The most important part of this discussion is you, so before you leave, answer the question: What is the best classical guitar, and why? Leave your answer in the comments below.
The question on everybody’s lips
The most common questions are often the most difficult to answer, and the question of which guitar is the best classical guitar is no exception. The classical guitar sound is made up of so many contributing factors that it becomes quite a complex dance of materials, construction techniques and that x-factor each luthier provides. This, of course, is all the elements the guitar provides by itself, it still has to then interact with your fingers and technique!(don’t get me started on strings…)
Times, they are a changin’
The violin, the piano and cello, all have a design that has been set for quite some time. The classical guitar, however, is still a playground of innovation and experimentation. In a way we are very lucky to be living in a time when guitar builders are free from the tyranny of tradition to try new things and constantly push the limits of what our instrument can do. On the other hand, it can be death by choice when it comes to deciding which one, out of the hundreds of variants, is the one for us.
Some of the variations that can affect sound are:
- Soundboard wood – essentially cedar or spruce.
- Soundboard bracing – traditional fan bracing, radial, double top, lattice or any number of variants will offer a wide variety of tone palettes.
- Rounded or flat back – It offers a subtle change to the sound, but the rounded or ‘cello’ back looks amazing!
- Sound portals – These small holes on the side of the guitar (usually near the neck) not only elicit questions from onlookers but also give the guitarist a different way of hearing the sound.
- Construction quality – This aspect will depend on the builder. Essentially, a high quality builder will make sure there are no buzzes, ‘wolf notes’, or other noises that don’t belong.
Some of the other innovations include:
- Arm rests – A Greg Smallman development that lifts the arm off the vibrating soundboard and offers comfort.
- Raised necks – Necks like the “Millennium” by Thomas Humphrey were raised above the soundboard to give the left hand more clearance.
- Detachable neck – Yet another Smallman innovation. His guitars actually have detachable necks that allow the action to be changed with the turning of a key!
- Different scale lengths – Not so much a recent addition, but guitars can be built smaller or larger than the standard 650mm scale length. This makes the size of the guitar suit your hands and fingers. I play a 640.
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night
Some guitarists rely heavily on the visual aesthetic of an instrument to guide their choice of instrument. After all, the classical guitar is a stunningly beautiful object. From woods, to rosette and unique finishing touches, each guitar can look as unique as it sounds. The appearance, however, will never offer more than a visual treat. Perhaps some audience members appreciate that? For me, the sound is 99 percent of what I am focusing on, but I will admit that the look of a guitar makes me feel good when I am playing it.
Talking about feel…
The way that your hands interact with the instrument will make a big difference in your choice. The playability of a classical guitar is all about how it feels to touch, shift, maneuver, and play your repertoire. Things like string responsiveness in the right hand and the ease (or lack of) in the left hand to fret notes should be pretty high on your list of requirements.
Show me the money!
Price will always be an issue. Even though we don’t have to battle with same astronomical prices that violins, cellos and pianos might warrant, classical guitars can still get expensive. For some of us, we need that money to pay rent or buy a car, so that little tag can make a big difference.
The good news for players is that there are more and more quality builders out there, making competition quite fierce. This results in quality, concert level classical guitars, being available under ten thousand dollars. In general, to get over ten thousand, a builder will have a strong reputation backed by a notable performer that uses their instrument, or a long and distinguished track record that builds trust.
The 5 to 10,000 range is an interesting one, with several builders that may have not been ‘discovered’ yet. Guitar festivals are a great way to meet and greet these builders, or it can simply be by word of mouth.
So, let us know what guitar you admire and why. Perhaps we can all find out about some of the ‘undiscovered’ builders out there!