Buying a Classical Guitar

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Prepare Yourself With The Basics

Peter Kun Frary, Professor of Music, UH Leeward

Buying a new instrument is a critical step for the novice guitarist. A basic knowledge of the instrument and an assessment of your musical goals will help you make a wise purchase, a purchase you can enjoy for years, perhaps even a lifetime. Walking into a shop without a basic understanding of the instrument and your goals is a formula for disappointment.

Classical GuitarHirade H5R • Nylon strings and cedar top.

What is a Classical Guitar?

A classical guitar is a traditional Spanish acoustic guitar with wide-neck and nylon strings. In contrast to the metallic voice of steel-string guitars, it has a sweeter and darker tone more akin to a harp or piano:

Classical Guitar Sound: "Lesson for 2 Lutes"

Like all acoustic guitars, the classical guitar produces sound through the mechanical vibration of strings. The vibration of the string is transmitted to the soundboard via the saddle and bridge. The combined resonance of the strings, saddle, bridge and soundboard are, in turn, "amplified" in the sound box or body of the guitar. The design and quality of the strings, saddle, bridge and soundboard have a major impact on the guitar's sound. One weak link in the transmission chain--a cheap plastic saddle, worn out strings, etc.--degrade the sound considerably.

Parts of the Classical Guitar

The classical guitar differs from its steel-string relatives in several significant ways:

  • Nylon strings are used on the upper three strings with wire-wrapped nylon thread on basses. Nylon produces a round, mellow sound and is the preferred sound for classical, Latin and many pop/folk styles. Cat gut strings were used until the invention of nylon in the 1940s.
  • Low string tension (75-90 pounds versus150-200 pounds for steel-strings). Lower string tension makes classic guitars easier to play than steel-string acoustics.
  • Wide fingerboard. The fingerboard, 50 to 52 mm at the nut, provides room for intricate finger picking. In contrast, the narrow fingerboard of a steel-string acoustic, 40 mm at the nut, is optimized for playing with a pick.
  • Longer string length. The longer string length from saddle to nut (650 mm vs. 644 mm for steel-string acoustics) enhances bass response and sustain.
  • Small, easy to hold body. The classic body style is smaller than most other acoustic designs.

CAUTION: DO NOT PUT STEEL-STRINGS ON A CLASSIC GUITAR. The high tension of steel-strings will severely damage the bridge and soundboard.

Classic String Ties • Nylon strings and cedar top (Ramirez)

©Copyright 1998-2017 by Peter Kun Frary • All rights reserved

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