Learn Flamenco Techniques for Ukulele


I love the sound of Spanish guitar. The melodies, harmonies, and rhythms of traditional Andalusian music have found their way into classical scores, jazz music, and many other styles over the years, but the true magic of these elements comes together in flamenco. The beauty and fierce drama in flamenco are not the easiest musical elements to study. Complicated rhythms, rapid techniques, and unfamiliar phrasing can be quite difficult to pick up. And the result on the written page can be quite intimidating, so much of this style is taught by ear and by careful execution of the melodies note by note.

I have always enjoyed breaking things down so that even the most difficult passages can be understood by any player, and I have spent a good amount of time creating Latin and flamenco studies for ukulele. This Malagueñas lesson is a great way to delve into the flamenco sound and pick up a few tricks that seem flashy but are really not very difficult once you understand how they work. As a nice bonus, these elements can also be used in any other style of music very effectively.

Malagueñas is a musical form derived from earlier types of fandango that comes from the area of Málaga, in southern Spain. Originally a folk song, it became a popular flamenco style in the 19th century. Many of the flamenco forms are tied directly to dance and carry with them a strict rhythmic order. The Malagueñas style is called cante libre, which literally means “to sing freely.” Even though there’s no singing in this lesson, it is rubato—free of strict tempo—but still in a three-count rhythm. You can take the music slowly and enjoy learning this simple chord progression with some fun melodies, arpeggios, and a harmonic minor scale at the end!

Let’s play through “Malagueñas de la Brea.” (That’s a reference to the La Brea Tar Pits, right across from where I live in Los Angeles.) One of the secrets to the mysterious sound of Spanish music is the use of the harmonic minor scale. In this case, we are in D minor and will be using notes from the D harmonic minor scale (D E F G A Bb C#). 

The first open chord vamp (Example 1) is the classic “Hit the Road Jack” progression (Dm–C–Bbmaj7–A), with its stepwise descending root notes. In flamenco, players incorporate open strings for shimmering effects. Note that the open A on the Bb here makes the chord a colorful Bbmaj7. 


Flamenco ukulele lesson music notation 1

Try lightly strumming or arpeggiating the chords in any way you choose. Speed up and slow down as you like before ending on the A–Bb–A cadence in the last measure. Here we establish the sound of the A chord as the key center, even though the notes in the scale and melody coming up are in D minor. It’s the C# in the A chord that lets us know this is harmonic minor, but that romantic bullfighter sound comes from starting with the A major chord. 

As shown in Example 2, the main melody comes next. Start very slowly and strum the A chord briskly with your thumb (p), followed by the single notes alternating middle (m) and index (i) fingers. This may be a new technique for some, but it’s well worth spending a little time getting accustomed to using these fingers for melodies and scales. Once you gain a little bit of pace, you can enjoy starting very slowly and speeding up a bit with each repetition of the melody. Freely slowing down and landing right at the end of the phrase feels fantastic, too. Stretching tempos and dynamics are skills that quickly improve your overall musical abilities.

Flamenco ukulele lesson music notation 2

The tremolo section is a familiar sound to most of us. Here we start with a simple arpeggio of bass notes (Example 3a) and then add the open A note over the top (Example 3b). Play each of these lines slowly to get the hang of things, and then build up some speed. The thumb-middle single tremolo is quite easy, and adding the triplet thumb-middle-index pattern, as shown in Example 3b, is a joy once you see how fast it comes. This one sounds very flashy and can be used in any style of music. It’s also very useful during the chord vamp as a rolling arpeggio—give it a try!

Flamenco ukulele lesson music notation 3

Example 4 shows the end tag, a straight harmonic-minor pattern that finally takes us all the way back to a D minor chord. If you like, you can end on an A major chord instead. Feel free to noodle around with the scale and invent new melodies. Once you can play through all the sections, put them together in any order to make this arrangement your own. Doing this in conjunction with modifying the tempo and dynamics will give you a short song with lots of dramatic, romantic sounds all coming from your little four-string!

Flamenco ukulele lesson music notation 4

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