Choosing a classical guitar for yourself or someone else – a relative, friend or a child – can be easy if you follow a methodical approach. I have noted key factors from my own experience of buying guitars as well as research online to write out this buying guide for you.
What exactly are you looking for when purchasing a guitar? When you’re at the guitar store, a mental checklist of 9 steps is what you need to apply:
- Your choice of music
- Guitar size
- Your budget
- Guitar ‘action’
- Neck shape
- Choice of woods
- Machine heads
All are objective criteria barring the last one of playability. You can go about it very systematically. In fact, the first three items – your choice of music, guitar size and your budget – can be determined even before you visit the store.
These factors become very helpful when you try out multiple guitars, because when you compare, you form informed opinions. Playing just one or two guitars is not be very helpful to make up your mind.
You can make a better judgment of what feature you’re willing to have less of in one guitar in exchange for more of another feature in the other guitar. It is a comparative dance, no getting away from that.
Your choice of music
Is the music you intend to play traditional or modern? If it is traditional classical music, you are looking for a proper, ‘purist’ classical guitar. This guide is all about that. If you’re into modern music like pop or rock or jazz and you are looking for some nylon sounds to add to your sound palette, this guide will help you find the perfect classical guitar.
But players of modern music have another option in addition to a ‘purist’ classical guitar: the nylon-acoustic-cum-electric hybrid guitar. If you’re interested, I have a detailed review of the Ibanez GA6CE that can help you. This type of guitar is certainly a classical guitar in terms of nylon strings and bracing patterns but it is also an amplified guitar for greater volume and ‘bite’.
It is a cutaway that allows easy access to the higher frets. Not many traditional classical guitarists will consider this a classical guitar in the pure sense.
Classical guitars come in a variety of sizes unlike their steel string cousins. For this reason, classical guitars are good educational guitars for anyone of any age starting out. (Also, nylon strings are easier on little fingers than steel ones.)
Broadly, there is the full-size classical guitar and for a normal adult, that is the only choice to consider. But there are three-fourths size guitars for children over 12 and half-size guitars for children under 12. It’s good to bear in mind that these fractions are not mathematically accurate. So a half-size guitar is not really half the size of a normal guitar!
These fractions are manufacturer-speak to say the 1/2 size guitar is for little children and the 3/4 size is for not so little children.
There is one particular size that you may pay special attention to: the parlor size as Cordoba calls it or 7/8 guitar as Yamaha calls it. This is a slightly truncated version of the scale length which is the distance between the bridge on the soundboard to the nut at the headstock end.
These guitars have a scale length of 630 mm as against the full size 650 mm and the width at the nut can also be smaller at 50 mm rather than the full size 52 mm. These marginal differences in mm do matter for adults with small hands and they are made just to suit them. Even luthier guitars offer 630 mm versions, so these are not to be equated with ‘children’s guitars’. They are full-fledged musical instruments.
If you want to know more about shorter scale guitars, make sure to read our article on 630 mm guitars for adults with small hands.
If you’re thinking of a hybrid guitar like the Ibanez GA6CE, you should know they come in only full size. You have smaller options in neck width to make it easier to play for acoustic guitarists, but the scale length is the standard one.
At the inexpensive end, you can get yourself big brand names like Yamaha or Cordoba classical guitars in the $150 to $250 range. Anything less than $100 I have reservations about recommending because I know what goes into making authentic instruments.
There is another price band around $300 to $600, roughly speaking, for the advanced beginner or the beginning intermediate (however you want to call yourself!). It has even more choices and a wide array of popular names. You will come across the Spanish brand Alhambra in this range as frequently as the majors Yamaha and Cordoba who too are well represented in this segment. Canadian-made La Patrie guitars also have their presence here.
Between the $600 and $1500 range, you will come across a higher level breed, with better specs and playability. It’s the home of the intermediate guitarist who still wants a reasonably priced guitar.
Above $1500 is splurge time! We get into the rarefied, ethereal world of the luthier guitar. Handmade by a single artisan over an extended time and with great skill and primed materials, these start at around $2,000 and go up from there to meet the sky!
To get a realistic base of the prices involved at various categories of guitar and the popular brands that reside there, do read the review of What Does a Classical Guitar Cost?
For all the three factors considered so far – your kind of music, guitar size and your budget – you can do online research without leaving home and before you enter any guitar store.
The guitar ‘action’
From here on, the checklist is about what to look for in a guitar as you check it out in a store. Like already mentioned, you should play a few guitars in turn while going through the checklist with each of them.
Take your time. I will say it again: take your time. It is a process and you must give it your diligent best.
The ‘action’ of a guitar is the distance between the fretboard and the string. Classical guitars have higher action than acoustic guitars for reasons of projection and volume. However, too high an action – increased distance – makes the instrument harder to play because more pressure must be applied to every note. Too less an action – decreased distance – causes the strings to buzz because they touch a nearby fret or two (‘fret buzz’).
With factory-made guitars getting better by the day, you should generally be OK on this count especially with good brand name guitars. Yet it is worth your while to check. It takes only a few moments to check and avoids hasty purchase mistakes.
Check the action at the 12th fret where the neck meets the body by pressing down on each of the strings at that fret in turn. They should all be easy to play without having to apply undue pressure. The ideal measurement, if you’re so inclined to know, is 4 mm from the 6th strings at the 12th fret, measured from the underside of the string to the top of the fret when you’re not playing anything. Similarly measured, it’s 3 mm for the first string.
Don’t buy if it’s any higher. A little lower is fine. Too much lower and you get fret buzz (see above). So that’s the golden middle you’re looking for: not too much action that it is hard to play and not so little action that it causes buzzes when you play.
The neck of a classical guitar is noticeably thicker than a regular acoustic guitar’s neck. This surprises many guitar players who are checking out a classical guitar for the first time. You should know that this is a typical feature of a classical guitar and accept it for what it is.
Like mentioned, a hybrid classical-cum-electric guitar often comes with slender neck variations. But a traditional classical guitar will have a thicker neck than what you’re used to.
Now check for the shape of the neck. This is very important. In a sitting position, place the guitar on its lower bout to the ground with the headstock under your chin. Look down straight over the neck all the way to the soundhole and bridge below.
The neck should be very straight. Electric guitar players will be used to having convex shapes that ‘bulge’ but classical guitar necks should be flat and straight all the way. In higher priced instruments, some do have a slight concave dip in the middle that is barely noticeable. But generally speaking you want a straight neck.
If the neck warps in an upward direction or lateral direction anywhere along its length, it is a sign of bad manufacturing. If the neck is pulled towards the bridge by string tension then the playing action will be higher in the upper frets. We have already seen why that is a bad thing. It can get worse with time.
Avoid a warped or twisted neck guitar at all costs. This happens more frequently than it should, especially in the cheaper guitars. The good news is it can be easily identified.
Choice of woods
In an essentially wooden instrument, you’d think that wood choices would matter. And you’d be absolutely right.
The main piece of wood that has a direct bearing on the sound of the guitar is the top wood (with the soundhole). When a string is plucked, it not only produces a tone but it also sets off, through the connecting bridge, the top wood vibrating. These vibrations ‘back up’ the original string tone and give the sound its richness and body.
Cheaper guitars have laminated tops. A laminate is a few thin slices of wood pasted together. Acoustically, a laminate is inferior to solid woods. Most guitars today of above $300 have solid wood tops. But it is a question to ask of the dealer before you strike it off the checklist.
Laminated tops do not age well. Solid tops get better with age. But if you’re choosing a laminated top to help you get through the learning phase, then it should not be a worry. You can get yourself a better guitar with time.
If you’re going for a solid wood top, the choice is normally between the warm, mellow cedar, a softer wood, and the brighter spruce, a harder wood. These two sounds are different and it’s not as if one is better than the other. The two variants are priced similarly by all brands and it is your choice based on the sound you prefer. Nothing right or wrong here.
Less important is the wood used for back and sides but they do add to the overall sound quality. You have Nato or Mahogany in cheaper guitars for the back and sides. Rosewood is the premium wood choice for the sides. It gives better projection and richer overtones.
The back wood is a kind of ‘reflector’ to push out the sound – harder the wood, the better. Rosewood is the premium choice again. Read my article Solid vs Laminate Guitars to really understand the differences.
The tuning mechanism that winds the strings in the headstock is called machine heads.
In cheaper guitars, this is a part to look into with care. Try winding down or up each of the tuning pegs. By and large, the actions here should be smooth to perform. There should be no jerks or jumps in the movements. The cheap ones also tend to slip.
In intermediate guitars, all other things about the guitar being equal, you can always ask for the tuners to be changed to some brand of your choice. (There are some good, smooth tuner brands out there if you do your research.)
But, for most people, this need to re-fit a new guitar with a replacement part is hardly appealing. It is easier to disregard a guitar then and there if the tuners are faulty and look for a better guitar.
If you’re wondering what really is the effect of having bad tuners, it’s this. You will find your guitar going out of tune very often. And you certainly don’t want that.
Checking for intonation – whether something is in consistent tuning – is easy on the classical guitar. Play the open E string (first string). Now press down on the 12th fret and play again the high octave E.
If your ears are exposed or trained enough you should be able to tell that the octave note is either bang on target or not. Go through similar tests on each of the 6 strings. The octaves should ring clearly at the correct pitches.
If you’re not sure of your musical ability in this regard take along a friend who has it. Or ask for a chromatic tuner – it’s a music store, they’ll surely have one – and check. This is as important a test as any other on the checklist.
This is a subjective quality that all of us will answer differently. It simply means how easy it feels for you to play the guitar. This has nothing to do with the sound quality you are producing, just the physical ‘feel’ of being able to play with comfort and ease.
It’s not such a mysterious thing, really. Since the guitar has so many parts, measurements and tolerances involved in its construction, the sum total can add up to something that works well in the hands of a player… or not. So pay careful attention – after the guitar passes the checklist above – to how it feels to play the instrument.
This aspect really shines and comes to the fore when you compare instruments that pass your checklist test. Something about a certain guitar makes you want to return to it or play it more often. That’s the one!
Some suggest to use your weak finger – the left-hand pinky – at the first fret of each string and play the notes. Does it feel easy or intolerably hard? Trust your judgment on this one. What you feel is what’s real.
Also look for…
While the main checklist is done with, it pays to check for some additional points. They can be quickly done. Going through these will ensure you have a great instrument in your hands for some time to come.
Headstock: It shouldn’t be straight. It should be angled down to keep the strings under tension. Tension of the guitar depends on how the guitar is braced plus how the headstock is angled. Also, the strings should not touch the wood on the headstock. They should directly reach the rollers. A piece of card should insert itself easily between wood and each string.
Height of nut: The nut is a vertical piece of white plastic (or bone in costlier guitars) over which the strings pass into the headstock area. If you press down on the 3rd fret of 6th string, there should be practically no distance between the string and the first fret. If there’s a gap the nut has not been well cut. Easily tested.
Height of saddle: The saddle (plastic or bone again) is the other end over which the strings pass into the bridge. You can check if the saddle height is well adjusted. Place a finger on top of 12th fret where neck meets body. The string should have no distance practically between string and fret on the 13th fret. If it does, the saddle has not been fixed at the proper height
Fret sprout – Run a finger down the neck length along either edge of the neck in turn. If you feel the constant ‘poking’ of the frets into your fingers as you run over the neck, don’t buy! That’s fret sprout. It happens because the wood has not dried enough and has shrunk from moisture. The same can happen to the sound board wood too. Avoid. Run away. This is not good.
Finish: Cheaper guitars have a lacquer or polyurethane finish. For the price that is perfectly fine. For intermediate guitars or more expensive guitars, this type of finish can ‘freeze’ the top. Meaning, that’s all the guitar will sound like in future. On the other hand, a French polish finish will sound better with time. The finish is a big deal for costlier guitars.
Rosette: The rosette is the decorative detailing around the sound hole. In cheaper guitars it will be a transfer. On costlier guitars it will be of inlaid wood placed intricately. Either way, the rosette’s purpose is purely ornamental. It has no bearing on the sound.
Strings: Always find out what the strings are on the guitar you are about to buy. It will come in handy when it comes time to change them. Either you want that sound to continue or you’d want to move on to try something new. It helps to have a starting point.
On the subject of finding the perfect set of strings for your guitar – a matter of unending preoccupation among players – here’s our practical guide to find the ideal strings for your guitar.
And here’s some help from us on a related issue as we discuss when exactly and how often should you change your guitar strings?
If you’re interested in Made in Spain guitars (no, not the expensive luthier kind), read my article on 9 Chosen Guitars That Are Made in Spain.
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