Famous songs played on the classical guitar range from the modern Stanley Myers’ composition Cavatina to the energetic, 17th Spanish folk song Canarios and a lot in between.
These 15 songs from different eras are all-time crowd favorites. They have been performed by various world-class artists like Andres Segovia, Julian Bream, John Williams, David Russell and a host of others over the decades.
Every guitar player aims to play at least some of them with the hope of getting them into their personal repertoire (some are very tough to master, though.)
- Capricho Arabe by Tarrega
- Variations on a Theme of Mozart by Sor
- Etude No. 1 by Villa-Lobos
- Prelude 1 by Villa-Lobos
- Guardame las vacas by Narvaez
- Bourree in E Minor by Bach
- Chaconne in D Minor by Bach
- El Testamen De Amelia by Llobet
- Canarios by Sanz
- El Colibri by Sagreras
- La Catedral by Barrios
- Asturias by I.Albeniz
- Romance by Anonymous
- Cavatina by Stanley Myers
- Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Tarrega
15. Francisco Tarrega: Capricho Arabe
Francisco Tarrega, often referred to as the father of the modern guitar, composed Capricho Arabe in the 1900s. In it he recalls the dark moments of his Spain under Arab domination for hundreds of years. It is a popular tune among classical guitarists and listeners alike with traditional Spanish and Moorish influences.
Capricho Arabe by Alexandra Whittingham
14. Fernando Sor: Variations on a Theme by Mozart
Fernando Sor was a Spanish classical guitarist and composer best known for his attractive guitar studies. Sor’s compositions range from beginner’s pieces to advanced works such as these Variations on a Theme by Mozart. He was considered in his time as the best guitarist in the world. His Variations on a Theme by Mozart Op. 9 is based on a melody of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. It is a virtuosic piece fit for the concert hall.
Variations on a Theme of Mozart by Edson Lopes
13. Agustin Barrios: La Catedral
Agustín Barrios was a Paraguayan virtuoso classical guitarist and composer, largely regarded as one of the greatest performers and most prolific composers for the guitar. John Williams, a former student of Andres Segovia, said of Barrios: “As a guitarist/composer, Barrios is the best of the lot, regardless of era.” The Johann Sebastian Bach-inspired La Catedral, from 1921, is widely considered to be Barrios’ magnum opus.
12. Heitor Villa-Lobos: Etude No. 1
Villa-Lobos was a Brazilian composer and guitarist described as “the single most significant creative figure in 20th-century Brazilian art music”. Villa-Lobos is the best-known South American composer of all time. His music was influenced by Brazilian folk music and the European classical tradition. His 12 Etudes for the guitar was published in 1929 dedicated to the legendary Andrés Segovia. Although known as etudes, meaning studies, these are difficult for novices to play. Check it out to verify!
Villa-Lobos Etude No. 1 by Sanel Redzic
11. Heitor Villa-Lobos: Prelude No. 1
Villa-Lobos published his famous 5 Preludes in 1940, dedicated to his spouse. Both his Preludes and Etudes are important works in the guitar repertory today. And very satisfying to play if practiced over a long time.
Villa-Lobos Prelude No. 1 by Nicholas Petrou
10. Luis Narvaez: Guardame las vacas
Luis de Narváez was a sixteenth century Spanish composer and vihuelist. Highly regarded during his lifetime, Narváez is known today for the earliest known variation sets. The most important pieces are Narváez’s six diferencias, or variations. Guardame las vacas, as popularized by Segovia and others, is one of the earliest examples we have of setting out a theme and following it up with faster sub-divisions in time. The title means “Take care of my cows”, which indicates the pastoral origin of the song.
Guardame las vacas by Jean-Francois Delcamp
9. J.S.Bach: Bourree in E Minor
This Bourree in E Minor by the great J.S.Bach is from his Suite in E minor (BWV 996), written probably for the lute-harpsichord. In modern times, the Suite is often performed on the guitar or the lute. This is a popular piece in the guitar repertoire. It is arguably the most famous piece among intermediate-level guitarists.
Bourree in E Minor by Per-Olov Kindgren
8. J.S.Bach: Chaconne in D Minor
The great Segovia transcribed this crown jewel of the violinist’s repertoire into a guitar piece. It is considered the greatest guitar piece requiring utmost virtuosity. For one thing, at over ten minutes, it takes a lot of stamina to perform this well.
And for another, the piece makes use of the guitar’s dazzling array of technical tricks: rapid scale runs, extended arpeggios, multi-line playing, trills, mordents… the works.
Violin Partita No.2 BWV 1004 in D minor premiered 1935 in Paris as the guitarist’s Chaconne, bringing it into international attention. Let it play on in the background as you keep doing your light odd jobs in your room. It will sooner or later work its magic on you and ask to be noticed.
Chaconne is a classical music fan’s delight, though it reaches over to a general audience pretty well. If you can one day actually play it, you will be greeted with a 21-gun salute by every nation you visit.
Bach’s Chaconne by John Feeley
7. Miguel Llobet: El Testamen De Amelia
Miguel Llobet Solés was a Spanish classical guitarist, a virtuoso who won name and fame in Europe and America with his touring. He made well-known arrangements of Catalan folk songs for the solo guitar. El testament d’Amèlia is a popular Catalan folk song. Llobet’s D minor arrangement has become the accepted classic version for this piece. It has been recorded by Llobet, Andrés Segovia, John Williams, Julian Bream, Pepe Romero, David Russell, Chet Atkins and many others.
This song is the perfect showcase for one of the classical guitar’s unique and beautiful sounds: harmonics.
El Testamen de Amelia by Tavi Jinariu
6. Francisco Tarrega: Recuerdos de la Alhambra
Surely everyone heard this one already. Recuerdos de la Alhambra is definitely one of the most iconic classical guitar tunes ever written and a classic staple of intermediate guitar students.
Composed in 1896 in Grenada, this piece requires mastery of the tremolo technique to keep the sound continuous and bring the song to life. It is emblematic of the Alhambra, a set of Andalusian palaces, superb relics of medieval Islamic architecture, bringing to the mind’s eye its dancing fountains, lush gardens and courtly life. It is romantic guitar at its best.
Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Julian Bream
5. Gaspar Sanz: Canarios
Gaspar Sanz was a Spanish composer and guitarist, who wrote three famous volumes of pedagogical works for the baroque guitar. Canarios was one of the many folk tunes that Sanz put to good use in his methods. In turn, a later composer Joaquin Rodrigo in his famous concerto used Canarios (and other Sanz tunes) as a tribute to Spanish music. This short but energetic song grabs your attention with its infectious bounce.
Canarios by John Williams
4. Isaac Albeniz: Asturias
Isaac Albéniz was a Spanish virtuoso pianist, composer and conductor who never composed for the guitar. Yet many of his works have been transcribed for the guitar. His Asturias (Leyenda), Granada, Sevilla, Cadiz, Córdoba, Cataluña, Mallorca, and Tango in D are important pieces for classical guitar and are well known to guitar students. Asturias, especially in the hands of John Williams, is a cherished gem in the classical guitar repertoire. One can never tire of listening to its charm and sudden changes in tempo.
Asturias by John Williams
3. Julio Sagreras: El Colibri
Julio Salvador Sagreras was an Argentine guitarist, pedagogue and composer of the twentieth century. Sagreras is well known for his methodical and famous guitar instruction series. El Colibri (The Hummingbird) is a virtuosic piece when played up to tempo. It is also a riveting one at the first hearing itself.
El Colibri by John Williams
2. Anonymous: Romance
Romance Anónimo is a piece for guitar, also known as Spanish Romance, Romance de España, Romance de Amor, Romance of the Guitar, Romanza and Romance d’Amour. Everyone has heard it a few times already. No one knows for certain its origins and authorship. It is probably a solo instrumental guitar work from the 19th century. For all that, to many who fall under the spell of the classical guitar, this piece is often the catalyst.
Romance by Tabei
1. Stanley Myers: Cavatina
Stanley Myers was an English composer and conductor who scored over sixty films and television series. He is best known for his guitar piece Cavatina, composed for the 1970 film The Walking Stick and later used as the theme for The Deer Hunter. It brings a modern idiom to the sound of the classical guitar. It is difficult to think of this song played on any other instrument but a guitar.
Cavatina by Tavi Jinariu
On a related topic, I have presented and reviewed the top 20 Classical Guitar Music albums you should have in your collection. Take a look at it for further inspiration.
To get to know more about great composers for the classical guitar and the fabulous music they created, I recommend this great read here on the site on 15 greatest composers for the classical guitar.
Happy listening and learning!