As many classical guitarists will confirm, once you fall under the spell of the classical guitar’s voice (or the Spanish guitar as it’s also known), you will be moved enough to want to learn it. And the first questions that crop up are: Will I be able to learn the classical guitar? Is it difficult to learn? If yes, how difficult?
Let’s start there.
Is it difficult to learn the classical guitar?
Most people will agree that learning any musical instrument is neither easy nor quick. The classical guitar is no different.
What people are really asking is this: Is the classical guitar harder to learn than a regular acoustic guitar?
And the simple answer is, yes. The classical guitar is harder to learn.
The right hand technique in particular makes use of individual fingers plucking the strings as against strumming across them with a plectrum. This technique has to be carefully learnt.
Also the magic of the classical guitar lies in its ability to bring out music in many lines simultaneously. It is common for even beginner classical pieces to have music in three parts going on at the same time – melody, rhythm and bass. The classical guitar is a mini-orchestra. Mastering it takes a little time and technique.
Yet again, the neck of a classical guitar is wider than an acoustic’s so the left hand fingers have to stretch more to reach the frets.
And finally, the serious study of the classical guitar means that you have to learn to read music. Proper musical notation, that is. Not TABs.
Yet, as many self-taught guitarists will tell you, none of these issues is insurmountable. You can lick them all. Really, with a little resolve. On the positive side, here’s my take on Why You Should Learn the Classical Guitar.
With that in mind, follow these 5 pro tips and you’ll be well on your way.
Pro tip #1 for teaching yourself: Get a good classical guitar
Duh. Of course you have to start with a guitar, right? But some beginners make the mistake of using an acoustic guitar to learn classical style. Big mistake. The main issue is the set of strings – acoustic guitars use steel strings, classical guitars use nylon.
Not only are the sound textures different, but the wear on your right-hand nails will be intense with steel strings. The neck is also wider on a classical guitar. This increases the distance between the strings. It enables precise placements of the left hand fingers as also allowing the plucking right hand finger to steer clear of the adjacent string.
You really need a classical guitar to learn how to play the classical guitar! No getting round that. Which one? There are literally hundreds of choices but tutors everywhere and for a long time keep recommending a handful of names.
Another big name in classical guitars, Cordoba, has its value for money, student model in C1M. It is built robustly and has the brighter Cordoba sound. Check out the Cordoba C1M on Amazon. Or here at Sweetwater – Cordoba C1M.
The popular La Patrie Etude model is another good choice with tutors and students for its performance. This is more expensive but highly regarded. It is no longer called La Patrie and is under a new management. Look for Godin Etude (Amazon link) – it’s the same thing, really. The names are used interchangeably since the new name is so recent. A great choice especially if you’re in the US or Canada.
You will not go wrong with any of the above choices. They have been tried and tested by thousands of students all over the world. They are all good sounding guitars, built well and reasonably priced (around the $200 mark or less.)
If you want the slightly fancier, imported-from-Spain pedigree, look no further than the Alhambra 1C. It is a great guitar from Valencia that should prove to be of value for a long time. Check out Alhambra 1C on Amazon.
You can check some of the resources we have here on this site:
Don’t sweat this stuff too much. Any of the guitar models above are sufficient to last your learning for a few years at least. You won’t outgrow them in a hurry. Get your hands on one.
Pro tip #2 for teaching yourself: Get a footstool or guitar support
You can’t really plop on your bed and place your classical guitar in any convenient position you wish and start to play. No, the classical guitar is a formal instrument in many ways and you have to hold it correctly. The basic accessory you need is a footstool that raises the height of your left leg (for a right handed player.)
You can get a basic footstool at Amazon over here and it should last years.
Or, like almost every classical guitarist these days, you can use a footstool alternative called a guitar support. There are quite a few of them. Basically, any of these alternatives serves the function of keeping both your legs evenly on the floor (saving potential back problems) while still managing to provide the elevation and angle to your guitar.
Some of these devices – like the popular Tappert guitar support and Gitano guitar support (links to Amazon) – use suction cups to attach themselves to your guitar. Others like the Sageworks guitar support use magnets instead (pricey but very stable.) And there are many others too with some ingenious designs.
You can read my review of modern guitar supports for more information. And there is a more recent device that our reviewer Mark Cohen swears by, the Woodside. Check out the Woodside guitar support review with a video demo by Mark, if you are curious.
Bottom line: Get a simple footstool and get started right away. It’s workable, cheap and it’s what even the great Segovia used. It has stood the test of time over generations. Or, if you prefer, choose a modern guitar support like the Tappert that is popular and well tested. And put this step behind you.
Pro tip #3 for teaching yourself: Learn the playing position
As mentioned, there is a formality to learning the classical guitar. The position of the body, the holding of the guitar, the placement of both hands are all fairly precise, even allowing for individual differences.
Before you learn a single note, it’s important to get ingrained in the correct playing position right at the start. While many guitar methods have excellent guidance to give the novice, this is the kind of area where video instruction really shines. There are many good videos on YouTube but then there are many bad ones too.
I suggest you’d do well to follow teacher-player Bernard Werner’s video instruction and commit to memory every little detail he dwells on. You don’t need anything more than this to begin your classical guitar journey.
Pro tip #4 for teaching yourself: Buy a method book
You need a systematic study plan to learn the classical guitar. There’s nothing like a printed method book to keep you on track. While videos will make their vivid impression but also vanish within weeks, a book keeps you constant company.
You can make notes in it. You can place bookmarks within to keep track. You can keep it on your music stand with the pages open and ready to continue your next session. Every chapter you complete tells you clearly you are making progress.
You need these simple aids to keep you on track when you are learning from a teacher called you.
There are many method books that various players recommend. A couple of them shine through the ages with fresh editions and constant improvements.
- Solo Guitar Playing by Frederick Noad (Amazon link)
- Classic Guitar Technique by Aaron Shearer (Amazon link)
You buy either of these and you’re good to go. There’s enough material in each to last you a couple of years – enough to keep you busy and learning. Like the greatest of method books for the classical guitar over centuries, these fulfill all the basics of the instrument and go beyond.
You will learn:
- How to read music
- How to match notes on the guitar with notation on the page
- Open string exercises for practicing left hand and right hand co-ordination
- Etudes or studies for technical development (graded)
- Pieces to play using correct finger placements
- Scales and arpeggios
There is a lot more to keep you occupied and constantly learning. The Noad book also has the advantage of introducing you to various pieces of classical guitar music from various eras: classical, romantic, renaissance, baroque, etc.
Honestly, all you need is a single method book to follow diligently. You can supplement it with some interesting stuff you watch online but the trick is to keep the method book your main focus. That is your meat and potatoes. Straying too far from it too often is the same thing as losing the plot. Allow your method book to keep you centered.
Pro tip #5 for teaching yourself: Learn from a good online teacher
For all that I believe in the effectiveness of an excellent method book, it must be said that some students simply learn better with videos.
The main drawback to videos, even good educational videos, is that they are generally piecemeal and lack cohesion. Videos are seldom done in a series of closely related topics. Classical guitar videos tend to be repertoire pieces or an aspect of technique. A great player or teacher will truly share a great playing tip or two in their videos, but an overall plan of study goes missing.
Such videos, however instructive or entertaining, will be random and disjointed. That is my main grouse with YouTube learning. You pick up a tip here and a tip there and you don’t know enough to know what you really should be learning right now. It is a surefire way to get lost in the vast labyrinths of YouTube.
Yet there is a glimmer of hope for those wishing to teach themselves the classical guitar… an excellent teacher online who gives away carefully constructed learning material for free. This material is aimed at total beginners and has an overall structure like a graded program. There is a definite progression in difficulty as you move from one lesson to the next. And the whole program is solid, substantial and constructed thoughtfully.
Bernard Werner of thisisclassicalguitar.com is a renowned player and teacher of the classical guitar. Join his free program and let yourself be guided by his expertise. His videos are no-nonsense, to-the-point explanations of what a student must know, explained with clarity and demonstration.
There is beginner material here that can last you a year or more. Just dive in and feast to your content. There are instructions on how to play scales, pieces and exercises using correct technique. Follow along and you will be an intermediate player sooner than you know.
If you’re wondering how long it will take you to learn the classical guitar, I encourage you to read my piece How Long Does It Take To Reach A Decent Level?
Beyond these 5 pro tips, learning the classical guitar when you are both the student and the teacher calls for a few personality traits.
You must have three fundamental starting points – desire, time and discipline.
Desire. If there is intent to learn, nothing is difficult to face – just challenges to be overcome. As we saw earlier, with the right tools to assist you, making progress while teaching yourself will be easy.
Time. Like with learning anything complex, you must devote sufficient time to the craft. Long binging sessions on weekends don’t really help. Learning the classical guitar needs smaller chunks of daily time. You can’t cram musical learning over a few days if you’ve neglected it for weeks. As little as an hour a day, or even 30 minutes a day, pays good dividends. About 5 days in a week is a great target to aim for.
Discipline. Once you fix your practice schedule, stick to it. You have to be bull headed about this. Once you give yourself regular playing time, your fingers learn surprisingly fast. Thousands of classical guitarists will tell you that what they once thought unplayable always ‘suddenly’ becomes easily executable. That has directly to do with regular practice.
If you have a burning desire, enough time and sufficient discipline, then the 5 practical pro tips we covered above will surely get you on the way. There’s no need to overthink this. Just action these steps and you begin your self-teaching course. As simple as that.
Happy learning! Or is it happy teaching!