How to Buy Your First Classical Guitar

Are you looking to buy your very first classical guitar? We’ll walk you through everything you need to know so you can confidently purchase your first instrument and get to playing!

But, first, let’s talk brass tax.

How much should I spend? 

Okay, let’s cut to the chase. How much should you plan to spend? The short answer is: You should prepare to make a small investment to start.

If you’re a beginner, you may not yet know how long you will continue playing. Your first instrument can be a great way to test out whether classical guitar is a good fit for you. However, for that same reason, it’s important to start with an instrument that is good enough to actually make a real effort on. You don’t want to give up simply because you’re fighting the instrument. So prepare to take some time to find an instrument that will work for you, which may also require a small investment to start. 

But, how much? As a general rule, most instruments under $150 should be avoided. These will have laminated tops, use cheaper materials for the tuners, are built heavier to prevent damage, and don’t sound nearly as good as more expensive instruments. We’ll break some of these details down below. But, first, below are some reliable guitars that you might look at to start.

What are good brands for a beginner?

Córdoba Guitars

Córdoba have become one of the biggest commercial builders of classical and flamenco guitars and they are continuing to grow. With factories based in China and distributors throughout the world, it is easy to find a Córdoba instrument wherever you live. The designs of Córdoba guitars are based on the work of two luthiers: Kenny Hill and Edmund Blochinger.

The list below is a pretty wide range of instruments from complete beginner guitars to more intermediate instruments — and the price tags follow that range as well. All of the below would be classified as “student” guitars and all are factory instruments.

  • Córdoba C3: $279 Solid Cedar top; bone nut and saddle; nickel-plated tuners
  • Córdoba C5: $379 / $389 Spruce or cedar top; Mahogany back and sides; mahogany neck with pao ferro fingerboard and bridge; Cordoba gold tuners; bone nut and saddle
  • Córdoba C7: $599 Solid mahogany neck; Spruce top; Indian Rosewood back and sides; binding around top/sides; rosewood fingerboard and bridge
  • Córdoba C9: $979 Cedar and mahogany — like the C5…

Yamaha Guitars

Yamaha is originally based out of Japan, but they have expanded with factories in China. The C series of guitars are built specifically for “young learners” and “beginners” but have a great tone. The C40 is the cheapest solid top instrument you’ll find on the market and still has a great sound. These are reliable beginner guitars. Investing a bit more for other brands may offer better sound quality, and will offer higher quality woods and other parts.

  • Yamaha C40 (I or II): $159 new

Altamira Guitarras

Altamira make handcrafted guitars by a team of luthiers working under master luthier Hanson Yao in China. The team at Altamira use Spanish designs for their instruments, which gives them a very traditional sound and feel. While these may be harder to find at a local dealer to try out, they are some of the best quality sound and craftsmanship you’ll find at these price points.

  • Altamira Basico: $349
  • Altamira N300: $699

So what’s the difference between all of these instruments? Quality control is a factor, but a more important factor is the quality of the woods. Is there an actual difference in sound? In short, yes. Want to hear what the two above instruments sound like? Check out the demo below:

Factory-made vs Luthier-built

A factory-made instrument simply means that there are multiple hands involved in the building process of an instrument. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire process is automated by machines (though some of the process likely will be automated). Some “factory-made” instruments are made by a small team of luthiers each of whom works on different parts of the instrument to speed up time of completion.

A luthier-built instrument will generally only be built by one person from start to finish. This means there are usually many more components that can be customized along the way: like the look of the rosette at the sound hole, how many frets there are, the scale length, the action, the width and shape of the neck, the tuners used, even the number of strings of the instrument. It also means time to completion is much longer.

Should you buy a luthier-built guitar?

Some luthiers have a years-long waiting list before they start work on a new instrument. And it will still take a long time to complete once work commences. You will pay a high premium for the time and labor that go into a luthier-built instrument, but it will often be of much higher quality than a factory-made guitar. So it really depends on your budget, how committed you are to learning the instrument, and what’s available. You may want to make a small investment in one of the above instruments first and plan on upgrading later.

Woods and Materials

Classical guitars feature a range of types of wood. Some types of wood are used more than others and sometimes very rare and exotic woods enter the production process.

Solid vs. Laminate Top

More important than what type of wood is used is how the wood is constructed, particularly when it comes to the top. One of the most important factors in the quality of sound of a classical guitar is whether the top (or soundboard) is a solid top or a laminate top.

A solid top uses one thicker piece of wood (or technically two halves glued together in the center) whereas laminate features multiple thin layers of wood glued on top of one another. The sound difference between laminate and solid top guitars is quite noticeable. All of the guitars discussed below feature solid tops, though the back and sides are sometimes laminate. Unlike with the top, the difference between solid or laminate backs and sides is negligible and does not typically affect the sound all that much. In fact, high-end luthier-built instruments will often use laminate back and sides as it helps with projection of the instrument’s sound but is much cheaper.

Western Cedar vs. German or Canadian Spruce: The Top

The top of the guitar, which is also called the “soundboard” because it is responsible for the bulk of the tone of the instrument, will usually feature cedar or spruce. In general spruce is lighter and cedar is darker, but you’ll see variations in color and lightness/darkness of each. But the sound is certainly different between them. (Spruce actually comes in two different varieties, German and Canadian, and they also sound different from one another.)

Often people describe cedar as being “darker” or “warmer” with richer basses, while spruce is “brighter” and “punchier” with a wider tonal palette. Once again, however, these are generalizations and you can find the same qualities on either type of wood. What is a bit more firm is that spruce takes some time for its sound to develop, evolving over the course of time as it is played. Cedar, however, is a bit more open right away and takes less time to develop.

Rosewood and other Exotic Woods: The Back and Sides

The back and sides of classical guitars are usually made of Mahogany, (Indian or Brazilian) Rosewood, Maple, or some other exotic wood (like Koa, for instance). The type of wood used for the back and sides doesn’t contribute quite as much as does the top to the final sound of the instrument, but it can make a difference. A dark, straight-grained Brazilian Rosewood, for example, can not only look beautiful but can also add warmth to the sound. (The thickness of the back can also have an effect on the sound.)

Mahogany or Spanish Cedar: The Neck

The neck is typically made of Honduran Mahogany or Spanish Red Cedar. Both are dense strong woods that provide a stiffness and stability to the neck.

Ebony or Rosewood: The Fingerboard

The fingerboard is almost always made of Ebony (again, a very stiff wood that is very hard), but on lower-end instruments you’ll often find Indian Rosewood instead. Ebony is more durable because it is so hard and so is preferable if you have a choice.

Bone vs. Plastic: The Nut and Saddle

The nut and the saddle are typically made of bone, but on lower-end instruments these often come in some kind of plastic polymer. This can affect the sound that is produced to a small degree as the strings make contact with both the saddle and nut.

Trying out guitars

It is vitally important that you try out guitars before you buy them. While availability may make it difficult to play a particular instrument in person, you should do what you can. Videos can give you a good idea of what an instrument might sound like in front of a particular microphone in a a particular room played by a particular person. But it won’t give you a good idea of what it sounds like to you. So do what you can to try out the guitars before purchasing. If you are a complete beginner you may want to ask the salesperson to play the instrument for you, or bring along a friend who is an experienced player. This will give you a good idea of sound differences between instruments even if you’re not yet able to play them.

Okay, so what should you be looking out and listening for?

Before getting started, see if you can try out a guitar with fresh strings. Old strings or bad strings can cause intonation issues and can generally lead to unpleasant sounds that don’t accurately represent the instrument. A good set of fresh strings can completely change the sound of an instrument. 

Here are some other things to test as you play. Play every note on every string all the way up the fretboard and just listen. Listen to any issues like buzzes, dead notes, clarity and quality of tone, and more. 


The most important part of purchasing a classical guitar is its sound. A close second would be playability. But playability can be adjusted. While a guitar’s sound may improve with age, these sort of changes will be subtle over time. So it’s important to choose a guitar that has the sound you want in an instrument. As you play (or hear the instrument being played), listen for the following:

  1. Balance of volume/sound

First, a good guitar will have a good balance of treble, midrange, and bass tones. You don’t want a guitar that is so bass-heavy that you can’t hear the nuances of the middle voice. Likewise you don’t want a very trebly bright sound that has no contrast in the bass. You’re listening for a good balance.

  1. Tonal variety

One of the identifying characteristics of the classical guitar is its wide tonal spectrum. You can get bright, even harsh sounds, and you can also get warm, almost hollow sounds out of the same instrument. You want an instrument where these tonal varieties are easy to produce and you don’t have to fight the instrument to get a great range of colors.

  1. Singing First String

While you are looking for a good balance of sound overall, a great guitar will have a great first string. So many classical guitar pieces ask us to play melodies on the first string with accompaniment underneath. You need an instrument whose first string can sing. Avoid guitars whose first string is overly brittle and thin.



The action of the instrument is the distance between the top of the fret and the bottom of the string, usually measured at the 12th fret. While there are standards that many luthiers stick to (around 4-5mm at the bass side and around 3-4.5mm at the treble), the action of your guitar is very personal. But there are a few things to keep in mind.

Too low of an action can cause buzzes, especially on the lower frets — something you will find quite common on flamenco instruments. Flamenco players don’t mind a little buzz as it adds to the character of the sound and makes the instrument easier to play.

Equally, too high of an action can make it cumbersome to fret notes and can lead to fatigue when playing for too long. Action on classical guitars is usually on the high side compared to other styles, like acoustic, electric, and flamenco. However, it’s still important to find a balance that works for you. Action can be lowered by filing the bottom side of the saddle (and adding a shim under the saddle can be a quick fix to raising action unless you want to start with a fresh blank). However, you may want to ask a luthier to help with this adjustment if you’re inexperienced (it’s usually a cheap repair).


Frets that are uneven, too low, or have too sharp a crown can also affect playability. If you find fret issues in your inspection, this is a repair you’ll want a luthier to do so be prepared to spend a bit extra on this one.

Standard size vs smaller size

Classical guitars come in quite a few different sizes. Body size can differ somewhat from guitar to guitar (a Torres-style or nineteenth-century-style instrument is usually smaller), but more common is a difference in scale lengths.

The scale length is the measurement (in either millimeters or centimeters) from the saddle to the nut. A typical scale length is 650mm, though you will encounter both longer and shorter scale lengths. José Ramirez guitars, for instance, have a scale length of 664mm. The difference between a 640, 650, and 660mm scale length can be difficult to discern (we’re talking only 10mm of difference spread across a fairly wide distance), but that doesn’t mean it can’t make a difference. If you have small hands or are very short, you may want to test a 630 or 640mm scale length if available. The feel of the instrument may be just that little bit better for you. And that little bit matters.

Neck Shape/Size

Necks also come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are thin while others are thick. Some have more of a “U” shape while others are decidedly more of a “C.” Which is right for you is very much a personal thing and may take some trial and error.

Another thing that can affect playability is neck width. Usually we measure the width of the neck by the width of the nut. A standard nut is 52mm. This kind of width allows for good spacing so your fingers are not too crammed. However, again, if you have small hands you may want to explore a narrower nut width to see if it works better for you.



It’s important that your new guitar will stay in tune. While you’re testing out the instrument, take your time to get it in tune and take note of how often you have to retune. An instrument that continues to fall out of tune may have brand new strings that are still stretching, it may need new strings, or there may be deeper intonation problems. There are several factors that can affect intonation but strings are the most likely. So don’t be afraid to ask if you can change strings, especially if you’re having to re-tune often because the strings are dead. 

Alternatively, if the guitar has fresh strings here’s a quick way you can check intonation: 

Play a 12th-fret harmonic on the first string. Check to be sure you’re in tune. Now play the same note but fretting the string at the 12th fret. When you fret the note, be sure to place the string directly downward into the fret with minimal pressure. Don’t add vibrato and do your best not to bend the pitch of the string in either direction. Compare the two notes. They should both be perfectly in tune. If there is a variance between them, you could have a bad string, or there could be other intonation issues, like bad string break angle at the saddle, bad neck relief, or adjustment could be needed at the saddle. 

Neck Relief

When you string up a guitar you’re putting tension on the top of the instrument. Every guitar can handle a certain amount of pounds per inch of pressure. In order for the instrument to work properly the neck has to have a bit of relief, where it gives a bit in the middle. The amount of relief is important and it’s closer to straight than bowed. So it’s important that your new guitar not have any issues with neck relief. 

You can check the relief by placing the lower bout of the guitar on the ground so the headstock is looking up at toward you. Looking down one edge of the neck, sight down the whole vertical line of the neck. You may see a very tiny dip somewhere around the 7th fret, but in general it should be fairly straight. What you don’t want to see is the neck bowing upwards or a bow downwards that is more than slight. If you’re uncertain about neck relief, you can check with a luthier. 

The Córdoba guitars mentioned above all have truss rods built into the neck, which allow for easy changes of neck relief.

Fret ends sharp?

If you can feel the frets sticking out at the edge of the frets then the guitar has past humidity damage and it’s best to avoid the instrument. The fret edges can be filed off, but if they’re sticking out then it means the neck itself has already shrunk due to lack of humidity. And if there are humidity issues in the neck they could be present elsewhere (like at the bridge or there could even be cracks in the top). 

Find out all about how to properly humidify your guitar here.

Fret buzzes

Fret buzzes are very common but they can be an indicator that the guitar needs some fret work. Buzzes are also very common on the bass strings on the lower frets — this is usually an indication of low action. Action can be adjusted at the saddle and the nut and you can discuss this with the luthier/dealer if the guitar is buzzing too much in the lower frets. However, there are other causes for buzzes, such as fret-height issues.

This is not a deal breaker but it’s good to have an idea of what you’re getting into ahead of time. Here’s an easy way to check whether there are fret-height issues: 

Take a credit card and lay it lengthwise across two frets. The card should sit flush against the two frets with no movement. Move the card along the edge of the frets from 1st to 6th string to see if there’s any play. Continue all the way up the fretboard along each string. (As the distance between two frets gets narrower you will need to stand up the card lengthwise.) If there is play in some places then that means you’re likely to get fret buzzes in that location because one fret is higher (or lower) than the other. 

While frets can be evened out by lowering one fret that’s higher than others around it, eventually the frets may be need to be re-crowned or even replaced altogether. This can cost a bit of money so find out in advance if there are fret issues. 

Do the tuners turn smoothly?

Tuners can eventually go bad, especially if they’re not well maintained. Take some time to slowly turn each tuner a full turn in each direction, down then back up, to make sure the tuners turn smoothly. If they get stuck and are hard to turn or slip very easily in spots the tuners could possibly need replacing. 

Is the bridge separating from the top?

Humidity damage can affect all instruments. Usually the tell-tale sign of humidity damage is the frets sticking out the sides of the frets. However, humidity can cause cracks and it can also affect the stability of the bridge. This is bad. 

Check to make sure the bridge is flush with the top of the instrument. If you can see any gap between the bottom of the back side of the bridge and the top of the instrument, check and see if a piece of paper will fit between the gap. If so, that’s too much play and work needs to be done to secure the top, including removing it and regluing it. Again, this can be costly so just check in advance so you’re not stuck with a repair soon after purchase. 

Is there any bowing on the top?

Just as too low humidity can affect the instrument, the same is true of too much humidity. A guitar with too much humidity often shows signs of bowing and rippling on the top. Run your hand along the top of the guitar to feel for any ripples. It should be smooth and relatively flat. 

Cracks: Get a history 

If you can see any cracks in the instrument it’s important to get a history and ask whether any cracks have been repaired. Sometimes what appears as a crack has already been repaired. Either way, a good history on the instrument will tell you of any issues that have occurred. The more you know the better. 

Traditional vs. Modern Sound

There are several different construction methods with respect to the soundboard that affect the sound of classical guitars. The more traditional method of construction involves a fan bracing to support the top. However, more modern techniques have evolved, including double tops and latticed bracing. Both of the latter can sound quite different from traditional instruments. (Sound is of course hard to generalize and so once again it’s important to listen to the instrument you’re trying out!)

An increasingly common characteristic in modern guitars is that they are much louder than they used to be. A loud guitar can be quite seducing. When you first hear an instrument like this it can sound very resonant from your perspective. In fact, some guitars have soundports—small holes in the side of the instrument to improve the volume for the player—which amplify the effect of extra volume. However, it’s important to know that this is somewhat of an illusion. Soundports do improve the volume of the guitar for the player, but they do not increase the projection of the guitar. Meaning, the guitar may sound louder to you but that does not mean it will sound louder in a concert setting. 

Want to hear the difference between a double top and a lattice-braced guitar? Check out this video from Simon:

This is why it can always be good to have another experienced guitarist play the instrument you’re checking out so you can hear it from the other side, from the audience’s side.  With all that said, some guitars are simply louder than others. And a louder guitar can help cut through other instruments in an ensemble situation. At the end of the day it’s all about what kind of sound you want from the instrument.

Other considerations

Cutaway guitar?

Some guitars have what’s called a “cutaway” where the body curves on the lower side of the fingerboard where the body and neck meet so you can access higher frets more easily. Should you get a cutaway? Generally cutaways do not have as full and resonant a sound as traditional guitars. Moreover, you won’t be spending that much time on the higher frets, even with advanced repertoire. So it’s not as advantageous to have a cutaway for classical guitar.

Onboard electronics?

Should you get an instrument with onboard electronics? This kind of guitar will allow you to plug into an amp or a PA system. So if you are playing often in a live setting that requires amplification, onboard electronics can be quite convenient. Most of us will not need this, however, and a lot of venues can mic your guitar to amplify the instrument in a large hall.


Alright, that was a lot! But hopefully that has given you a good overview of what to look for and, more importantly, what to listen for while buying your first guitar.

Found the perfect guitar for you? Great! But, don’t just plan on buying a guitar. You’ll need to buy a case, humidification if you live in a dry environment (including dry winters), a tuner, and potentially new strings as well. Here’s a full list of accessories you may need to purchase:

Let us know in the comments below if you have any questions. And when it’s finally time, we hope you have a Happy New Guitar Day!