A Quick Guide to the Classical Guitar Grade System


As a classical guitar player, you may be interested in formal qualifications. Or you may be curious about where your ability stands in relation to others. Either way, you could be looking at a grade system to help you out.

The classical guitar grade system is a well established one, put in place decades ago for the benefit of musicians. Certificates from major institutions are well recognized all over the world.

Whether self-taught or guided by a tutor, many players take the formal education route to better their musical careers by becoming better qualified. So here is the classical guitar grade system explained.

Who gives the grades for classical guitar education?

Formal education in classical guitar follows the essentially British system of evaluating students through practical and theory exams. It is a system pioneered by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) for musical instruments including the guitar. The exams take place globally, not just in the UK.

The main exam boards are the ABRSM, Trinity Guildhall, the London College of Music Education (LCME), Royal Conservatory of Music of Canada (RCM) and the Australian Music Education Board (AMEB). They are independent bodies with a substantial syllabus and their certificates are recognized worldwide as marks of scholarship.

Many music teachers in the UK can be particularly snobbish about ABRSM or Trinity exams and disregard everything else. Certificates awarded by the ABRSM carry the queen’s crest, so you can’t really blame the music teachers!

While all the boards follow the practice of conducting in-person, conventional exams at various venues, they also conduct online exams. The lowest grade is grade 1 and the highest is grade 8. Canada’s RCM with 10 grades is the sole exception. While the details of grading vary with the institution, they tend to largely promote similar standards of proficiency.

After completing grade 8, a student can move on to higher diplomas. Each grade will take an average student a year to complete and probably about two years each for grades 7 and 8. Most boards require that a separate theory exam be successfully completed before taking on grade 6 and above.

In recent times, a few web-based institutions are awarding grades on the basis of online submissions. The popular Delcamp site for the classical guitar has an 8-grade system somewhat similar in scope to the major boards. The Delcamp exams are free to students and while not perhaps universally well known, the standard is quite high.

Of late, the Classical Guitar Corner Academy is becoming popular for its 8-grade curriculum offered online to students all over the world.

What are the grade requirements for classical guitar?

Practical exams take between 15 mins for the lowest grade and 45mins for the highest. A student typically plays three pieces from a prescribed list (published as a book by the board). The student also plays scales and arpeggios as per the requirements of the grade. Sight-reading and aural tests follow. This broad procedure is fairly standard across all boards.

Theory exams are written exams that are not generally necessary for entering the lower grade practicals. For the higher grade practicals, most boards require that a grade 5 in theory be passed. Depending on the marks obtained, the results can be Fail, Pass, Merit or Distinction and you get a sheet of comments about your performance.

The pieces and exercises for each grade level are published by the board and in a sense forms the study material for the student to master. These publications are available with popular online sellers (even non-students find these books very useful for excellent repertoire material). You can check out some of the ones listed below (with Amazon links to publications) to get an idea of the quality and scope of the study materials.

ABRSM

Guitar Exam Pieces 2019 Grade 1

Guitar Scales & Arpeggios: Grades Books

Guitar Specimen Sight-Reading Tests, Grades 1-8

Aural Tests of ABRSM

Trinity

Trinity College Repertoire Collections for Grades

Guitar & Plectrum Guitar Scales, Arpeggions & Studies

Aural Tests Books 1 & 2 with CD

Sound at Sight Guitar Series (for sight reading practice)

LCM

Grade 1 LCM Exams Classical Guitar Playing

RCM

Classical Guitar Series, Repertoire and Etudes

RCM Classical Guitar Series, Technique

Exams and fees for classical guitar grades

ABRSM conducts on-site exams in 90 countries annually. These exams (along with Trinity exams) are especially popular in China, India, Malaysia and Singapore among many other countries. 

The 2021 Practical exam dates for students based in the USA, according to the ABRSM website, will be in April-June; and in October-December. The fees for the various grade exams are as follows (these are courtesy of the ABRSM site and given for illustration purposes only; please check there for final accuracy.)

Practical exam fees – ABRSM

  • Grade 1 83 USD
  • Grade 2 90 USD
  • Grade 3 100 USD
  • Grade 4 115 USD
  • Grade 5 124 USD
  • Grade 6 152 USD
  • Grade 7 165 USD
  • Grade 8 221 USD

Check ABRSM site for dates and fees

In the year of the pandemic, ABRSM has introduced the novel idea of online-based Performance Grades. You choose your pieces and submit a video recording of your performances for online assessment by a panel. Unlike regular Practical grades, Performance grades have no scales and arpeggios tests, sight-reading tests, aural tests and the like. Only the performance of pieces matters for the evaluation.

Trinity College has exam centers all over the world and is also a popular draw among students worldwide. Trinity too has introduced its Digital Grades for online exams. Like the ABRSM digital equivalent, the Trinity online exams have a reduced to no emphasis on technical exercises, aural tests, sight-reading, etc. It grades primarily on the performance quality of the grade pieces submitted. You can get more information about Trinity Digital Grades on their site.

Trinity’s dates for exams in the US region can be checked on the Trinity College site.

For equivalent qualifications in the US, the Trinity website has a helpful page to understand its credits system and how it can be ‘transferred’ to the US system.

The London College of Music (LCM) takes online submissions as well as physical exams in its centers. The US region exam dates can be checked on this page on their website.

The Royal Conservatory of Music, Canada is hugely popular for its exams in the US with many centers (also on zoom online). The exam dates (for the US) can be viewed on their website.

The AMEB exam requirements for the classical guitar are listed on the website. The unique feature here is that you have to pay for the syllabus to download it.

With all the major boards, if you’re going for physical exams, they will always try and arrange an exam center that is close and convenient to you.

Why should you take classical guitar grade exams?

It is a good question to ask.

Independent testing of your playing ability is a good thing. Since the overused ‘intermediate’ carries a broad meaning of anyone with a year’s playing to someone of many years’ experience, it is hardly specific or meaningful. An objective exam will give you a realistic perspective.

It’s not just about the pieces you can play. Everyone can play an occasional ‘tough’ piece or two that they put extra effort into. But that doesn’t make them a higher grade player necessarily. Technique and musicianship also matter in addition to mastering standard repertoire.

Preparing for an exam also puts good habits in place. You work to clear goals over a longer period. You get feedback to work on. And you receive a qualification that is recognised internationally. 

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If you want to dwell deeper into these exam boards and see details of the curriculum they expect you to master, read my Review of Classical Guitar Exam Boards. On the other hand, if you want a lighter, quicker and approachable practical guidance without grade exams, read this article Quick Video Courses for Classical Guitar.

Narayan Kumar

Narayan Kumar is a passionate classical guitarist and an online research buff. He is also one half of the online classical guitar duo DuJu who put out guitar duets regularly on their YouTube channel. Read more about Narayan.

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