Choosing what type of guitar to play – electric, acoustic or classical – is purely personal preference, of course. It is mostly dictated by what you have seen and heard that made an impression on you. If you’ve heard, or better still, seen an artist like John Williams play a classical song, you will be swayed to learn the classical guitar. You want to learn what you’ve been inspired by.
Asturias by John Williams
9 reasons why to learn classical guitar
1. It’s the music itself that attracts
What drives most people to the classical guitar is the music itself, first and foremost. There is a lot of classical music that has been written for and performed on the classical guitar that is simply amazing. Composers like Sor, Tarrega, Brouwer and Barrios have created masterpieces for the guitar that are played to this day. Also, the works of legendary composers of the past like Bach, Dowland and others, have been transcribed to the modern guitar very well even though the original instruments may have been the violin, cello, lute or harpsichord.
2. It’s good with jazz and modern music
While the classical guitar is not exactly ideal for strumming a pop/rock singer-songwriter’s composition, it is surprisingly versatile and rewarding for those who wish to play with it in other musical genres. Typically, modern-day jazz and blues guitarists find the classical guitar’s mellow tones attractive and work it into their compositions. If you’re into bossa nova or dabbling with flamenco tonalities, a nylon string guitar can be satisfying. One of the popular, mainstream compositions for the classical guitar is Cavatina by Stanley Myers composed for the film The Deer Hunter and played here by the inimitable John Williams.
Cavatina by John Williams
3. It’s a solo instrument for multi-part music
The unmistakable charm of a classical guitar is that, when played well, it sounds like a mini-orchestra. Good players can bring out a melody from the surrounding accompaniment and the bass while playing all three simultaneously. Playing even a student-level composition can be pleasing when the music is multi-part. Note the following Etude by classical composer Fernando Sor for its simplicity, charm and harmony.
Study in B Minor
4. It has unique songs featuring the tremolo and harmonics
While harmonics are available on any kind of guitar, there are compositions written for the classical guitar that feature harmonics front and center, not as an occasional adornment. Check out Testamen d’Amelia by composer Miguel Llobet with its rich harmonics in the melody, without which the composition wouldn’t even feel complete.
Testamen d’Amelia by Andreas Grossman
Surely, you would have heard the following, famous classical guitar tune even if you aren’t much into classical music. The Recuerdos de la Alhambra is a lilting example of the advanced technique of tremolo, so captivating and magical when first heard. It requires great agility of the right hand to pull off rapid movements for a continuous thread of sound.
Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Tavi Jinariu
5. Nylon strings are easy on the fingers
For beginners of a stringed instrument, it is expected that the strings will cut into the fingertips that traverse the fretboard. Acoustic guitar students go through their painful, initial stages on steel strings routinely as part of the learning process. In contrast, nylon strings are relatively gentle on the fingertips and especially for youngsters, they can be comfortable, if not encouraging.
6. It teaches you solid, formal guitar technique
Playing a classical guitar from scratch is not about holding it and doing what comes naturally. Both left hand and right hand basics are tight disciplines that have to be learned formally – with a proper instruction method, a book or online coaching. Nothing beats a personal or Skype session with a good teacher to teach you the basics. Hint: Choose someone who is at least a college undergrad in classical guitar.
7. It teaches you right hand fingerpicking
While there is nothing that prevents you, you normally don’t use a pick to play the classical guitar. You use a combination of fingertips and nails of the right hand to play complex patterns. It is a style of playing so characteristic of the classical guitar. It will help you improvise on acoustic/electric guitars with fingerpicking if you so choose (think of someone like Chet Atkins.)
8. It teaches you to read music
Even a year of learning the classical guitar involves reading some printed music. Not TABs, but real music notation. This can be an asset later on when a guitarist is called upon to play along with other instrumentalists.
9. What you learn transfers to other guitar types
In the end, all the 3 types of guitar – electric, acoustic and classical – have a lot in common: they each have six strings tuned in the same way, the notes on the frets are the same and the chords played are identical. The formal techniques of the classical guitar can be easily applied to other types of guitar at any stage. It’s why many players advise a beginner to start learning on a classical guitar and then move on to acoustic/electric later. Besides a strong grasp of the basics, the student gets to learn on a (usually) cheaper instrument with soft, nylon strings that are easygoing on the fingers while simultaneously learning to read printed music.
If you want to check out a well-renowned beginner’s classical guitar you’d do well to read my review of the Yamaha C40, recommended by guitar tutors over the years for good reason. For a fuller discussion with other leading brands and models included, see my What’s the Best Classical Guitar for a Beginner? article for some usable suggestions. Crossover players (familiar with the acoustic/electric guitar) can consider reading my Review of Fender Classical Guitars.
Is classical guitar better than acoustic?
People who play the classical guitar usually play classical music. In Spanish/Latin music, the classical guitar has a strong say. Flamenco uses a variant of the classical guitar made for that kind of music specially.
Folks who play the acoustic guitar normally play pop/rock. Singer-songwriters will almost always accompany themselves with an acoustic guitar.
The question of which guitar is ‘better’ depends on the music you want to play. If you’re passionate about finger style playing or are crazy about classical music, the classical guitar is certainly the better choice.
In practical terms, it’s good to remember that the classical instrument is versatile enough for modern musicians to adapt its sounds to fulfill their musical goals. It’s not only J.S.Bach and Tarrega that you can play on a classical guitar. You can use it to add an exotic texture to jazz/rock compositions. It is a great instrument with a mellow, delicate texture and superb dynamics.
Are classical guitars harder to play?
Yes, the formal techniques to play the classical guitar must be learned over a period of months. Mastery will take years (which is true of any instrument, actually.) As against learning a few chords to strum on the acoustic guitar in a matter of days.
There is also the wider neck of the classical guitar to deal with. The wider neck increases the space between the strings, allowing the right hand fingers to ‘find’ the strings accurately. But the extra spacing also means further stretching of the left hand fingers both up and down across the strings as well laterally across the fretboard.
In practice, this is hardly a problem for even children learn to play the classical guitar effectively. A smaller size guitar is often the solution. In a matter of months, the basics can be learned by anyone who is committed to learning a musical instrument. In short, the difficulty in learning to play the classical guitar is often overstated. It takes a few months, for sure, to learn the basics but no more.
Can I use a pick on a classical guitar?
No, not really. A classical guitarist playing a typical piece will employ his right hand plucking skills to bring out two or more lines of music simultaneously. This can’t be done with a pick which either plays one note at a time or strums a chord. To move frequently between notes and accompaniment within the same piece requires right hand dexterity. A pick will not be able to keep up.
The classical guitar technique, especially involving the right hand, is unique to the instrument. It’s what makes the sound of the classical guitar what it is.
Of course, if you want to use the classical guitar for modern, exploratory music – whether in jazz or rock – you should feel free to use a pick, if that’s the sound you like. The nylon strings do not produce a strong and cutting sound, they are more on the soft and mellow side. If that’s what you are going after and a pick helps you get there, by all means, use a pick. No one will throw you in jail for doing that.
Now to finish off our discussion with a lovely, haunting modern-day classical piece by Cuban composer Leo Brouwer, Un Dia de Noviembre.
Un Dia de Noviembre by Alexandra Whittingham
If for whatever reason you don’t want to learn from a tutor or join a class, I have an article on self-teaching the classical guitar and I encourage you to get some pro tips from there.