Practicing musicians know that tapping your foot while playing is important to staying in time and on tempo. It can be challenging when learning flamenco guitar, however, to figure out where your footfalls should land – especially for palos like buleria, alegria, solea, and siguiriya. Do you tap on the first beat of the measure? on the third? just where it feels “natural”? And what do you do if you feel like you’re just playing in 2/2 or 2/4?

These are great questions for all sorts of reasons – not the least of which being that it was a puzzle I personally obsessed over for longer than I care to admit. I eventually found a technique that works for me, but before I go into it, I want to point out that I’m not suggesting that there’s any one “right” way to tap (or count) buleria. If you’ve got a system that works and keeps you in compas, great – keep doing that! If not, here’s one way (or two) that might help.

Counting Buleria in “Twelves”

When I play buleria, I usually tap out the compas “straight” like this:

12 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Basically my footfalls are on the boldface numbers and I just hang out for the beats in between. This takes a little bit of getting used to, but you can train yourself to do it by playing really simple marking compas (the stuff that usually goes in between falsetas) and then working your way up to more syncopated stuff. Once you get comfortable with marking, try tapping to easier falsetas. Ultimately, you’ll be able to keep time with your foot whenever you play.

By way of illustration, here’s a short bulerias I recorded some time ago. I wasn’t trying to capture any “foot tapping” at the time, but you can still hear it under the guitar and golpes:

Of course other people tap differently. In fact, depending on the way you play, you may want to tap differently. The buleria I play above is in the traditional “twelves” style. I’m playing each cycle of twelve beats as a distinct unit. But “twelves” is not the only way to play buleria: it can also be played in “sixes” or in “threes” (conceivably also in “twos,” though I can’t think of any ready examples of this).

Counting Buleria in Sixes and Threes

As morally, ethically (perhaps ecumenically) wrong as it feels to put a video of Paco de Lucia on the same page as a video featuring insignificant me, here is a great example of Paco playing buleria in sixes and tapping his foot in threes:

The tapping, I think, is fairly obvious: he taps a cycle of three that repeats regularly. This tap, by the way, mimics a common palmas pattern for buleria. In this case, Paco’s not only keeping time, but is also giving a particular flavor to the piece as he plays it.

My assertion that he is “playing in sixes” is a bit more complicated. Basically what I mean by this is that instead of phrasing all of his rhythm and falseta work in discrete twelve beat cycles, Paco’s phrases tend to move in six beat cycles. Often times you will hear a twelve, but he moves fluidly between the two types of phrases throughout the song.

I’m of course not suggesting that as part of a beginning “let’s learn buleria” regime anyone should try to tap his or her foot like Paco. But it doesn’t hurt to be aware of the different flavors alternate counting patterns can give.

Keeping Time with Dancers

For an example of more playing in “threes” (and an absolutely mad weaving back and forth between different times), check out this buleria, danced by “La Chimi” with Antonio Gamez and Curro Vargas on guitar:

Again, I’m not suggesting that when learning how to count out buleria one need go to such extavegant lengths. Indeed, for an instrumental piece, this would probably be distracting (if not a bit irritating). The point to take away, though, is that time in buleria is a fluid thing – and a slippery beast – but that it can wrangled by being a flexible and attentive player.

Attentive, that is, to the music you’re playing and to the people you’re playing with or for. You’ll notice in the “La Chimi” video above, for example, that the guitarists are doing very little in the way of falsetas or fretboard pyrotechnics. But they are almost maniacally attentive to what the singer, dancer, and palmista are up to – and they calibrate their guitar playing to fit the situation.

Staying in time and in compas can sometimes feel like “more work” on top of learning an arrangement or falseta, but these details make the difference between playing the notes and the playing music. The Flamenco Compas Metronomes here at Ravenna Flamenco can help keep you on track – and in time. Use them as you learn and practice new music to train your fingers, feet, and head to think in flamenco polyrhythms.