flamenco by the great Ramón Montoya with his rondeña. The strings are tuned this way, from bass to treble: D, A, D, F-sharp, B, E. The unique key used with this tuning is C-sharp Phrygian, which produces the most sumptuous harmonies. The conjunction of dissonances and deep basses add a touch of mystery, and the guitar takes us to a magical landscape where one can let his mind wander. Let’s dream with the intro of Paco de Lucía's Doblan campanas:

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In fact the rondeña is a taranta, transposed one fifth higher. This tonality is built on C mechanics at the 2nd position, where the fundamental chord position is not quite natural. However the guitarist moves here within a very comfortable environment that provides magnificent sounds with surprisingly economical movements. One can arpegiate full chords, including up to five open strings, and develop on this base a complete melody over a big part of the fingerboard without having to perform any bar. Montoya’s original composition continues, without a doubt, to be the reference for the rondeña style. This piece has turned out to be a symbol for every flamenco guitarist, from any period. We find again Manuel Cano and Serranito among the first explorers of this tuning, a part of the proper toque por rondeña, with their arrangements for Andalucian popular themes. Whether in duet or in solo, they left noteworthy pieces such as Zorongo, Romance del Pastor, and Las Tres Morillas. Here is Serranito’s intro to Las Tres Morillas :

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3. In his famous composition, Mantilla de Feria, Esteban Sanlúcar gave us the G tuning: (from bass to treble) D, G, D, G, B, E. Here is the intro:

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The G tuning can be found also in Sabicas' danza mora, Damasco and traditional themes from northern Spain (Gallegadas), as well as in Manuel Cano’s version of the Andalucian theme Los Peregrinitos. This tuning, being primarily limited to the G-Major key is not often used. It provides, however, some of the same advantages that we have already seen in other altered tunings, such as an increase in the bass register, and easier fingerings in the basic tonality. Thus the G-Major chord has four open strings, and even more, five, in its second reversal position (with the open sixth string). Modern flamenco has not shown much interest in this tuning although Rafael Riqueni composed a brilliant garrotín in G that could take its place in the classical guitar repertoire.

We must repeat that, up to this point altered tunings have played a very limited role, that is to say, they have been applied to specific pieces not involving the noble styles that are the foundation of the flamenco guitar (those linked with the cante and born out of accompaniment). However, as with every kind of music, the guitar can't escape its destiny, which is to evolve, and these "foreign" tunings soon begin to actively participate in the modernization of the toque, besieging other palos step by step, until they become common and part of the identity of to day's flamenco sound.

In the beginning it is only the already known altered tunings that are involved, but then new ones appear, not drawn from the classical guitar, but invented by our tocaores. This serves to reinforce flamenco’s unique character and usher in the modern era.

 
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