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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:
That said, nylon-strung guitars have two disadvantages, compared to steel-strung guitars:
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:
Cons of starting on Classical Guitar:
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 OptionsThough 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:
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:
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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