What is classical guitar?
What is classical guitar? And how does it differ from other types of guitar? This might be confusing at first as you will hear different people use the term “classical guitar” in different ways. Let’s look at some examples. Classical guitar can refer to:
- A nylon-string acoustic guitar
- A technical approach to playing guitar that uses right-hand fingers to pluck, sitting with the guitar neck at an angle, and no amplification
- A style of instrumental music that centers around specific repertoire that first originated in Spain but carries other European, Latin American, and other world influences.
- Or even all of the above!
So “classical guitar” in the simplest terms often refers to a guitar with nylon strings. However, it also refers to a specific style of guitar playing. Classical guitar in this latter sense refers to a nylon-string guitar that is used to play classical music.
Let’s take a step back because that term may also be confusing for some. What counts as “classical music”? In the strictest sense it refers to Western music written during the “Classical” period (think music from the time of CPE Bach up to Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven). Most date the Classical period of music from 1750 (after Bach) up to around 1830 (around the time Beethoven began his “late period”).
But the term is also used in a more general sense to refer to Western European art music from the time of ecclesiastical and royal court music (in the medieval period) up through the 19th century and beyond.
On a television program called Young People’s Concerts in 1959, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein said, “People use [classical music] to describe music that isn’t jazz or popular songs or folk music, just because there isn’t any other word that seems to describe it better.” Perhaps this is the best description we can offer of classical music.
Classical Guitar Music
But when it comes to classical guitar music this description doesn’t fit as well. The classical music of classical guitar repertoire is not all Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. In fact, a lot of the music composed for the instrument is popular music, often in the form of dance music.
Yes, the repertoire is full of traditional Western art music from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras. It has many pieces that are both quite formal and complex. And a huge bulk of the pedagogical material for the instrument also comes from the late “Classical” period (Sor, Aguado, Giuliani, Carulli, Carcassi, etc.).
However, also present in the classical guitar repertoire are influences of flamenco, jazz, blues, rock, and pop music. I think this has to do at least in part with the fact that classical guitar music is still very much guitar music. And the guitar has always been a popular instrument, for the masses. Thus classical guitar is not exactly easily associated with the wigs and ballroom dances we sometimes associate with “classical music.”
Another common feature of classical guitar music is that it does not use tablature (or TAB). Well, this one is a bit more complicated. Composers used tablature for music written for both the Renaissance and Baroque lutes as well as the baroque guitar and the vihuela (all early cousins of the guitar). However, by the Classical period tablature became less popular and all guitar music was written in standard notation alone.
The guitar has evolved through many different phases throughout its history. It has had different shapes, build styles, different types of strings, even different numbers of strings, and so on. Today there are steel-string acoustic guitars used in folk, fingerstyle, country, bluegrass, rock, and pop; electric guitars used in jazz, pop, rock, metal, and everything in between; and classical guitars used in all of the above but especially in flamenco and classical music.
But, most classical guitar music is usually played on an instrument called a classical guitar. The “classical guitar” most often refers simply to a nylon-string guitar. But here are a few other common features of classical guitars:
- Most do not have electronics for amplification
- They usually do not have cutaways above the 12th fret
- And most do not have any fret dots.
There are exceptions of course to all of these from guitar to guitar, but these are good generalizations to go by.
What are some other differences between classical and acoustic guitars? The bodies of classical guitars are also smaller than acoustic “dreadnought” guitars, but similar in size to an acoustic “parlor” guitar. The fingerboard of a classical guitar is flat, not radiused like a steel-string acoustic and the neck is also usually a bit wider. Moreover, the nylon strings tie at the bridge on a “tieblock” rather than being held tight with bridge pins like on a n acoustic.
Go here for more on the differences between classical vs acoustic guitars.
The biggest differences between classical and acoustic guitars, however, have to do with the techniques used to play the instrument and its music.
Classical Guitar Technique
First off, yes, most classical guitarists always sit down to play. Very few play standing, though there are some exceptions. Moreover, unlike acoustic or electric guitar (or a flamenco guitarist like Paco de Lucia), where a guitarist might hold the guitar over their right leg (often with legs folded), most classical guitarists hold the guitar over their left leg with the use of a footstool or guitar support.
Go here to learn much more about using the footstool vs guitar support for classical guitar sitting position.
Sitting this way puts the guitar, especially the neck, at an angle similar to how a guitar is held with a strap when standing.
Sitting and holding the guitar this way allows the classical guitarist to place both hands in positions that work well for classical guitar music. Because a lot of classical guitar music uses arpeggios (chords broken up into a succession of notes) classical guitarists play the strings with the right-hand fingers, and not with a pick/plectrum or fingerpicks like on acoustic. In fact, most (though certainly not all) classical guitarists use fingernails to play the strings in the right hand.
Go here to learn all about nails on classical guitar.
Secondly, the left hand does not usually use the thumb to fret bass notes (à la Jimi Hendrix). Spanish classical guitarist and composer Fernando Sor specifically says not to use the thumb to fret notes in his Method in 1830. However, it is clear this was a feature of guitar teaching before the time of Sor and also of nineteenth-century Russian classical guitar music.
The left hand also makes extensive use of the pinky, which some acoustic and electric guitarists avoid using. This allows the left-hand fingers to stay in a position to play multiple voices at the same time. This is an important part of classical guitar music and allows both chords and melody to be played at the same time. It also allows the classical guitarist to play music with multiple, complex, moving voices such as some of the baroque music of J.S. Bach.
Many are drawn to the classical guitar because of its unique sound. While the instrument itself contributes to its tone, so do these particular techniques. Both the use of the fingernails in the right hand and the soft nylon strings allow for tone colors on the classical guitar that offer the performer a beautiful and diverse palette. When used to its widest extent the classical guitar and its colors have the potential to make up an entire orchestra of sound.
Classical vs Flamenco Guitar
Another style of guitar that shares many overlapping features with classical guitar, including its sound to an extent, is flamenco. Flamenco guitar music was born out of Spanish popular music, just like classical guitar. There are also several overlaps in technique between classical and flamenco guitar.
However there are a few key differences:
- Flamenco guitarists usually sit holding the guitar over the right leg rather than the left (See Paco de Lucia)
- Flamenco guitarists make extensive use of rasgueado, or strumming, something that does appear in the Spanish-influenced classical guitar repertoire, but not all that frequently.
- Flamenco guitarists play many fast scales, whereas fast scales do not feature as much in classical guitar repertoire (again this is an exception for a lot of Spanish-influenced classical guitar music).
- Flamenco makes heavy use of the thumb for both playing bass notes and for strumming (in a technique called azalpua).
- While both flamenco and classical guitar music frequently feature the “tremolo” technique, flamenco tremolo fingering is a little different (and longer) than classical tremolo technique.
Who are some classical guitarists you should listen to?
As you can see, the term “classical guitar” can be as straightforward as a nylon-string guitar. But it can also be as complicated as a particular style of music on a nylon-string guitar that has certain unique traits. These unique characteristics differentiate it from other styles of guitar while these other styles heavily influence it. But one way to cut to the chase is to go listen to some classical guitar music.
We’ve compiled a public playlist of classical guitar music (about 5 hours long). This is in no way meant to be exhaustive. It is just a few good places to start. What you will find here is a bit of the diversity that makes up classical guitar music and its guitarists.