How to choose a classical guitar

Brian Whitehouse, director of the Classical Guitar Centre Ltd, offers key considerations and advice

For anyone considering the purchase of a good classical guitar, whether their first or an upgrade, the choices available and technical information can appear overwhelming. Primary factors for consideration are tone, playability and appearance. If you pay more, then you should expect a better instrument – but why? Going just by appearance, most guitars are similar.

The expertise of the constructor and degree to which it is handmade is of utmost importance. A well set up guitar with a comfortable string height should be a pleasure to play. Even for a beginner, this is essential. There continue to be many instances where a poorly adjusted instrument has discouraged a player in the early stages.

The correct size of instrument is also very important. A very young child should not be expected to struggle with a full-size guitar. Even a smaller adult may feel happier with a shorter, narrower fingerboard and scaled-down body. Decisions are very personal but advice from a professional teacher could help.

Tone is very much affected by the quality of woods used. Most instruments of reasonable quality will have solid wood (cedar or spruce), as opposed to laminated, soundboards. The choice between cedar or spruce is a personal one. All classical guitars had spruce soundboards until 1965 when José Ramirez, the great Spanish lutherie founded in 1882, experimented with cedar (the story goes that an employee came back with the wrong wood from the merchants, by mistake!). Now opinion is divided: amateurs, with more moderately priced instruments, usually prefer cedar; professionals are split 50-50. Cedar is generally thought to give more volume and warmth and spruce more clarity. Also, cedar is more ‘ready’ when new; with spruce, development can take more time.

More expensive guitars usually have solid rosewood back and sides, with added attention given to the detail of interior build. The age of the wood aids stability and also has a bearing on tone. Better instruments invariably have ebony fingerboards and tuners of superior quality. Finishes are normally synthetic but can sometimes be French polish (Spanish gamalaca) on more expensive instruments.

Appearance could be said to be of less importance, but it all helps to create an artistic impression. This is a personal matter, but an elegant instrument, with beautiful woods, pleasing shape (or plantilla, as the Spanish say) and attractive rosette (soundhole decoration) all add to the beauty. It is often not realised that the rosettes are made of many very tiny pieces of wood and their designs (commonly of Moorish influence) are something of which the luthiers are fiercely proud.

The question sometime arises: What is a flamenco guitar? And how is it different from a classical? Put simply: flamenco instruments are designed for playing Spanish flamenco music. This necessitates a brighter sound, with plenty of volume realised by the use of cypress (usually Spanish) back and sides. String heights are generally much lower and tapping plates (golpeadores) employed to protect the soundboard during the execution of rasgueado strumming. The lower height of the strings accentuates rattling on the fingerboard, not so welcome in classical music, but all adding to the flavour for flamenco aficionados. This lower action is also sometimes welcomed by steel-string acoustic and electric players when they select a nylon strung guitar. They may choose a negra flamenco instrument, a hybrid guitar: a flamenco with rosewood back and sides.

Electro instruments could also be a consideration. These would only normally be sought by a performer intending to play, say, in venues such as restaurants and hotels, or maybe with orchestras, or chamber ensembles. They have pick-ups and can be plugged into amplifiers.

The classical guitar is a very personal instrument which requires both hands to be in direct contact with the strings. No two players’ hands are the same and establishing a personal preference is much advised – a visit to the shop is highly recommended, with a teacher or professional for advice if possible. In the final assessment choice is actually simple – just pick one you like!

Once you have your guitar you may be thinking of tuition. It does not matter if you are a complete beginner or someone with sound basic knowledge, a teacher can make a world of difference to future progress. A good one will be sympathetic and encouraging, with advice on correct technique and well-chosen didactic material. Examinations may be of interest. Guitar syllabuses are now a feature of all leading examination boards. Their carefully-selected repertoire and technical work can be of great help to a student’s development, giving a structured approach to the studies.

A good instrument and a good teacher should provide the catalyst for many happy hours of playing.

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