Tone production on the classical guitar is perhaps one of the most important, and most challenging aspects of learning the instrument. Many of us were attracted to the instrument in the first place because of the beautiful sound the guitar can produce.
Creating a good sound on the classical guitar requires the player to work on a variety of aspects. There are many variables that will change the way you sound and it is important to understand all of them.
Nail shape and texture
Nails are normally our first point of contact with the string and they have a lot to do with how the sound will turn out. Therefore, it is very important that the surface of the nail that makes contact with the string has an even curvature (or straight line if you prefer) and is smooth. Everyone has different hands, and nails, so it is important to realize that there will be a lot of experimentation that has to happen before you settle on the right shape that suits your playing. In general I like to advise my students to shape their nails in the contour of the finger tip. This is always a good starting point which offers control and a fair bit of room for the angle of attack to vary without the sound changing too much. The length of one’s nails will vary from player to player as people have different types of finger tips. As a general guide I would say they should extend a few millimeters out from the finger tips so you can see them protruding when you have your fingers stretched out and are looking from the palm side of your hand.
To get your nails nice and smooth, you will need to use either a nail buffer, micro mesh, or some very fine sandpaper (1200 grit and up). After buffing the nails sufficiently the edge of your nail should shine and you will likely hear an immediate improvement in your sound.
You can normally get all the tools you need from your local chemist/drug store. I like to use a diamond nail file and a 4 way buffer.
A question I get asked a lot from students is whether or not you need long nails to play the classical guitar. The short answer is no, you do not need to use nails to play the classical guitar, you can use your flesh/the pads of your fingers. What nails provide is more volume, a faster action and arguably more tonal variation. However, for many it is impractical to have long nails due to work, sports or perhaps they just don’t want long nails. You can get a perfectly beautiful sound without nails.
The sound from a guitar is made by vibrating the strings. The way you activate the strings will determine what kind of sound you get. I am using the word ‘activate’ instead of ‘pluck’ because most people associate the plucking motion with an upward, pulling movement when in actuality you need to push the string down, towards the face of the guitar to get a full sound.
The old saying goes ‘a poor tradesman always blames his tools’ and to an extent, there is truth in that. However, a good guitar will really help you develop a better sound. There is only so much projection you can get from a Yamaha C 100 and the tone of cheaper instruments can vary drastically because they are made to inconsistent standards. My advice is, get the best instrument you can afford. Remember to try out many instruments as you will find that certain instruments suit your playing style more than others. Just because your buddy sounds great on his guitar doesn’t mean its the one for you.
Strings come into the mix when creating sound and when it comes to finding the string for you, experimentation is the name of the game. These days, with online shopping, strings can be bought very cheaply so its not too difficult to order a selection of strings and see what works best. In my experience different guitars function better with different strings. All of my lattice braced instruments seem to sound great with D addario but my fan braced guitar loves Savarez.
The acoustic space
Many of us spend a lot of time playing in the bedroom/living room and these spaces are not really optimal for sound. So, if you want to give yourself a little ego boost, find a little church with lots of stone and try playing in there. It is also good to vary the places you play as it is easy to develop a small sound when only practicing in your room. By playing outside, in bigger halls etc you will learn to project more.