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The Basics of Classical Guitar and Rest Stroke

Updated on May 1, 2014

My Guitar

Jose Ramirez 4E - Solid Cedar Top
Jose Ramirez 4E - Solid Cedar Top
Indian Rosewood Back and Sides
Indian Rosewood Back and Sides


This lesson is to introduce you to the basics of playing the classical guitar and to explain some of the techniques that are used such as rest stroke and free stroke.

The Wood

Guitars are essentially made in two ways, either in a factory or by a luthier. If made in a factory they will still be made by hand, but will be made on an assembly line, if you buy a luthier built guitar you are getting a much higher quality product where a guitar maker selects the wood and builds it all by hand in a workshop to a very high quality finish. Lower priced guitars will always be factory made.

A Classical Guitar is made up of a body, which consists of a top, sides and back, and a neck. The most important part of any classical guitar is the top of the body, this is where the sound is projected from, so the better the quality of wood used to make the top, generally the better the guitar. Guitar tops are usually made from Cedar which is a soft wood and gives a mellow, warm sound or Spruce which is a harder wood and gives a brighter, sharper sound. Guitars can however be made from pretty much any wood including maple, mahogany or I’ve even seen a guitar made from used whisky barrels!

The back and sides of the guitar offer less tonal quality than the top so will often be made from laminated wood in mid-range or from solid rosewood or mahogany on better guitars. The fingerboard which takes most of the hammering from your fingers is often made from ebony as it is a very hard and durable wood, in modern times where ebony is becoming rarer due to the rainforests being cut down, rosewood is often used. The wood that the guitar is made from is the most important thing when selecting a classical guitar so it is really worth doing some research if you are about to buy one.

Many cheaper classical guitars are made from laminated wood or plywood, this is where three thin layers of wood are glued together. The top layer will be good quality wood, whereas the lower two pieces of wood are a much lower quality wood. This makes the wood very strong but with little resonance and tonal quality. Many mid-range guitars have laminated back and sides but a solid wood top. A laminated wood guitar would probably cost under £100 ($150), a solid wood top with laminated back and sides would cost up to around £200-£800 ($300-$1200) and you would have to pay at least £800-£1000 for a half decent all solid wood guitar, they then go into the thousands for really good solid wood guitars. If you’re buying a classical guitar always pay as much as you can afford, but I would never recommend a laminated guitar as the quality of the sound is simply not good enough, if you are starting off, make sure you get at least a solid top guitar.

A classsical and steel string guitar side by side. the Classical neck is noticably wider.
A classsical and steel string guitar side by side. the Classical neck is noticably wider.

Other Differences

A key difference between a classical guitar and a standard acoustic guitar is that the neck of the classical guitar is much wider, this allows more space for complex fingerings. Another key difference is that nearly all classical guitars have what is called a rosette. This is a decoration around the sound hole which can be made from pretty much any material including different types of wood, mother of pearl, abalone, rope etc. This is used by luthiers (guitar makers) to personalise the guitars they have created.

The Strings

The key difference between a classical guitar and a standard acoustic guitar is that the strings are made of nylon; the bass strings are also wound in metal to give more volume. This can contribute to string scrape when the strings are new. This is when you can hear your finger slide up the string, this usually lessens as the strings are bedded in. Many guitarists use products like fast fret, which is oil you wipe on to the strings to allow you to slide more easily. I personally would not use this on my classical guitar as I wouldn’t want the oil to get near the body of the guitar, but I would use it on my electric. Again though that is personal preference so you might find it valuable yourself. The bass strings will wear out much more quickly as they are wound, but the higher nylon strings should last longer. I usually change the bass strings every 1-2 months and the treble strings every 3-4 months. I find that new strings give much better volume and tone, which starts to fade after a week or so, if I had more time I’d probably change them more often.

Guitar Cushion
Guitar Cushion
A footstool in use
A footstool in use
Notice the straight back, great posture.
Notice the straight back, great posture.

Playing Position

When playing classical guitar it is key to be sitting up with your back straight. I am presuming here that you are right handed so please reverse all directions if left handed. The guitar should be positioned on your left leg, for playing classical guitar it is key to raise your leg to allow you to hold the guitar at approximately 45 degrees. This allows you to keep your arm and back straight. To raise your leg the standard approach is to use a footstool, this is simply a small stool that is approximately 12 inches high that allows you to raise your leg and get the guitar into the correct position. An alternative to the footstool is a guitar cushion, this so a cushion that you rest on your thigh that you use to support the guitar. It has the same effect as a footstool in that it changes the angle of the guitar. My personal preference is to use a cushion is I find it easier to just pick up and play. Both options are relatively cheap so it really is just down to personal preference. Playing with the correct position is a key element of the classical guitar technique and will really help you prevent back troubles which you have to be very careful of when playing classical guitar; it will also allow you much more control.

I prefer one of these to a guitar stool...

Free Stroke

This is the basic guitar finger picking technique that is exactly the same if you were playing a steel string guitar. Place your fingers on the string and pull up to release the string and create the note. For the thumb free stroke you just use your thumb to push down on the string avoiding the other strings.

Rest Stroke

The rest stroke is a little trickier, but is pretty straightforward. Hold the end of your finger against the string you are playing, then stroke your finger tip through the string so that it rests on the string above. This allows greater volume from the note and allows you to dampen other strings if you don’t wish them to sound. For the thumb you simply push down through the string to rest on the string below. For instance if you wished to play a rest stroke with your thumb on the low E string, you would push through the E to rest on the A string.

Guitar stools are widely used by classical guitarists...

Rest Stroke vs. Free Stroke

Any classical guitarist must master both of these strokes they are the absolute basics of the classical guitar and both have their place. Free strokes can be played with more speed, whereas rest strokes provide more volume and can be used to bring out the melody of the piece.

The following video shows Study in B Minor by Fernando Sor. this is a great piece where rest stroke is used to bring out the melody of the song. Concentrate on the close ups from 43 secs to get a good view of rest stroke in action.

Study in B Minor - Example of rest and free stroke


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    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 14 months ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      The Ramirez guitars are great to play and they have very beautiful sound. I like the cedar top it has a nice warm sound. Great hub, Stella

    • dommcg profile image

      dommcg 4 years ago

      I actually used to enjoy rock climbing but had to pretty much give it up as my nails kept getting broken, so yes avoiding anything that could damage your nails is a good approach. Ana vidovic is a fantastic player and nice looking too. Many thanks for the comment.

    • GuitarGear profile image

      Walter Holokai 4 years ago from Youngstown, Ohio

      I have often wondered how a classical guitarist maintains his(or her) fingernails. I would guess that they don't do much manual labor. I love classical guitar. My favorite classical guitarist is Ana Vidovic. She's an awesome player and not hard to look at either :)

    • dommcg profile image

      dommcg 5 years ago

      Classical guitar is much more technical than jamming on an electric and hence takes much more concentration. Not to say the greats can easily close their eyes and play, but personally i can jam away on an electric with my eyes closed for hours but hardly dare blink when i'm playing classical.

    • Rain Defence profile image

      Rain Defence 5 years ago from UK

      Can you play classical guitar with your eyes open or do they have to be closed? I've noticed that eyes closed seems to be mandatory with electric guitar players, sometimes combined with slow head nodding.