While playing together for more than a quarter of a century, acoustic duo Rodrigo Sánchez and Gabriela Quintero developed a unique approach to guitar—their goal is to sound like a full rock band. Photo by Jim Mimna.

The music Rodrigo y Gabriela draw from their nylon-string guitars—Rodrigo Sánchez using a plectrum and Gabriela Quintero approaching the instrument like a hand drum—is not easy to categorize. It’s definitely not flamenco, as many listeners mistakenly identify it, simply on the basis of its instrumentation and rhythmic intensity. Though it’s often frenetic and power-chord laden, it’s not exactly rock either. Maybe it’s best not to label the sounds this guitar duo has synthesized naturally by playing together for nearly a quarter of a century. “Through the years we’ve picked up so many different influences from metal to jazz to flamenco to Cuban to Indian music,” says Quintero. “So we’re just who we are.”

Sánchez and Quintero, both 40, met when they were teenagers at a cultural center in Mexico City, and they’ve been playing together ever since. Initially they wielded electric guitars in a thrash metal band but then were drawn to the nylon-string guitar. They began busking as a duo in Ixtapa, a Mexican beach resort, playing unplugged rock standards by Led Zeppelin, Metallica, and Black Sabbath, but ultimately found it unfulfilling to perform for unappreciative tourists.

Facing stagnation in Mexico, Sánchez and Quintero decided to make a go of it as backpacking musicians. In 1999 they headed to Dublin, a city that purportedly had a lively culture of street musicians. When they got to Dublin, Sánchez and Quintero stuck to what they’d been playing in Mexico—mostly covers of classic rock and metal fare. But then something happened: To flesh out their sound, Quintero began assuming a more percussive role, and at the same time Sánchez started writing new material for the duo. In other words, they turned Dublin’s Grafton Street into a musical laboratory.

“I might not play flamenco, but I think that a lot of my heavier percussive sounds are inspired by the flamenco approach to timekeeping.” —Gabriela Quintero

Sánchez and Quintero also mingled with traditional Irish musicians, an influence that became especially evident in Quintero’s approach to rhythm. Fortuitously, this led to their careers starting to take off in a global way, when the Irish musician Damien Rice helped them find a manager and then a record deal. By the time Rodrigo y Gabriela released a debut album, re-Foc, in 2002, the duo’s style had begun to gel. Their approach, as well as the scope of their influences, would be further solidified through Rodrigo y Gabriela (2006) and 11:11 (2009).

On Area 52 (2012), Rodrigo y Gabriela revisited compositions from their first two albums in a collaboration with C.U.B.A., a full Cuban orchestra. But Sánchez and Quintero pared things back to two guitars for their most recent effort, 9 Dead Alive, a collection of new pieces that is both more intimate and, true to their roots, rock-oriented. From their studio in Ixtapa, they spoke to Premier Guitar about their long history as a duo and the inspirations and techniques at play on 9 Dead Alive.

Describe your formative musical experiences.
Rodrigo Sánchez:
My dad used to have a couple of guitars that he played as a hobby. Although I wanted to be a drummer, those guitars were all we had available at home, so that’s what my brother and I learned. The first time I picked up the instrument was when I was 11, after seeing the first Live Aid concert in 1985. I taught myself and tried to play like Judas Priest on this old nylon-string.

Quintero is shown here playing in April of 2012 at a concert at Philadelphia’s Tower Theater.
Photo by Cathy Poulton.

Gabriela Quintero: I come from a family of music lovers and was privileged to hear great music in the house when I was growing up. No one really played any instruments but my mother had a really big collection of albums—everything from jazz to the Beatles to the Rolling Stones to salsa to boleros to tango to classical. I decided to play the guitar because it’s such a light and easy-to-transport instrument, and you can play so many different styles of music on it. And then I discovered metal—Megadeth, Testament—and I wanted nothing more than to play in a band, loudly.

How do your metal roots feature into your playing today?
They come through everything I do—I never set out to make polite guitar music. The only real difference is now I play acoustic guitar instead of electric. Though this album is more inspired by rock in general than metal, my technique on the nylon-string really comes from a metal place.

Quintero: The elements of metal I’ve always been most attracted to are the intense rhythms and the riffs. Although we obviously don’t use distortion, we often have those sounds in mind when we play the acoustic guitar, and this translates into such a percussive and energetic approach to the instrument.

As nylon-string players, do you have classical backgrounds?
We never had any formal training. We tried to get into the National Conservatory of Music when we were 16, but were both rejected and never tried again. Instead we got together with a bunch of friends and played in a rock band. Ultimately this was probably for the best: With classical training, Gabriela would probably never have dared to do things the way she does.

Quintero: I wish I had a classical or flamenco background, but at the same time I’m happy to have arrived at a unique approach to the guitar.