If you’re considering learning how to play guitar, starting with the classical guitar is a great choice. Not only are the nylon strings more gentle on beginner fingers, but you’ll also gain fundamental knowledge and learn techniques that will allow you to easily play any other kind of guitar, should you wish to do so.
In this article, we’ll briefly go over what a classical guitar is, its history, as well as a few things to keep in mind when learning how to play.
What Is a Classical Guitar?
The classical guitar is a precursor of the modern acoustic guitar. Its main distinguishing characteristic is that it has nylon strings instead of the metal ones used on modern guitars. This results in a softer, more mellow sound than what you’d hear from steel strings.
Though classical guitars evolved into acoustic and electric guitars we hear in popular music, they’re still very much around today and are cherished for their unique sound and style of playing.
Classical Guitar Origin
Guitar-like instruments have been around for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the 15th century that Spanish musicians started using instruments that most closely resembled what we today know as the guitar. The shape of the instrument and the number of strings varied over the years, until finally, in 1817, Spanish guitar maker Antonio de Torres came up with a design that gave rise to the modern guitar. For this reason, it is often called the Spanish guitar.
The early versions of the classical guitar used strings made from animal guts, and nylon strings didn’t enter production until 1948.
Types of Music That Use Classical Guitar
Most of the music we hear today is played with steel string guitars. However, the nylon string guitar can be used to play classical, Spanish, bossa nova, flamenco, and even some types of jazz music.
Classical vs. Flamenco Guitar
The terms classical guitar and flamenco guitar are sometimes used interchangeably, but while they’re both nylon string guitars, they’re actually two different instruments.
The flamenco guitar is lighter than the classical and its strings are positioned closer to the neck, making it easier to play quickly and incorporate innovative techniques, such as tapping on the fretboard. This also often results in a bit of buzzing—a sound quality characteristic of the flamenco style. The flamenco guitar also typically features a protective plate around the sound hole, helping to reduce damage to the instrument’s finish when players use percussive techniques.
The classical guitar sound, on the other hand, is very clean—it doesn’t involve any buzzing or percussion.
You can certainly play flamenco on a classical guitar, but if you’re serious about flamenco music, a dedicated instrument will serve you much better.
How to Play a Classical Guitar
In some ways, playing a nylon string acoustic guitar is similar to playing a steel string one. The strings, tuning, chords, scales, and theory are all the same.
However, the classical style of playing is very different from how you’d play a modern acoustic or electric guitar. With a modern acoustic, for example, you could learn four chords, a simple strumming pattern, and be able to play a full song in less than an hour. With classical guitar, on the other hand, there is no strumming—you have to spend some time learning scales and fingerstyle techniques.
Below are a few key considerations that are fundamental to playing:
1. Playing Position
Classical guitar players place their instrument on their left knee, while their left foot rests on an elevated footstool. This allows the neck of the guitar to point upwards at a 45-degree angle, resulting in a more comfortable playing position for the left hand. Alternatively, you can keep your left foot flat on the ground while placing a special support between your thigh and the guitar to help keep it elevated.
The other thing to keep in mind is the placement of your left thumb. Modern guitar players often rest their thumb on top of the guitar’s neck, sometimes even using it to fret the low E string. However, doing this on a classical guitar will result in a poor hand position and limit the rest of your fingers. Instead, keep your thumb tucked away near the middle of the guitar’s neck.
2. Using Fingernails
While you can use a pick to pluck the strings of the guitar with your right hand, it is traditionally played with just your fingers. Back when strings were made from animal guts, classical guitarists used the flesh of their fingers to pluck strings. With the upgrade to nylon strings, as well as the need to produce more volume and fill large auditoriums, it became common practice to use one’s fingernails.
Whether you use the flesh of your fingers or your nails is entirely up to you. If you choose the latter, be sure to do a bit of research on how you can grow and maintain strong and healthy nails.
3. The Importance of Learning Theory
With modern acoustic and electric guitar, you can likely get away with not learning any music theory—you can simply play chords or search for tabs that will tell you exactly which strings to play and where to place your fingers on the fretboard.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case with classical guitar. Because classical guitar involves fingerstyle playing, it is fundamental that you know which fret-string combination corresponds to which note. You’ll also need to practice scales, which are essential for developing proper technique and learning to play at a fast pace.
In addition to learning theory, it is highly recommended that you learn how to read sheet music. If you wish to play classical music, it will almost always be written in music notation, rather than tabs. Getting into the habit of learning even the simplest songs from sheet music will benefit you a great deal in the long run.
Start Learning Classical Guitar Today
One of the best ways to learn to play the classical guitar is by watching online classes and tutorials. They’ll teach you the proper basic techniques and make sure you don’t pick up any bad habits that will hinder you as you try to play more difficult pieces. Once you master the basics, you can look for sheet music in books or online and master song after song all on your own.
Learn to Play the Classical Guitar
An Introduction to the Classical Guitar