Whenever an acoustic guitar friend of mine asked me about whether they should get themselves a classical guitar, I would give them the boring answer: It depends. Unsatisfied with the answer myself, I scoured the net for some satisfactory ones. Turns out: it depends.
Is it harder to play the classical guitar than an acoustic or electric guitar? Yes and no. What makes it hard is if you try to play classical music using classical guitar techniques without prior knowledge. If you use the acoustic technique to play folk or pop music on it (finger-plucking or plucking with a plectrum) the classical guitar is just another guitar with softer nylon strings.
The point is that the classical guitar is an instrument in its own right – with its own norms, styles, techniques and repertoire. You can ignore that and play it like an acoustic guitar with softer sounds. Or not.
If you’re wondering what a good classical guitar is for a beginner, I recommend reading our review of guitars for beginners.
Classical vs acoustic: The technique is different
A guitar is a guitar is a guitar, right? Wrong! There are basic differences between a classical guitar and a regular (acoustic) guitar.
Playing a classical guitar the classical way is on a much higher level of technique and musicianship than strumming. Learning to play a steel string acoustic guitar is far easier.
For instance, there are specific ways that the right hand fingers alternate while playing the classical guitar. The techniques are intricate and have evolved over time to make it a formal study, like learning classical piano or classical violin.
The left thumb, for instance, does not peek above the fingerboard in the classical style while every acoustic guitarist’s thumb always does!
Posture is of crucial importance to a classical player. He or she is trained to sit in a certain fashion, place the instrument on their left knee, lean over just enough, use a modern guitar support that slants the guitar’s fretboard angle, and so on.
While an acoustic guitarist will quite happily slouch over his instrument and be none the worse for it.
Classical compositions are extremely complex. They are multi-part – with the bass, melody and counterpoint all played together.
Making it sound like a mini orchestra in a good artist’s hands.
With all that said, a finger picking style acoustic guitarist, it is worth repeating, will find it easier to enter the world of the classical guitar. Even though he or she would still have to learn new tricks in technique.
Classical vs acoustic: The instruments are different
The classical guitar uses nylon strings as against the steel strings of an acoustic guitar. Regular guitarists are often surprised when they get a ‘weak and lame’ response on strumming a classical guitar with their plectrum.
They are up against a very different instrument!
Wider neck on Spanish
Most acoustic guitars have a neck width at the nut (where the neck meets the headstock) of about 42mm (approx 1-11/16″) to about 45mm (approx 1-3/4″). Classical and flamenco guitars are closer to 2″ wide (approx 49-52mm).
This makes a huge difference in playing. A wider neck means more distances to cover for the left hand – one more technical reason why a classical guitar ‘feels harder’ to learn.
Not only are the strings of different material (steel vs nylon), the acoustic guitar is also built stronger to withstand the high tension of metal strings. This is done with adequate bracing under the top wood.
Bracing patterns vary widely, but most classical guitars use fan bracing and most acoustics use X bracing.
Acoustics also have what are called radiused fingerboards (curved) while classical fingerboards are flat.
It’s why you won’t be able to use your acoustic capo on a classical guitar because acoustic capos are rounded to match the shape of the fingerboard.
String fixing design
On acoustics, you fasten the end of strings next to the sound hole. Acoustic guitar strings are held in place with bridge pins. On a classical, however, the strings are tied around the bridge.
At the headstock end too, classical guitars use slotted headstocks with in-line tuning machines while acoustics have individual tuning machines that stick up through the headstock.
Taken together, this means that changing strings will require a different method on the two instruments.
All in all, the larger bodied, thin topped, well braced acoustic guitar with metal strings will always be louder and project more than its nylon counterpart. It was designed to be that way. Large, loud, extroverted with a big imprint.
By contrast, a classical guitar is designed to be sweeter, introverted, mellow.
The music is different
On the classical guitar, you are expected to play classical music, for the most part. Of course, you are free to hijack this lovely instrument’s colors and textures and include them in a jazz or pop composition.
Many folk/pop/rock artists have done it for years. You won’t be the first to be seduced by the mellow sound of the instrument.
But, in the mainstream, the classical guitar is intended to play classical music of the masters – Bach and Barrios, Paganini and Ponce, Regondi and Rodrigo. You have the repertoire of music of the last 400 years or so to choose from. And there are contemporary composers like Leo Brouwer and Andrew York still carrying the torch with blazing new compositions.
All of which is a far cry from the guitar world of Springsteen and Sting, Beatles and Byrds, REM and Radiohead. Not to mention the countless boy bands, girl bands, indie bands, metal bands, jazz rock bands, alternative bands… you name it.
Ways to make it easier
There are two ways to learn to play the classical guitar from an acoustic player’s point of view.
One: Get into the classical guitar world
Start listening to classical repertoire on channels like Spotify. Get a playlist going on the advice of a friend or expert who knows.
With extensive online resources out there, including free YouTube videos, you can pick up the basic techniques of plucking, posture and other aspects of technique.
Formal introduction to the basics is very essential. You cannot wing it. Feel free to check out our review of 5 places online where can get yourself the basics of a decent classical guitar education.
Or get yourself an online tutor, at least for the few months till you learn the ropes.
Many classical guitarists are self-trained. So once you are up to scratch with the basics, you can teach yourself with standard method books like Carcassi, Sor’s studies, Segovia’s scales, books by Frederick Noad, Christopher Parkening and Julio Sagreras, to name just a few.
You can join a free online community like delcamp with its extensive and deep resources (all free) in terms of courses, peer and senior help, discussion boards and such.
Or Bernard Werner’s very helpful This Is Classical Guitar site (free again, including an invaluable starter program).
Two: Get the classical guitar into your acoustic world
If you are committed to your style of playing – be it pop, rock or jazz – you may still wish to bring in the soft and magical strains of a classical guitar into your sound scape.
A good option is to consider a cross-over instrument like the Ibanez GA6CE. It is an acoustic-cum-classical guitar with a cutaway body to allow access to higher frets. It is in fact made to very conventional standards of classical guitar construction, yet it has a built-in preamp!
So you get the texture and the mellow magic, but you also get a robust signal. You can check out my detailed review of the GA6CE here if you wish to learn more about it.
Of course, you can get yourself a regular classical guitar without amplification and learn some simple mic-ing techniques to record a rich sound.
A finger plucking style will bring out the traditional colors of the instrument. So too will a note-picking plectrum. Many have done it with great success in the world of popular music.
All we ask of you is this: Don’t use a plectrum to strum a classical guitar! Besides producing lame and hideous sounds, the bridge may also snap some day soon and travel towards your face at great speed.
It’s called The Revenge of the Abused Nylons.
To learn more about the classical guitar itself, read our article on what makes a classical guitar different.