Classical Guitar, an incredible instrument
Welcome to the most beautiful instrument in the world! I am so glad you have found your way to the classical guitar because it can be a lifetime companion and a great way to find focus and beauty in this complex modern world.
For me, the classical guitar represents an exploration and an experimentation. It is one of the most expressive instruments to play and is physically very intimate with our hands and body.
In the beginning stages, there might seem to be a lot of information and small mountains to climb, but I guarantee you that it’s worth it. Know that even the simplest sounding of a string is a technique that can be explored for decades and there is no finish line that we are striving for. Rather, you will get to enjoy little revelations on a regular basis whether it be with beginner technique or advanced repertoire and each revelation is as pleasurable as the next.
So enjoy this beginner stage, because it is one of the most exciting.
Here are the fifteen questions I have addressed in the podcast and on the page.
- Buying your first guitar
- Accessories – Strings, supports, cases, tuners
- Sitting position
- Nails vs. No Nails
- Injuries and Ailments
- Free stroke vs. Rest Stroke
- Right- and Left-Hand independence
- Notation vs. TAB
- Do I need to know theory?
- When do I start playing repertoire and what do I play?
- Progress and Frustration
- Finding a teacher
- Recommendations of players, composers, and teachers
- How much should I practice?
- Common mistakes and some general suggestions…
#1 Buying your first guitar
I will recommend to you the same two guitars I recommend to all of my students when they are first starting out: either the Yamaha C40 or the Cordoba C5. There is around a one- to two-hundred-dollar price difference between them, so if you want to get the best bang for your buck, go for the Yamaha, which can be found for approximately $150 USD. If you are willing to go to the $300 price range, I would recommend the Cordoba C5. I have no affiliation whatsoever with these companies; I recommend them because I know them and have had many students use them.
We are living in a “buyers market” for classical guitars and it really is quite phenomenal that we can get quality instruments at these price points. As you progress through the beginner stages you will most likely start searching for other instruments that provide a richer sound and more refined playability, but these two guitars will serve you well in the beginning stages.
Should you buy one of these instruments on the internet? In general, I would say no. This is because, even though the instruments are quite consistent, there can be variations between each one even if they are the same make and model. My best recommendation would be to take someone along with you to a guitar store that can play guitar and have them try out several guitars of the same model. Even if you don’t play them yourself, you will probably be able to hear a difference between them and this will help your choice. If you can already play a little, make sure you try each one while observing the playability of the instrument.
When I say “playability” I am referring to how the instrument feels in the hands and how easy it is to play. Sometimes the fingerboard can feel rough, or the strings are too high on the guitar, or perhaps the tuning pegs get stuck. These are all elements that vary slightly between instruments.
If you do a bit of digging on the internet you will find advice on checking the “action,” checking the straightness of the neck, making sure the frets are not poking out the side. The tricky part about this advice is that you are probably not able to check these things for yourself at the moment, so it can just add to the confusion. I find that, #1, taking a player along with you will most likely get around this issue and, #2, the instruments I recommended really are quite good and I would be surprised if important aspects like the string action or neck shape were severely out of whack.
Lastly, and this always seems strange to me, if you have gone to a guitar store and picked an instrument, don’t accept the offer of the salesperson to grab another guitar from the storeroom! The idea that you get a “fresh” one all wrapped up defeats the purpose of choosing one in the first place (I always find it strange when this happens…).
We are even luckier with strings these days than we are with instruments! They are affordable and they are consistent. Just like the guitar, the strings will affect the sound you produce and experimenting with different strings can be a fun experience but not one I would recommend for beginners. So, when you are starting out I would recommend using D’Addario J45, which is normal tension, or D’Addario J46, which is high tension. The high tension strings will have a little more resistance on the fingers, so if you are just getting used to the sensation of playing and your fingertips hurt, go for the normal tension.
Why D’Addario? First and foremost they are affordable and high quality, secondly I know the people and the company and they contribute greatly to the musical community at large.
Footstools and supports
Classical guitar technique has the guitar neck raised upwards so the hand is able to do some finger acrobatics without stressing the wrist. In order to raise the angle of the neck we need to either raise our left leg up to support the guitar, or use any number of different guitar supports that raise the guitar without needing to raise your actual leg.
The footstool has been the method of choice for most of the the twentieth century. It is a simple device that can change height to accommodate your setup. The main issue with the footstool is that it requires you to have your left leg raised for sustained periods of time, which can stress muscles in your back. It is rather innocuous for short periods, but used everyday for several hours… it can cause problems.
Guitar supports have become increasingly popular because of their ergonomic benefits. There are cushions, A-frames, custom wood designs, discreet attachments, magnets, and suction cups. The common downfall among these supports is that they can be less stable than a footstool. Also, many of these devices use suction cups, which can either come unstuck or damage the finish of the guitar.
I would recommend using a guitar support over a footstool as it is so important to take care of our bodies.
What do I use? An Ergoplay Täppert model.
Yes, your guitar needs a case. It will protect it from light scratches to full on punctures in the soundboard.
Cases, like many of the accessories are kind of fun because they can add a stamp of personality to your instrument. So, if you want to go crazy and get a colorful case that can withstand a jumbo jet rolling over it, go for it! For a slightly more practical approach…
If your guitar is going to live at home, and you don’t plan on traveling anywhere with it, you can get away with a simple soft case that has light padding on the inside.
If you are planning to take your instrument on public transport of any kind I would suggest getting a hard case. These can vary from simple plywood cases with three latches to sleek carbon fiber custom cases. Hiscox cases are more than sufficient for all needs and are readily available around the world. They are a bit bulky and cumbersome but do a good job on flights. The nice thing about classical guitar cases is that they can be used for different guitars. Unlike the infinite variety of electric guitars or even the various steel string guitars out there, classical guitars are fairly uniform in size and shape.
Is there a case out there that will survive the gauntlet of airport baggage? No. I have heard of guitars being destroyed in all types of cases, so you will just have to cross your fingers.
I have a variety of cases, as I have several guitars. Hiscox, Visesnut, an Eastman fiberglass case, and a no-name brand that is pretty flimsy.
This is easy. There are some great “clip-on” tuners out there that will make your life very easy. D’Addario makes them, Korg makes them, and there are a variety of other brands too. Another alternative is a simple iPhone app that you can use. Gotta love living in the 21st century!
#3 Sitting position
The classical style uses a raised angle of the neck. This facilitates ease of access to the fingerboard and also allows the right hand to attack the string at an angle. As with everything there are wonderful examples of exceptions to this norm. Ricardo Gallen, Yamandu Costa, even Paco De Lucia had a variation that suited him.
I don’t like setting black-and-white rules, so I am open to variations that people come up with. I do, however, recommend that you start with the classical position and try it for at least six months before coming up with any necessary alternatives. It is stable, ergonomic, and time tested so I encourage you to use it from the outset.
#4 Nails vs. No nails
Modern classical guitar technique uses a combination of nail and flesh to make sound with the right-hand digits. The nail surface is shaped and polished to give us a clear and versatile sound. The vast majority of players use their right-hand nails as part of their technique and I would recommend this too.
Sometimes, because of work or a multitude of other reasons, nails just aren’t a possibility. This is completely fine, you can still play classical guitar!
There are a number of members here at CGC who play without nails and they make a wonderful sound. In fact, some will prefer the sound made without nails and also enjoy the sense of connection between flesh and string. The use of nails on the classical guitar started around the turn of the 19th century so a lot of the music you are going to be playing would have been played by the fingertips in their original renditions.
If you are using nails, know that you are embarking on a long path of experimentation. It takes time to find out what shapes work best for you, and that time is made even longer by the fact nails take time to grow out so you can try them all at the same time…
#5 Injuries and Ailments
We all have our challenges when it comes to the body; it is going to be a matter of adaptation and compromise to find the best playing situation for you.
I have received many emails asking if playing classical guitar is a possibility when dealing with (X). The answer for almost everyone is yes. Arthritis, missing tendons, missing digits, back pain, the list goes on. The key is to be thoughtful and mindful about your body, and then be willing to adapt to your individual situation.
Some compromises I have used for students in the past include:
- Using a pick in the right hand because of missing tendons in the fingers
- Using artificial nails because of brittle nails in the right hand
- Dropping out certain notes in a piece of music because the stretch was not possible or causing grief
- Re-fingering passages for the left hand to suit a person who had fewer fingers at their disposal
I am also a big believer in taking care of the body to prevent injuries. So, stretch and be mindful of your body when playing.
#6 Free Stroke vs Rest Stroke
Over time you will find that, like a painters brush, you will have many right-hand strokes at your disposal for different musical needs. In the beginner stages with classical guitar we tend to lump these strokes into two broad categories: free stroke or rest stroke.
Free stroke is used for almost all playing in the classical guitar repertory, and rest stroke is used for fairly specific needs like bringing out a melodic line or projecting sound. For this reason, in my method I put the bulk of my emphasis on free stroke in the beginner lessons.
The rest stroke is usually easier for beginner guitarists to achieve, so it can be tempting to use the rest stroke to start off with. In my experience it can be a hard to learn free stroke once rest stroke has been instilled first and it can make the student form a bad right-hand position.
#7 – Right-Hand Accuracy and Left-Hand Independence
You will find that, in both hands, dexterity, strength, and accuracy will come with time. Part of this is to do with your brain learning new movements, but there is also a physical change that has to happen. When answering this line of questioning I often tell a story about my good friend Janet Agostino.
Janet and her family came to visit me in New York, and then decided to go ice skating at Rockerfeller Center… big mistake.
Four wrist fractures later, Janet had her left wrist in a cast for about six weeks. Janet is a professional musician and she has been playing guitar for over forty years. However, when the cast came off she had lost the strength and flexibility in her muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Surprisingly after the cast came off she could not even play a G Major chord in first position. She had to develop her strength and flexibility all over again.
So, you will have to be patient like Janet as your hands develop these attributes. With time and perseverance you will find that your fingers start “behaving” and the small movements on the guitar become more familiar.
#8 Notation vs. TAB
Both standard notation and tablature (TAB) are visual instructions for us to make music. Neither of these forms of communication are perfect, but there are some specific benefits and drawbacks to each one.
Tablature is easy to understand straight away, and it can communicate the basics of what finger goes where very clearly. For simpler repertoire it can work quite well; however, it starts to show serious deficiencies as music becomes more complex and has layers of rhythm and pitch.
Standard notation is also flawed, especially when it comes to the guitar! One crucial aspect is that it is a common language shared by the classical music community at large and it will allow you to interact with other musicians, which is absolutely necessary.
Furthermore, almost the entirety of the music you will be working on in the classical guitar repertory is written in standard notation, so there really is no question about whether you should learn standard notation or not. You need to.
It can be a steep learning curve in the beginning, but you can do it, and it gets easier with time.
#9 Do I need to know theory?
No, you can play classical music without knowing the theory behind it… but you can learn it very easily.
Theory and analysis carry a little bit of a stigma in that it seems overwhelming and overly complex. The truth is that anything that helps you understand the music that you are working on will add to the pleasure of your study and the quality of your performance.
Analysis can be anything you want it to be; it does not have to be using a certain vocabulary and it definitely is not exclusive to scholars. Are there two sections in this piece? Yes? Great, that is some analysis that will help. Is there a repeated musical idea that surfaces several times? Yes? Great, that is helpful too.
Starting off with simple observations often leads to some wonderful discoveries, and these discoveries will make your musical studies infinitely more enjoyable.
Theory can be a bit more specific in that there are particular concepts that you will apply in western music. Scales, building chords, and the relationship between those chords are all part of what you will learn. It can seem abstract for quite a while during the early stages, but given time it opens up another perspective and level of musical comprehension in your repertoire.
It is not necessary to know theory, but I would highly encourage you to learn.
#10 When do I start playing repertoire and what do I play?
In the fundamentals course I get us playing a simple melody straight away. So in answer to this question, you can start playing a simple piece in your very first lesson!
From that point it really is a case of careful structuring with your repertoire. If you suddenly dive into a piece that is too far down the path then you will get frustrated and lose faith in your ability to progress.
To counter this in the beginning stages you need to find a method book, a course, or a teacher to map out this progress for you. It is really not possible to choose your own pieces at this point because many are deceptively difficult.
My level 1 course, the Frederick Noad Book, and also the books from the Guitarist’s Way (for kids) are suggestions for this approach.
#11 Progress and Frustration
As I mentioned in the previous point, the number-one cause of frustration is working on material that is too difficult for our skill set. This is much more of an issue for adults rather than kids because kids accept what they are given in a curriculum whereas adults want to jump to the repertoire that inspired them to play in the first place…
If there is one takeaway for everybody from the entire CGC site it is to be patient and mindful of advancing repertoire and technique.
In addition to this well-worn concept we can sometimes just hit a wall. This can happen for no reason, and I often suggest a break from the current study materials and, if it is really a depressing plateau, then perhaps even a week off playing to explore some other musical paths like listening, concert attendance, or reading.
We all hit plateaus, so you are not alone in this. Perseverance and a bit of creativity can get your through to the next level as well as a good dose of patience.
#12 Finding a good teacher
A good teacher is crucial.
In my education I had several teachers that were less than stellar and it hindered my progress quite a lot.
A good teacher should be able to play well — doesn’t have to be a virtuoso — but if they cannot play to an advanced level I would doubt their ability to guide someone else to an advanced level.
It is also a good idea to find examples of other students that the teacher has worked with; this can be a good indication of their effectiveness as a teacher.
To be honest, there are many teachers out there who are not passionate about teaching. Rather, they teach because it provides an income. This can lead to a lesson-to-lesson approach that lacks structure and will often result in working on inappropriate repertoire.
I put a great deal of thought into my own teaching materials here at Classical Guitar Corner, so I can proudly stand behind this school’s method. Other teachers that I admire who are also online include Gohar Vardanyan and Kevin Gallagher.
#13 Recommendations of performers and composers
Always a tough question to answer off the top of my head after workshops, so I am happy to have some time to think right now…
Performers who I admire and are outstanding musicians:
- Julian Bream
- John Williams
- David Russell
- Ricardo Gallen
- Aniello Desiderio
- Yamandu Costa
- Benjamin Verdery
- Andres Segovia
- Duo Melis
Some composers who have written for the guitar or had music arranged for the guitar who I would recommend listening to:
- J.S. Bach (Lute Suites, Violin Suites, Cello Suites)
- John Dowland (Lachrimae Pavan, Forlorn Hope Fancy)
- Benjamin Britten (Nocturnal)
- Leo Brouwer (El Decameron Negro)
- Agustin Barrios Mangore (La Catedral)
- Issac Albeniz (Cordoba)
- Enrique Granados (Valses Poeticos)
- Astor Piazzolla (Invierno Porteño)
- Fernando Sor (Variations on a Theme by Mozart)
- Mauro Giuliani (Rossiniana No.1)
- Nuccio D’Angelo (Due Canzoni Lidie)
- Manuel Ponce (Sonata Romantica)
- And sooo many more… but that should get you started.
#14 How much should I practice?
This might be the most frequently asked question in music education… and I think it is so frequent because the answer is always… it depends.
One tenet is that regular practice trumps practicing in large disparate chunks. So fifteen minutes every day is better that one hour a week.
The other tenet is that you can practice for several hours and get very little done, so your practice has to be intentional and focused.
As a suggestion, a very broad one, for the beginning stages I would say 30 minutes to one hour each day will provide you with steady progress.
#15 Common mistakes and some general suggestions
These are obviously bigger topics than a bullet point and they have all been addressed at length in the podcast and blog, but just as a reminder…
- Set classical guitar goals for yourself: for the day, for the week, month, and year. They will help you stay on track and avoid frustration.
- Be restrained and patient with your repertoire selection: resist the temptation to take on something that is too hard.
- Focused practice is better than scattered. Use your phone to set a timer and set a specific goal for fifteen minutes. Don’t break your focus or move on to more material until the timer goes off.
- Remain positive. This is a beautiful way to spend your time and even if you don’t feel it you are most likely making progress. A positive mindset will help you remain dedicated and improve.
- Perform as much as you can, as soon as you can. Performance is daunting for all of us, but if I have learned one thing from the live CGC sessions with the members it is that everyone enjoys the experience and it gets easier after taking that first plunge!