Classic (Classical) Guitar - the instrument and its music
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
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.
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.
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.