The Alzapuá – The Prodigious Thumb: Part One

First published in the Journal of Flamenco Artistry and translated into English by Greg Case.

Flamenco guitarists worldwide say that without Alain Faucher’s transcriptions one deprives himself of what is known among the optimum formulas for effectively expanding his solo repertoire. Faucher’s twenty some years of offering his cifra works of Flamenco’s great masters has gained him recognition wherever expertise in flamenco guitar is taken seriously. Faucher’s recent efforts include a exquisitely compiled volume Arte Clasico Flamenco, the works of Ramón Montoya with cifra and conventional notation, translated into three languages and available from Affedis via mail order. This is the first of a three-part article describing the use of the thumb in flamenco guitar.

If it is true that the flamenco guitar distinguishes itself to a large degree from other guitar styles by the use of the right hand, then it is especially due to it’s strikingly effective thumb technique, the alzapúa. Used less in today’s compositions than it has been in the course of flamenco guitars development, alzapúa remains an indispensable tool for the flamenco guitarist. An already well-accepted technique by the time of Ramón Montoya, it’s origin can be traced to the remote past since it is apparent that the use of the thumb is the most basic and fundamental of all flamenco guitar techniques. The alzapúa evolved from it’s original form particularly due to the technical and rhythmical innovations introduced by none other than Paco de Lucia.

There are three movements in the alzapúa technique: 1) bass to treble: 2) Treble to bass: 3) Single bass, with a possible golpe on the first movement to mark the accent.

Example 1 is from Ramón Montoya’s Soleá:

The melody is produced on movements one and three.

This style reached its height with Sabicas expanding it in long developments; full variations he often used to conclude his soleás and fandangos. But it is probably in the ‘tango gitanos from the L.P. “Serenata Andaluza” where he demonstrates this effect at peak virtuosity, similar to Ramón Montoya’s style.

In the original form the single bass style was played on the same string. Then paco de Lucia makes a radical change: instead of merely playing a single bass string here, he also uses the next highest bass string which offers a gain in speed since the thumb moves from one string to the next between two strokes of an alzapúa, from the lower to a higher string (towards the treble), an easily maintained motion. The sound of the effect is even more emphasized than before.

To illustrate, Example 2 is an excerpt from the finale of Paco’s soleá “Cuando Canta El Gallo” where the eight note triplets become sixteenth note:

It would be interesting to recount the alzapúa’s evolution by using examples to illustrate the various forms it took with specific guitarists in diverse periods of their inspiration. However, Paco de Lucia provides the best example for this study. As a point of departure, the elements leading the alzapúa to it’s definitive forms are already present on Paco de Lucia’s first solo LP “La Fabulosa Guitarra” (1967) since the three variants are clearly represented and all three can be found on the same record:

Example 3 – the alzapúa is still traditional in the fandango ‘Punta Umbria”:



Example 4 – two distinct innovations appear in the buleria “Jerezana”:


a) the modern technique (single bass one string lower than the original string played); b) and very important, a shift between the melody and the beat facilitated by the superposition of the alzapúa ternary structure (three parts) with the binary division of the beats (in quarter notes) obvious below, where the alzapúa’s first movement is placed alternatively on the beat and against the beat. However, there is no real melody line here, the melody is being reduced to its simplest expression.

Example 5. In the malagueña “En La Caleta” the finale is a variation in alzapúa on the chord pattern EM/FM/GM/G Flat M/FM/EM:


Paco de Lucia now introduces the semiquaver (series of sixteenth notes) – another novelty – allowed for by the moderate tempo. Again this brings a superposition of two unequal divisions; by three (alzapúa) and by four (semiquaver in one beat) in bars two and three; but on bar four (second and third beats) the additional single bass appears in the total of one alzapua unit, which readjusts it on the beat since both are now divided by four: There is still no defined melody.