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Classic (Classical) Guitar - the instrument and its music

Updated on August 20, 2011

Classic Guitar - the name

The Classic Guitar is simply a guitar built to a classic design that has been refined but essentially not changed for about 100 years. The classic guitar also goes by two other less suitable names: 'Classical Guitar' and 'Spanish Guitar'. 'Classical Guitar' links the instrument too closely with classical music; the classic guitar repertoire, including transcriptions and arrangements as well as original composition, covers some 500 years of music, a far wider range than the relatively brief Classical era. 'Spanish Guitar' again is too narrow. The instrument's roots are not purely Spanish and, for many people, the name conjures up images of Flamenco song and dance, where, in fact, the accompanying flamenco guitar is a quite different instrument from the classic.

The Classic Guitar

An old but typical instrument
An old but typical instrument

Classic Guitar - main features

(The classic guitar in the picture is 38 years old and has been my lifelong traveling companion).

Six nylon strings, wrapped around tuning barrels, worm-geared to six tuning pegs, in an assembly called the head.

The strings leave the head via the grooved 'nut' which sets their spacing and height.

They pass over the 'fingerboard', close to it, but without touching.

The fingerboard is fitted with metal 'frets' spaced one semitone apart.

The neck joins the body at the twelfth fret, the halfway point of the string (one octave).

The fingerboard and frets continue over the body as far as the sound-hole.

The sound-hole is ringed around with an ornate 'rose' which is purely decorative.

The strings continue over the 'table' or 'soundboard' until they reach the bridge.

The bridge is glued to the soundboard. The strings pass over the 'bone' and are tied through holes at the back of the bridge.

All true classic guitars have these features in common. Beyond that, the variation is mainly in quality of materials, construction and finish. But these are the details that make all the difference between a 'bedroom guitar' and a true concert instrument.

Details - the nut, the rose, the bridge
Details - the nut, the rose, the bridge

Musical strengths and weaknesses

The classic guitar is a polyphonic instrument with a range of three and a half octaves, coinciding almost exactly with the normal choral range. However it is not fully polyphonic like a piano. It is limited by the number of strings (6) and by technical problems that make certain combinations of notes unplayable. In the right hands, it is the most expressive of instruments, mainly because of its naturally beautiful but widely variable tonal quality. It is very well suited to solo or duet playing, self accompaniment and chamber ensemble, especially with recorders, flutes and voice. However, it is a quiet instrument and cannot hold its own among orchestral or band instruments without amplification.

Other strengths

The classic guitar is self-contained, portable and light. This makes it an ideal instrument for anyone who moves around a lot. You can't travel the world with a piano (unless you're Elton John) and while you can with a flute or violin, these instruments are of limited appeal without company. Another attractive feature is the price. While concert instruments are expensive, a perfectly serviceable entry level instrument can be picked up for about a hundred pounds ($165), considerably less than most student grade orchestral instruments.

How is it played?

Assuming you are right-handed, a note is prepared by pressing (stopping) a string against the fingerboard (at the correct fret!) with a finger of the left hand, then played by plucking the string with a finger of the right hand. Classic guitar players do not use any plectrum or pick, as they have far more control over the tone quality and execution using the fingers (and fingernails) directly.

How is the music written?

Classic guitar music is written one octave higher than it actually sounds. This allows the music to be written entirely in the treble clef (with leger lines above and below), which makes reading easier. To make a success of classic guitar, unless you are a brilliant improvisor, it's more or less essential to read music. Otherwise, you are effectively restricted to playing chordal accompaniments, folk-style finger-picking and a few memorized party pieces. That's fine, of course, but it doesn't come close to unlocking the power and beauty of the repertoire.

A sample of classic guitar notation

The small '8' under the treble clef means that the music sounds one octave below written pitch. The small numbers beside some of the notes are left hand fingerings. The letters (i, m) are right hand fingerings. Other markings (the CIII and the lines connecting some notes) refer to specific left-hand positions and techniques. (This sample is from a guitar transcription of some Renaissance Lute music by John Dowland, court lutenist to Queen Elizabeth - his Melancholy Galliard)

Is the classic guitar hard to play?

In common with most musical instruments, the classic guitar is easy to play badly! Fortunately, there is plenty of good entry level or student level music that is accessible with a little practice and very satisfying to play. The concert repertoire is difficult to play well and impossible to play perfectly. So, it's best to think of the guitar as a lifetime's study.

Who should learn classic guitar?

Anyone who genuinely wants to play it, and no-one else! People often say you should learn to play 'properly' on a classic first, before taking up steel-strung acoustic or electric instruments. But that's bad advice. The instruments and techniques are very different. Your choice should be governed by the music you want to play. If you want to play in a rock band, buy a Strat or a Les Paul (or a copy if you're on a budget) and go for it directly. If you're into folk/acoustic music, treat yourself to a Martin or an Ovation and learn on that. The Classic Guitar is a labour of love. Only buy one if you love the sound and the repertoire, are willing (or already able) to read musical notation and are prepared to practise regularly for, well, 38 years so far...

If you think you might be interested, but are not very familiar with the repertoire, it's best to seek out recordings by some of the top players - Julian Bream, John Williams, David Russell - before deciding to take the plunge. Classic Guitar is not everybody's cup of tea. Or try to get hold of a copy of John Mills playing "Music from the Student Repertoire", to hear a master player's rendering of the music you'll be playing yourself. Quite inspiring.

How do you learn Classic Guitar?

I'll be writing more about this soon. But the short answer is, find a good teacher, and practise. If you try to teach yourself, especially in the early stages, you are very likely to develop restrictive habits that will limit your potential.

Finally, to prove that my 38-year-old classic is still playable, here's a recent wav file of me playing an improvisation in Seguiriyas form, a style of Flamenco Cante Jondo, or deep song. I have better guitars at home, both classic and flamenco, but none as much loved or as far traveled as this old stager, bought in Andorra la Vella in 1970 by a distant young hippy who shared my name.


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    • b4u2c profile image

      b4u2c 8 years ago from The Kingdom of God's Dear Son

      Try this next time (..|.,) lol...

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      I tried to send this: (!)

      but HubPages bounced it, with "Your comment is rather short."


    • b4u2c profile image

      b4u2c 8 years ago from The Kingdom of God's Dear Son

      OK, I'm sold... go ahead and send it to me Fed-Ex :)

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      As an aside, the Cayuela is also very nice for playing early music, Robert de Visee, Gaspar Sanz, et al. The clarity of tone suits the contrapuntal music well; makes it easy to hear the different lines.

    • b4u2c profile image

      b4u2c 8 years ago from The Kingdom of God's Dear Son

      Thank you for the link to your instruments my friend! I guess it's pretty obvious how much I love musical instruments. Sorry for posting so much off topic in this hub. That other hub would have been better for all my ramblings. I REALLY appreciate you Dave (almost as much as I like your Cayuela and your lute). So great hub on tuning! You taught me some new things that have helped me enjoy my guitar more (I thought the intonation was off... lol). Thank you!!!

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Thanks Scott. Interesting, I didn't know about the American exported Yairi guitars. My Taurus was built in 1970 and is a model 50 from that era. There are a couple of pictures of it (and of my flamenco guitar and lute!) on this hub

    • b4u2c profile image

      b4u2c 8 years ago from The Kingdom of God's Dear Son

      I think this is the present Taurus shop: Is your guitar pictured among their models? Model 60 maybe?

    • b4u2c profile image

      b4u2c 8 years ago from The Kingdom of God's Dear Son

      Thank you Dave. That was a great recommendation. In essence that is the road my friend decided to take. Kazuo Yairi is from the Yairi family of master Japanese luthiers. Since the 60s they released domestic and import guitars under many labels - S. Yairi, K. Yairi, Yairi and Sons etc, and most commonly for the US export market branded as the popular Alvarez handcrafted line, which are still being produced by K. Yairi in Japan today. So you know more about the Alvarez guitars than you thought :)

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Have you heard of K. Yairi? I'm not sure the current pricing but their hand-build classic guitars used to be about the same price as factory Yamaha instruments, and very much nicer. I'm still playing a Taurus (Spanish made) classic, but I'm not sure they are atill in production.

    • b4u2c profile image

      b4u2c 8 years ago from The Kingdom of God's Dear Son

      Kaori Muraji is playing a Romanillos in this video:

      This particular guitar, La Alegria, does not shout, instead she sings, she is alluring but not overtly so, subtle but not shy. Simply captivating! Did you notice the way the guitar instantly and deeply connects with the player? The result of that union is spellbinding no matter what level of player you happen to be at the time.

      Unsurpassed beauty in sound and form, noble, sweet, emotional, expressive, and beguiling-- this beautiful instrument embodies every one of those attributes. Dave, forget about the Philippines! Buy a Romanillos!!!

      By the way… are you going to post some more samples? I enjoyed your Seguiriyas piece. I was never very good with improvising. Do you have any tips?

    • b4u2c profile image

      b4u2c 8 years ago from The Kingdom of God's Dear Son

      Howdy Dave - Do you have any low end brand recommendations for a freshman college music major who is serious about classical guitar but has only 500USD? Rudolf ate his old guitar this holiday break... needs replacement soon (he borrowed my Romanillos and I want it back NOW... lol) ... he has no budget to stretch...

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Greetings Scott - I don't know the Alvarez guitars, but there is certainly a world of difference between the mass produced and the handmade instruments, and it's well worth stretching the budget a little to move into the second category. After all, it's a purchase that can last a lifetime.

    • b4u2c profile image

      b4u2c 8 years ago from The Kingdom of God's Dear Son

      Awesome hub!!! Thank you :) And I hope you don't mind, but I thought I'd throw in my two cents and offer a classic guitar purchase recommendation for serious folk on a budget. In my not so educated as Paraglider opinion, the Alvarez Masterworks Series MC90 Classical Guitar is maybe the finest classical guitar in its price range (well under 1000 USD). It has Indian rosewood back and sides, plus Western cedar top with precision scalloped bracing, which are features usually found only on much more pricey guitars. This instrument features a really elaborate mosaic rosette, rosewood body binding and headcap. The gold machine heads with tortoise buttons make it a guitar you will be proud to play and be seen playing for many years to come. Incredible sustain from the cedar top. Nice bass tones. Loud and clear projection. Concert quality sound!

      These Alvarez guitars are handmade in limited quantities making use of traditional construction techniques and naturally seasoned wood. Because the Alvarez craftsmen do not use computers to build their guitars, each guitar has its own unique feel and character.

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Thanks Mike :)

    • Make  Money profile image

      Make Money 8 years ago from Ontario

      Very nice Paraglider.

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Hi Sandra - Not yet. It's something I've been meaning to do for a long time. I think a friend has put me on you-tube somewhere, but I've no idea where!

      Earnest - Martins are lovely instruments. I'm mainly a nylon player but I enjoy a good acoustic too. Thanks for the visit.

    • earnestshub profile image

      earnestshub 8 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Paraglider, that is a sweet axe! The sound has the richness of old wood! I still have a D28 Martin (1977) which I love very much. Sounds like a bloody orchestra!

    • profile image

      sandra rinck 8 years ago

      Do you have a site where I can listen to you play more? I am completely infatuated with classical guitar. Could listen for hours.

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 9 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Hi Tony - I wish we had an audio capsule facility in Hubs, to make it easier to illustrate the musical ones. U-tube isn't everything. Thanks for the visit.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 9 years ago from South Africa

      Love your improvisation in Seguiriyas form, thanks for sharing it.

      My guitar playing is rather rusty nowadays but I still love the instrument

      Love and peace


    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 9 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Hi Jim -

      Glad you found it! On the hype & beauty theme, I think that's true of the Internet as a whole, of which Hubpages is just one small corner.

    • soulsurfer profile image

      soulsurfer 9 years ago from South West England

      Hi Paraglider,

      Thanks very much for the beautiful music, and for the email about how to find it. Unfortunately it seems like hype is easier to find here on Hubpages than beauty!



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