A quiz. Fill in the blank: The … Guitar. Right! ‘Spanish’ is the correct answer. This marvelously versatile instrument which has (with the piano) become geographically and stylistically ubiquitous in the contemporary world is indeed from Spain. But its forefathers are from the Middle East.
The Arabs brought stringed instruments to the Iberian Peninsula when they arrived in 711CE. Most important among these instruments was the oud (pronounced like ‘dude’ without the first ‘d’). To this day the oud is kind of like the guitar or the piano for the Arabic world. Composers use the oud when fashioning their melodies. Vocalists use the oud to accompany themselves when the band in not available. Children learn the oud at the beginning of their musical studies in order to get a grasp of the basics of music theory. Europeans borrowed this instrument and even kept the name, calling it the ‘lute’. The lute remained a central instrument in European art music until the 18th century when modern classical stringed instruments became standardized. But the guitar continued to evolve in a way that never completely broke with the oud.
The flamenco guitar still shares many techniques with the oud. It uses many ‘pull offs’ and ‘hammer ons’, that is, ways of making the strings sounds with the left hand alone, without plucking with the right hand. Flamenco guitarists often use the thumb nail of the right hand to play long melodic lines on the lower strings as if they were using the pick like an oud player (the oud was traditionally played with an Eagle feather: nowadays the pick or rishi is usually made of cow’s horn or plastic). But there are very important differences between the guitar and the oud. The guitar has frets which make playing chords easy. Flamenco guitarists work with harmonic structures particular to flamenco; they play chords percussively to accent the rhythmic structures in flamenco, and of course use chords to play a powerful accompaniment to support the footwork of dancers. The oud is fretless – like a violin or cello – which makes it difficult to play chords. However, the absence of frets allows the oud player to play a greater variety of ornaments including slides and glissandi; most importantly it allows the oud player to play the microtones which are so important in Arabic music.