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Classical Guitar Buyer's Guide
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Written by Paul D. Race for , , and

Classical Guitar Buyers' Guide

Two centuries ago, most guitars were designed around the "classical" mode, sometimes called "Spanish," after the presumed origin of this form. Compared to most guitars being made today for use in the US, these guitars included a small- to medium-sized body, relatively deep "waistline" indentations, and a relatively wide fingerboard. They were typically relatively deep for their size, topped with a solid cedar face, and strung with "catgut" (really processed sheep intestine). Today most classical guitars use nylon for the high strings and fine wire around some core such as silk for the low strings.

The strings give a rich, mellow, and not very loud sound, unless you have a very expensive guitar. They are designed to be fingerpicked (without picks) or strummed with the back of the nails, Flamenco-style. If you pick a nylon-strung guitar with a flatpick, the guitar will sound like the background track to a spaghetti western. If you strum them with a pick, you'll wear the strings out very soon. And if you have bad strumming technique, your flatpick could carve a hole through the relatively soft face of the guitar in about twenty minutes. (Never loan a classical guitar to one of your drunk friends.) That said, nylon strings have two advantages for beginners:

  • They are easier on the fingers. You'll still build up callouses, but you'll build them up more slowly. Some guitar teachers who are asked to teach children start them out on nylon strings just to keep them from being discouraged by struggles with steel strings.

  • Because they are easier to fret, the guitar's fretboard doesn't need to be quite as precise as a that of a steel-string guitar. Consequently, inexpensive "student model" classical-style guitars are actually more likely to be playable "out of the box" than a similarly-priced steel-string guitar.

That said, nylon-strung guitars have two disadvantages, compared to steel-strung guitars:

  • They're not as loud. If you're really interested in playing classical-style music on your guitar this isn't a problem, because you'll generally be surrounded by musicians who know how to play in balance.

  • You have to replace the strings much more often to keep the guitar's tone optimum.

Because the nylon strings don't have to be wound as tight as steel strings, and to compensate for the quieter tone, most upgrade classical guitars have a solid cedar top. Cedar is more resilient (louder) than the Sitka spruce that is usually used on upgrade Steel-string guitars, but it's also more fragile. Cheaper classicals often use laminated tops with a cedar veneer or at least a pumpkin-colored stain so that they look authentic.

Another distinguishing feature of classical guitars is the slotted headstock. This doesn't affect the sound of the guitar to my knowledge, but it's something you seldom see on guitars made for steel strings.

Finally, the relatively wide neck of a classical allows you to play some chords and fingerings that are hard to play on a narrower neck. The converse is true, of course - if you're used to a narrower neck and you go to classical, your left hand will have to do some adjusting.

Pros of Starting on Classical Guitar:

  • You can learn basic chord positions, get used to changing chords, and get used to barre chords before you build up the kind of callouses and left hand strength that you need to play steel-stringed guitars. Again, teachers of very young students often start them out on nylon strings, even if they have a guitar that's made for steel strings.
  • If you have a good teacher, you will be introduced to fingerpicking techniques that will carry over to steel-stringed guitars, and which help you to understand musical textures and techniques that most flat-pickers never learn.
  • If you hang on to your classical after you convert to a steel-stringed guitar, you will be able to switch off and have access to tonalities and textures that are only available on classical guitars.

Cons of starting on Classical Guitar:

  • A classical guitar's neck and fretboard is wider than any other kind of guitar. If you (or the student in question) has very small hands, you might be better off starting with a parlor guitar strung with nylon strings. Also, you will have to relearn your left hand position somewhat when you shift over.
  • Friends who borrow your guitar are more likely to beat it to death (or at least break strings) than if you had a cheap steel-stringed guitar.
  • The neck may be too wide for small hands.
  • If you want to learn the flatpicking techniques that are typically used in folk, rock, country, bluegrass, pop, and alternative music, you'll need to add a steel-string guitar eventually.

  • Your friends will think you own a sissy guitar, until you learn to play Classical Gas and blow them away.

As a side note, back in the days of folk and folk rock when you could earn respect by playing any kind of fretted instrument, several friends started out on nylon strings when they were little kids and never migrated to steel-string guitar, even when they had graduated to playing songs and styles that all but required steel strings. Classical guitars do hold a place in the guitar pantheon that nothing else quite substitutes for. Many guitarists who usually play steel-string guitars keep a nice classical around for certain songs or moods. But if your eventual goal is to play pop, country, Bluegrass, or Celtic, plan on making the jump from fingerpicking nylon strings to flatpicking on steel strings eventually. On the other hand, if your goal is to be the next Segovia, just plan on upgrading to a better classical eventually - I'll defend to the death your right to play it.

US-built or Imported?

The good news is that you can still buy professional solid-topped classical guitars that are made in America. The other good news - for folks without a "pro" budget - is that you can get a relatively decent imported classical without spending too much money. As with all imports, if you wind up buying online, you must have someone who knows what they are doing check it out and set it up while it is still in the return period.

Acoustic-Electric Options

Though I recommend that steel-string players consider getting a guitar with a built-in pickup (or at least compare the price with and without), I'm not exactly "sold" on the average built-in pickup on low and medium-priced classical guitars. To me, the piezo/preamp setups that provide at least a listenable signal on steel-string guitars don't do the richer, but muted tones of a classical anything like justice. If you're actually playing classical music in classical music settings, you'll probably have a microphone anyway. On the other hand, if you wind up playing background music at a vegan soup restaurant, busking on a subway platform, or playing the classical guitar part in a Moody Blues revival band, you might find a built-in pickup more effective than a microphone. Just don't expect your classical guitar to sound exactly like a classical guitar through the amp or PA, unless you sink real money into the setup.


To give you some idea of what you can expect in various price ranges, here are some guitars that may be worth checking out.

Note: Models come and go, sometimes replaced by another model with nearly identical features. As examples:

  • The same model guitar may be available with slightly different wood, for example mahogany back and sides versus rosewood veneer back and sides.
  • The better Cordoba models are available in "crossover" versions which have narrow necks than standard classicals.
  • Several of the models below are also available with a cutaway or electric-acoustic option.
  • Different vendors include (or leave out) different accessories.
  • Elderly Music claims that ever guitar sent out is professionally set up first, something that could cost you $50-80 if you don't know how to do it yourself when it arrives.
In other words, we like providing multiple options, but be sure to read the fine print if you're shopping online. You need to compare "apples to apples," not "apples to oranges."

When you do buy, whatever you buy, please buy an extra set of strings to have on hand in case the strings that came on it are already dead (they often are). And either:

  • Buy from a shop where every guitar is set up by a pro, or
  • Have a pro check it out and set it up for you as soon as you get it.
If you follow any of these links, you'll see dozens more I didn't profile, but hopefully I've given you enough information to make an informed decision.

Guitar ModelIllustration (If available)
Solid or
Veneer Top
Online Availability
Washburn Cadiz C40
Click a button in the right column for details

Click to see this guitar's details on Musician's Friend.

Yamaha CH122MCH
Click a button in the right column for details
Solid Cedar

Click to see this guitar's details on Musician's Friend.

Click to see this instrument's listing at Elderly Music.

Cordoba C5
Click a button in the right column for details
Solid Cedar

Click to see this guitar's details on Musician's Friend.

Click to see this instrument's listing at Elderly Music.

Cordoba C9 Cedar
Click a button in the right column for details
in solid

Click to see this instrument's listing at Elderly Music.

Click to see this guitar's details on Musician's Friend.

Cordoba C10SP
Click a button in the right column for details
in solid
Click to see this instrument's listing at Elderly Music.

Click to see this guitar's details on Musician's Friend.

Takamine Hirade H-5
Click a button in the right column for details
Click to see this instrument's listing at Elderly Music.


Whatever instrument you choose and however you get it into your household, we wish you the best and hope it brings countless hours of enjoyment.

Please check back for updates, and contact us with any questions, corrections, additions, or "reader responses."

Note about Suppliers: While we try to help you get the instruments and other products you want by recommending suppliers with a good record of customer service, all transactions between you and the supplier you chose are governed by the published policies on the supplier's web site. So please print off any order confirmation screens and save copies of invoices, etc., so you can contact the appropriate supplier or invoke the product warranty should any problems occur.*

Note about Ordering Musical Instruments Online: Buy only from folks with a reasonable return policy and be sure to have any musical instrument you ordered online checked over by a professional as soon as you receive it. Every musical instrument has the potential for being damaged in shipment, even if the box looks fine when you get it. In addition, musical instruments shipped across the Pacific have a very high percentage of manufacturing defects. If you look at online reviews, a surprising percentage of the one-star reviews say something like "By the time I realized it was damaged (or had a critical manufacturing defect), the period for returns had run out, so now I'm stuck with a useless piece of . . . . " Yes, the manufacturer should have better quality control, and the store should pack things better. But in the end, you are responsible for making certain that an instrument or product will serve your needs while you still have time to return it.

Note about Buying Musical Instruments New: Before you spend $2000 on an instrument that will be worth $800 once you get it home, check out the used market for that sort of instrument in your area. Depending on where you live, or what kind of instrument you're looking for, it may not be an option. But if you can get a used professional instrument for the same price as a new student instrument, it is often worth taking the risk. Especially if you have a knowledgeable friend who can go along and check it out for you. In fact, many of our pages include links to articles on how to shop for used instruments of various types. However, we recognize that many folks have limited access to good used instruments, and everyone needs to see what is available in the various price ranges. So we do list, when possible, live links to real vendors with a good return policy, in case they're your best choice for getting what you want. Again, once you buy something, your satisfaction is between you and the vendor.

Note about Availability and Pricing: Although I try to keep an eye on things and to recommend products that are reasonably available, the model train market does fluctuate, and any product on this page may change price or become unavailable without prior notice. If you "click through" to see details on a product, and nothing happens at all, or you are routed to a supplier's home page, please let me know and I will remove the product from the online catalog until I can find a replacement or another supplier. For more detailed information about why products seem to come and go and why I have stopped listing prices for most products, please see my article "About Pricing and Availability."

*Here's an irony: every year, I receive about a dozen complaints from folks who have never been to my sites before, angry that a deal between that person and a vendor or manufacturer I recommend went south (in their opinion). They "googled" the product, saw my recommendation or review, then e-mailed me to tell me they were going to sue me or report me to the Better Business Bureau for personally ripping them off by recommending a product they had bought from someone else. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the problem is really because the customer didn't read the whole ad, or ordered the wrong thing, or threw away his paperwork and doesn't know where he bought it from, etc. I'm always polite, and sometimes I can even help them get things straightened out with the vendor, but it's not, technically, my problem.

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