Whether you are a rank new beginner or you are rediscovering the guitar after years, an important question crops up: Can I learn the classical guitar from books? Sometimes it may be the only practical option open to you. A teacher may not be available in the place where you live. Or, like me, you are a DIYer.
So can you teach yourself to play the classical guitar? Yes, you can. Start with any of the 6 highly rated, popular method books that are considered classics to address the basics. And then teach yourself the latest techniques from modern research studies using a couple of relatively newer method books that are not so well known.
The 6 popular method books considered classics are:
- Classic Guitar Technique by Aaron Shearer
- A Modern Approach to Classical Guitar by Charles Duncan
- Guitar Lessons (Books 1-3) by Julio Sagreras
- Solo Guitar Playing 1 by Frederick Noad
- The Complete Carcassi Guitar Method
- Pumping Nylon by Scott Tennant
A couple of recent works in guitar technique will also be needed to bring your playing and practicing skills up to date:
- Classical Guitar Technique from Foundations to Virtuosity, Volume 1 by Stanley Yates
- The Bible of Classical Guitar Technique by Hubert Käppel
Can you teach yourself to play classical guitar?
Whatever your current level of playing – including as a total novice – there are three things you have to learn when you learn the classical guitar: basic music theory, technique and repertoire.
You don’t need too much of theory, but some basics on notes and chords and intervals are a must. And let’s get this out of the way right away – tabs will not take you far! You will have to learn to read conventional music notation. The good news is most of the classic methods on our list will take care of this aspect of theory basics.
Technique is the bulk of what you need to teach yourself. You need both hands and their co-ordination to play well. The rest of the body too must be relaxed. There are left-hand exercises and right-hand exercises you have to find and master.
You will find that classical guitar technique has come a long way since the days of Carcassi, whose method is still used today and is very much on our list. Technique is also the area where you will come across approaches that contradict one another.
Repertoire is the reason why you want to play the guitar. Making music! Learning pieces and playing them to friends and others is a big part of investing time in the classical guitar. All good methods have their share of pieces to play, some better than others. We will discuss them too.
To learn and put to use these three things calls for discipline and a dedicated approach to daily practice time. All methods mention the value of a disciplined approach but we need something more solid than a casual mention of ‘discipline’. This is what the two ‘latest research’ books will accomplish for us. They will give you a plan to put into practice.
For now, let’s consider the famous 6 methods. Bear in mind there is no ONE method that does it all. Each method has its strong points and we must use our judgment to mix and match.
1. Classic Guitar Technique by Aaron Shearer
This is a classic tutor that will be vouched for by a generation of self-taught guitarists. The third edition is a major revision, brought up to the times by one of Shearer’s students. It preserves the original guidance with modern updates and online audio recordings as demos, play-along tracks and duets. You can get the latest version at the SheetMusicPlus site.
The Shearer method employs three separate volumes. Volume One: Technique, Volume Two: Reading Music and Volume Three: Interpretation and Performance Development.
Volume One covers the technical aspects of playing with detailed diagrams and photographs of the hands. Volume Two is equivalent to most method books with material students will learn in their lessons. Volume Three introduces things like dynamics, memorization and practice habits.
Volumes I and II will give you a basic background in how to read music and how to play the guitar. Shearer’s technique (in the early editions) is outdated though and you should switch to modern technique using alternative approaches suggested below.
You also need a beginner’s repertoire to play. Shearer’s pieces on offer are just about too basic and are more workmanlike and less musical. Some of the other methods have simply better music to play and listen. And, as noted, you will have to update yourself on modern techniques.
2. A Modern Approach to Classical Guitar by Charles Duncan
This is a famous book from way back when. Book 1 is what I’m recommending for beginners needing a firm grasp of basics. This book explains such fundamentals as free stroke and rest stroke, time signatures, melody with bass accompaniment very well. It also teaches you standard notation and practicing on open strings. You can get it from the SheetMusicPlus website.
Theory basics are at a minimum. Subjects such as interpretation are non-existent. Matters of technique, while adequate for a total beginner, are not exactly in line with modern methods. Where the book shines is in the choice of pieces to play.
The Duncan method lists familiar melodies where possible. It has an extensive collection of melodies. The 43 familiar melodies in this method help introduce new rhythms, notes, and accompaniment styles throughout the method. This kindles the pre-existing musical knowledge already in a student and puts it to good use.
It is a great teaching device (something you will not find in Shearer’s method, for instance).
3. Guitar Lessons (Books 1-3) by Julio Sagreras
Sagreras method book is a classic of our own time. It is universally used for its delightful and original little compositions for students to play. As part of the original 6 volume series, the first three ‘books’ have been compiled into a single edition (of over a hundred pages total).
This is a great introduction to the classical guitar by one of the most inventive teacher-cum-composers. It is also a great introduction to some fine Latin American music. Check it out.
The Sagreras method is great for reading music and developing playing techniques. I myself recently discovered these wonderful method books. I strongly recommend them to beginners for their delightful musical studies and examples. Although I must add that some sight-reading skill is required, particularly rhythms.
Like most method books written before the 1950s, this method too does not attempt to sequence note reading. This means the student is too quickly introduced to playing across all six strings and over frets before having an earlier period to practice notes within a restricted context – like playing on single strings or only across the first fret.
Several twentieth-century methods, including Sagreras, begin with music that requires the coordination of all the fingers across all the strings in the opening pages itself. String crossing, the use of the ring finger and the alternation of fingers present significant physical challenges for beginning students. This can be considered, in the light of modern methods, as a valid criticism of the method although the music itself is brilliant!
Shearer, for instance, gradually introduces pitches as they most easily fit into a sequence of techniques. This approach not only allows for a smooth sequence of techniques, but also allows new notes and rhythms to be introduced gradually.
4. Solo Guitar Playing 1 by Frederick Noad
First printed in 1968, Solo Guitar Playing has been used by countless students, including the current writer. It is now in its fourth edition with many revised and updated exercises as well as an expanded section of repertoire from Noad’s own Guitar Anthology.
It is a systematic book that tackles open string and first position playing, sight-reading, graded exercises and beautiful repertoire pieces for the student from Renaissance, Baroque and Classical periods as well as some modern pieces. You can buy a copy from the SheetMusicPlus website.
While many modern methods, such as the one by Duncan, omit musical concepts of interpretation and theoretical understanding, later modern methods make it a point to introduce some of these concepts. The Noad method, for example, is divided into lessons that are devoted to some subject of guitar playing such as Advanced techniques and effects, Ornamentation, Scales, and Musical indications.
This is an excellent book on not just basics but on music theory which helps in the interpretation of pieces. It will take you on a full journey of the fretboard with good technique tips and a decent repertoire.
A modern method like Noad’s begins with relatively simple exercises on individual strings, for instance. The focus in the beginning is learning the notes on each string and getting more complex in stages.
One of the great strengths of the Noad book is its repertoire selection. It covers all the important eras of classical guitar music: Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and Romantic and Modern (stopping with the early twentieth century Tarrega’s music though).
5. The Complete Carcassi Guitar Method
This method was originally written by one of the past masters of the guitar, Matteo Carcassi in the 1800’s. That it still not only exists but is a highly recommended course is an indication of its value and relevance. The original material has been revamped for use by today’s students.
It has excellent arpeggio and scale exercises and is a graded study of the guitar. The edition includes Carcassi’s famous 25 Melodious and Progressive Studies that are played and enjoyed to this day. Get it here.
Early methods, such as Carulli and Carcassi, are often organized by key, and subjects such as technique, music reading or theoretical concepts generally belong to later methods. The curriculum here is primarily sets of scales, arpeggios, exercises, and short pieces organized by key.
Unlike, say, Shearer’s method which only covers the open positions, the Carcassi Method is the most complete all-in-one book as far as reading and knowledge of the fretboard are concerned. On the other hand, Shearer’s method focuses a lot on right-hand mechanics, for instance, but Carcassi has very little on mechanics.
As mentioned the price of entry for many is worth it for the 25 famous studies at the end of the book. It should be on the shelf of every classical guitarist for this reason alone.
6. Pumping Nylon by Scott Tenannt
When it was published in the mid-90s, Pumping Nylon became an instant classic and a must-have technique book. There is the famous Daily Warm-up Routine to get both the hands ready for performance while improving technical skills. The second edition has added sections on repertoire and technical exercises. There is a lot to be learned from this book for even intermediate guitarists. Check it out here.
As the author himself clarifies, this is strictly not a method book or a comprehensive tutor like the other five methods above. It has next to nothing on music theory or posture or sight-reading (although it has a useful section on fingernail shapes).
It is a pure technique book in the sense of exercise drills for right and left hands. They are meant to ‘pump nylon’ daily for building stamina, coordination and finger independence.
In literary terms, this is like having a good grammar book on the shelf for consultation and not a manual on how to write great novels. Published first in the mid-nineties, this remains a widely followed book even today.
Mix and match the classic methods with the latest methods
As is evident, there is no one book that does it all. Perhaps the one that comes closest to modern technique, decent repertoire and basic theory essentials is the Noad Book I.
Yet some still prefer the Sagreras method, often considered by many to be the perfect tutor. According to one reviewer, “The series is so well thought out and so incrementally progressive that it has often been said that the student can teach himself.”
(If you decide to go with Sagreras, make sure to check out the videos by Norbert Neunzling on YouTube. He has videos for every lesson in books 1 through 5.)
And then there is the simplicity and directness of Shearer’s method. In about 80 pages of Vol 1, many students (and tutors) say, there is a lot of essential stuff covered with no fluff.
Once you choose one of these 6 great, classic method books, you must add the latest in modern teaching methods. Especially in matters of technique, a lot of research has been done.
To the solid benefit of today’s students, there is a lot of new stuff we now know about ergonomics, physiology and psychology of playing the classical guitar. For instance, unlike earlier decades, it is considered perfectly fine today to play the classical guitar without nails. Perhaps, they are damaged or you don’t want to use them for whatever reason. It’s all good. I’ve written an article exploring this issue in some detail You Can Play Without Nails. Check it out if you’re curious about this.
The following two books are books you may not have heard of because they are relatively recent and not household classics (not yet anyway, but they deserve to be). In my opinion, you should invest in both of them if you’re serious about your playing.
Classical Guitar Technique from Foundations to Virtuosity, Volume 1 by Stanley Yates
Traditional guitar methods present the notes to be learned and do not provide help in developing a plan for learning. Presumably, this is left to the teacher. Some methods do contain a page or two of advice on how to practice, memorize, or prepare for performance. These pages are generally very brief and are rarely integrated into the context of the method. An example of this approach is: “Practice at least ½ an hour each day.”
A refreshing exception is in the first section of the Shearer method which contains many instructions to aid the student in planning, reviewing, and revising learning. But by today’s standards, the approach is hardly satisfactory.
Stanley Yates’ book (Vol 1 is what we’re considering for now) bridges the gap very well. It is quite a ‘method’ in this sense of organizing time in line with technique practice. In brief, this book is basically about “fundamental movement forms required for playing the guitar”.
Although intended for intermediate and advanced players, Classical Guitar Technique from Foundation to Virtuosity offers a step-by-step guide to optimizing your technique. As long as you have worked with any of the famous methods covered above, you are ready for this book. It will take your playing to the next level. Here’s the Amazon link to Classical Guitar Technique by Stanley Yates (Volume I).
The method comprises of “day to day sequence of short, clearly explained practice sessions.” In 81 progressive lessons, you get a comprehensive and precisely structured approach to the full development of playing technique in a time-efficient way.
The Bible of Classical Guitar Technique by Hubert Käppel
Käppel is a concert guitarist from Germany and also a teacher. This is mainly a technical book. So it covers the meat and potatoes of classical guitar technical studies: scales, arpeggios, slurs, tremolo, vibrato, speed training and dynamics exercises. There’s probably more permutations in this book than you’ve seen anywhere else.
Of the book’s three large sections, the second part forms the bulk of the book, containing the many technique exercises mentioned above. The first section is on theoretical topics titled Prerequisites and Basics. It gives detailed tips for effective and systematic practice.
The third part covers fingering techniques and memory training for playing by heart. Comprehensive plans for daily practice cycles are presented. It is a meticulous system with much German precision in evidence.
Incidentally, if you know German, you should buy the German original. The translation is not up to the mark always. Here is the Amazon link to the Bible of Classical Guitar Technique (English version).
Also, make sure you’ve worked your way through a Shearer or Noad (or any other choice) before you pick this up. It can be daunting to get into this book if you don’t have any music foundations or technique basics or sight-reading under your control.
In a nutshell…
Step 1: Choose your favorite classic method book from the 6 options above. (You will probably go with two choices and that is fine too.)
Step 2: Get the two books by Stanley Yates and Hubert Käppel. They are the last word in today’s technique teaching.
Here are some additional and optional, though highly recommended, resources for your consideration.
For effective strategies and tips on the classical guitar, there is a great online resource in the articles of guitarist Douglas Niedt. His website has a free vault of relevant and clearly isolated guitar issues that he tackles in great detail. Much to learn there.
For a paltry $3 per month, you gain entry to the whole vault with even more issues to successfully overcome. Highly recommended. Check the free link above to get a sampling.
Get free and interesting repertoire pieces to practice from the great educator Eythor Thorlaksson’s site. It has a pdf collection called Guitar Moments (Volumes 1-4). Download them all for free. They are great to play even for beginners.
Last but not least, one of my favorite resources online is the ThisIsClassicalGuitar site run by Bradford Werner. It is a treasure trove of free scores with accompanying videos. He basically covers a lot of pieces to play and teaches you how to play them. Many are simple and easy pieces although some are intermediate and higher. He also has technique-based videos and pdfs. Even the paid ones – like printed books and pdf books – are reasonably priced.
There’s a lot out there as far as learning resources go. Make some judicious choices and you can certainly teach yourself classical guitar without being overwhelmed. If you want to improve your sight-reading skills, I recommend 6 Books to Develop Your Sight-Reading.
For the festive season I have compiled a list of great Christmas songs to learn:
I have a related article on online lessons and resources (not just printed methods) for the classical guitar that covers a lot more educational ground. Feel free to check out my Online Resources for Learning Classical Guitar.
I also have a detailed (though brief) account of what makes Carcassi’s method tick even after all these years, if you’re interested. If you want help in your scale practice, read my 6 Great Scale Books for Classical Guitar.
For formal education on the classical guitar from one of the major institutions, check out my article on Review of Board Exams for Classical Guitar. Major schools like Trinity and RCM are covered in the article.
Happy learning! Happy teaching!