Table of Contents
*If you are looking for a recommendation on the exact classical guitar to buy then head here
As a beginner, it can be very difficult to work out which type of guitar is best for your own needs, and even if you have established that the classical guitar is for you, how do you decide which to buy? This guide is designed to help walk you through the steps of a classical guitar, explaining the multitude of considerations for those looking to take the plunge and make a purchase.
The three key considerations when it comes to choosing a classical guitar include:
- The sound of the guitar based on tonewood and design.
- How the guitar plays, it’s action and how easy it is for beginners.
- Value for money and brand reliability.
This post is designed to cover all of these aspects and much more. We’re aiming to demystify a lot of the jargon and hard-to-understand aspects of buying a guitar, and make sure you make that crucial first purchase with as much info as possible. Buying the wrong classical guitar can mean you lose a lot of passion or interest for sticking with the hobby!
Pros and Cons of Classical Guitar – At a Glance
Why go classical? Before you can properly understand the decision, it is important to work out the motivations behind purchasing a classical guitar as opposed to a different model, such as a standard acoustic guitar. Classical guitars, like every other variation, have their positives and negatives.
Pros of a Classical Guitar:
- For beginners, a big pro is the fact that the Nylon strings are generally easier to play than steel strings which are on acoustic guitars. Nylon strings require less finger strength when it comes to fretting, and are also less likely to leave you with calloused fingers, the curse of many new players.
- Classical guitar has a unique tone, which may be exactly what you are looking for. Long have these guitars been associated with styles such as Brazilian and Spanish guitar playing, and this could be exactly what you are looking for.
- Many good guitar teachers (or online courses for classical playing) will teach you fingerpicking techniques which can build your finger strength and speed up quickly.
- The skills you learn are transferrable to other types of guitars, as the strings and intonation of the frets are the same as electric and acoustic guitar.
Cons of a Classical Guitar:
- Those calloused fingers you might get when playing acoustic guitar for the first few times are actually quite useful. They harden the skin, and if you plan to eventually transfer to acoustic, you won’t have built up this hardness by playing softer nylon strings.
- The neck and the fretboard tend to be wider than other types of guitar. This means if you are used to playing acoustic or electric guitar there may be some period of adjustment. It also means that if you have smaller hands, you may struggle with some of the fretting required, especially if picking or soloing.
- To learn all of the techniques (and achieve the sound) of rock and pop music then you will eventually need to switch and purchase some form of steel-stringed guitar anyway.
Contrary to what some beginners believe (and can be forgiven for believing), the wood of a guitar is not just in place for looks or functionality. The wood that the different parts of the guitar are made of have a big impact on the sound, and this is true of every different type and style of guitar, including classical. Some different woods are chosen for classical guitars for their tonal qualities.
The whole process of choosing tonewoods is an immensely complicated one, which Luthiers and guitar bands are always trying to perfect, but in general, the following woods are pretty common among classical guitars.
Spruce woods are very commonly used due to their versatility. Sitka is the most popular type of Spruce wood we see in the world of classical guitars, but it isn’t the only option as Engelmann and a few other varieties have been known to be used.
The spruce wood creates a very strong, crisp sound with a wide dynamic range, meaning it covers lots of frequencies of human hearing. This can provide a lot of clarity and simplicity to the sound. We tend to associate types of wood with styles of playing, whether consciously or not, and Spruce has tonal qualities found in Flamenco and other Latin styles of playing as well as many of the other classical guitar sounds we are used to, meaning it is a good choice if you plan to dabble in multiple styles.
Spruce woods are commonly used on the soundboard, the part of the guitar where the wood has the most influence on the overall tone.
Cedar’s tone is less clear and simple than Spruce, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The added complexity of the sound is preferable for some and does provide a level of warmth. This wood is also quieter when strummed hard. This is not necessarily good or bad, just something to consider in your playing. It does mean musicians who play more softly often opt for a classical guitar featuring cedar.
Once again, this is almost always used as a soundboard wood or ‘top wood’.
Maple can be used for making sides and backs, but also for the soundboard. The density of this wood creates a lot of clear volume and lets the high frequencies within the sound ring out a little more. Maple is often the choice of musicians who plan to amplify their classical guitar and it is good for recording, too. The high-end sounds which are exaggerated with this wood really shine out in live performances or recordings.
This is used for sides and necks more often than the soundboard.
The words ‘rich’ and ‘Mahogany’ often go side by side when talking about furniture, but it is no different for guitar! Mahogany is another wood which can craft the sides or neck of the guitar as well, and the warmth of the sound can give a Blues feel to the music you play. Mahogany stands the test of time very well and these guitars can even become more rich and tuneful over time.
Rosewood is pretty much used in every variety of guitar. There is a cheaper Indian Rosewood as well as a Brazilian variety.
Rosewood has great projection and a good level of volume in the bass frequencies. The sound is versatile and consistent, which means that it is often used in beginner classical guitars or those which are trying to be well-rounded and lend themselves to many different styles. Don’t be surprised to see this paired with Spruce.
There are a few other types of wood you may see, such as Basswood, but the above wood types are the most common when it comes to classical guitars.
Classical Guitar Anatomy
Without wanting to get too technical for people who are just getting started with their guitar hobby, it is important that any beginner grows some knowledge about the parts of a guitar. If nothing else, this will help you to know what other tutorials are talking about when making adjustments to your guitar or learning things like how to change strings.
The way a guitar is built is key to how it sounds, and may impact the decision you make.
As we’ve already briefly mentioned the Soundboard, it seems like an appropriate place to start with the anatomy of the guitar. This is also an absolutely vital component in a classical guitar, and will have a massive impact on the price and the tone of the guitar.
The soundboard creates the sound by vibrating as the strings are either strummed or picked. This is the main way sound is projected. The resonance is enhanced by the body shape, and the sound hole of the guitar itself.
Because this is what is actually ‘amplifying’ the sound of the strings, it has a massive chance to impact or taint the sound.
Soundboards can be either made up of plywood or solid wood. While solid wood is probably the best quality, there is an argument for plywood for saving money, and it can be found in many beginner guitars.
Plywood and solid wood guitars are usually made out of the woods mentioned above. Plywood has multiple (normally three) layers of the wood which have been stuck together. The top level is a better quality wood (it may be more aged or have been picked out as being better quality) whereas the layers we can’t see may be lower quality, which makes it much cheaper. Plywood is strong and economical but the end result is often less in the way of projection and clarity.
Elite musicians and guitarists will almost always opt for solid wood. These types are made out of two slabs of the same thickness, which is why sometimes we see a ‘seam’ in the mid section of the guitar top, where you can see the grain change. This is often the result of two types of wood adding to the tone.
Spruce, cedar and even Mahogany are common choices, and their tonal qualities are described above. You should make the choice based on the end result you are looking for or the style you plan to learn.
Fretboard or Fingerboard
You may hear this described as either of these terms, but they mean the same thing. This is the longer, thinner part of the guitar where the frets are, where you make the hand shapes for chords or to play individual notes.
The fretboard on a classical guitar is quite distinctive and wider than many other types of guitar. In terms of materials, Rosewood is very common but some other woods including Mahogany and Ebony have been known.
A fretboard does have some impact on the sound, but generally needs to be considered in terms of comfort and playability. Some fretboards are much more pleasant when it comes to moving your hand shape or moving up and down the frets when fingerpicking.
The action of the fretboard is something to pay close attention to. For beginners, the word ‘action’ can sound totally abstract. What it basically means is the space between the strings and the frets themselves. A wider space is a high action, narrower means a low action. High actions on your guitar can sometimes produce more in the way of volume, but fretting and holding strings down, as well as playing bends and slides, can become more difficult. Low actions are generally simpler and good for navigating the fretboard, but they are more susceptible to buzzing coming from the strings.
The action of a guitar will be a part of it being ‘set up’. A guitar store employee or guitarist can help with this, but generally a low action which avoids any fret buzz is preferable for beginners.
The spacing between the strings along the board is also something to consider. Some are wider than others. This is down to personal preference and often hand size, but it is key that the strings are equally spaced. If you have an unusual spacing, it can become very hard if you ever pick up another guitar to get used to the way it is played.
The body of a guitar is the main ‘bulk’ of the instrument, where the guitar is strummed. Classical guitars and acoustic guitars have a lot of emphasis on this area, and the way the body is designed can have an impact on the sound (and the price) of a guitar.
Thicker bodies tend to have more of a rich sound in the lower end, the thinner a body is, the more high frequencies tend to ring out. Playing a couple of classical guitars and comparing is a good way to start to understand how the bodies can influence the tone.
The Soundboard is still the vital part of the body, but there are back and sides as well, these are often made of laminate materials on the cheaper end of the market as a way to save money on construction, and because it tends to be more reliable and sturdy this way.
The Nut and Saddle
It may sound like an old English pub name, but the Nut and Saddle are actually the areas where the strings are held in place. Cheap, beginner models will be made out of plastic. While this sounds flimsy, plastic is pretty effective and reliable for keeping it in place. More expensive models will often have bone construction and this leads to more vibrations and sometimes louder playing as a result.
Head and Tuning Pegs
The headstock (or just head) of a classical guitar is pretty straightforward in design terms. Take a look at the tuning pegs and feel whether they are easy to adjust. This is how you will tune the strings of your guitar, and poor quality plastic pegs can often make this really difficult.
Choosing the size of your classical guitar might seem like a straightforward thing, but it does require a little bit of consideration. If you are an adult of average or above average size and height then the strongest possibility is that a full-sized classical guitar is for you. The body of a classical guitar isn’t excessively large compared to acoustic guitars, and it is likely to be relatively comfortable. However, there is a reason other sizes of guitars exist!
If you are a smaller adult or are purchasing a guitar for someone who is younger or smaller in stature, there is every chance that a smaller guitar is needed. The sizes which tend to be offered include:
- ¼ sized. These are designed for children, and are suitable for ages up to about 5 years old, depending on the size of the child.
- ½ sized. These are designed for children, and are suitable for ages up to about 8, depending on the size of the child, of course. These guitars are not suitable for adults to play and the fretting can be very awkward!
- ¾ sized. These are more suitable for older children up to 12 years old as well as some very petite adult players. The main reason you may opt for a ¾ sized guitar as an adult is that the fretting hand (normally your left hand) may struggle to work its way around a full-sized fretboard.
Keep in mind that learning to play guitar is always a little tricky, and there are obstacles to overcome. Even if the fretting feels a little tough to begin with, and it feels like you might struggle to reach, your fingers will eventually become stronger and more flexible and suited to playing guitar. This can also be affected by poor technique holding a guitar. Don’t assume it is too big for you and get a smaller guitar just for the sake of it.
Deciding on a guitar size having never held one is difficult. If you go to a guitar store with a big choice of classical guitars then you will get the chance to try out ¾ size, ⅞ size and full sized, see which feels more natural to your body type and sits better as you play. This doesn’t mean you have to buy from that particular store, it just gives you a bit more experience of what the sizings actually mean, rather than guessing.
It is no exaggeration to say that the price difference between cheap and expensive classical guitars is huge. Shop around, and you can find a beginner model for $100-200. On the other end of the market, for a professional model with incredible construction and tonewood, the cost can run into many thousands.
There are a few things which impact upon the price.
The woods used in construction have a big influence on how a guitar is priced. For instance, if a guitar’s fretboard is made out of Brazilian Rosewood then it is likely to be more costly than Indian Rosewood. Whether the tonal difference between these two is particularly big is a matter of some debate within the guitar community. The markets for purchasing wood aren’t necessarily always linked to guitar manufacture, and many other things impact how expensive wood is. Mahogany is a strong wood and an example of a wood which is desirable for classical guitars, but due to being in demand for other things, it is also an expensive wood.
Handmade vs Factory made. If you are looking for a handmade guitar then you should be prepared for the extra cost this will involve. The majority of beginner guitars are made in factories. This doesn’t mean they’re poor quality as such, just that they haven’t been made with the specialism of a Luthier. The vast majority of beginners will start out with a factory made guitar.
Hardware. The hardware of a guitar includes the tuning pegs and nut. These can be made out of plastic or other materials such as bone or metal. The better the material, the higher the price, but this is balanced by the fact that you will usually receive a much more hard-wearing and long-lasting guitar if it is made out of better components.
Brand. More on brand shortly, but the basics of marketing dictate that brand plays some part in the pricing. A brand with a reputation for making excellent guitars may cost a little more than a brand you have never heard of. Some brands are designed for beginners, some are made to be suitable for the professionals.
Top tip: Something that often impacts the price is if there is a signature model or a limited edition model offered by a manufacturer. Guitar makers love to do this, and they get a product endorsed by a celebrity player or make a model which was previously discontinued. Some of these guitars are great, but you definitely pay a premium for words like ‘limited edition’ and ‘signature’ which won’t add to the quality of the instrument itself. For a beginner, these are usually best avoided.
We’ve covered what affects the prices, but what can you actually expect when you are buying a model within a certain price range? How much will you have to spend to get something acceptable as a beginner’s classical guitar, or even something which can last you as an intermediate player? If you are confident you will stick with the hobby, there is nothing wrong with purchasing a higher quality guitar and investing more in the future. Good quality guitars which are looked after can also keep their value pretty well, meaning it isn’t much of a high-risk purchase.
If your budget is under $100 then the models which are on offer are likely to be pretty basic and not at all reliable, they also probably won’t stand the test of time. There are imported guitars available at this price range but a look through their reviews will probably show you that they’re nothing special. For a little more money, you can get a considerably better guitar.
As a caveat, if you are looking for a half-sized guitar, or even ¾ size, there may be something at this price point which is acceptable as a very basic model.
This is the first price point where you can really find some acceptable guitars. Most of the big brands have something on offer at a price under $250 which can provide you with all you need as a beginner. Also, a lot of guitars sold at this price are specifically aimed at beginners, this means that they may be sold as bundled. A guitar bundle will normally consist of the guitar and a few other items such as picks and a case, tuner and even spare strings. Buying in this way can save you some money in the long run.
Expect more ‘intermediate’ classical guitars at this price point. These can be fine for beginners too, but if you aren’t that confident that you’ll still be using your guitar in a few years then this might be more than you wish to spend. At this price, slightly better quality woods and hardware such as bone and metal tuning pegs might start to be used within the guitars.
This is a sort of “upper intermediate” price point. If you pick the right guitar, you can even buy something with quite a professional setup and feel spending up to $1000. For beginners, this is probably overkill. At this price point, there will be a mixture of factory-made guitars and those which have been hand-crafted.
If you plan to drop over $1000 on a guitar, it had better be good quality! For this price, look for a hand-made model and be sure to check reviews. Top tonewoods, excellent craftsmanship and a beautiful feel and look should all be expected if you’re spending this kind of money.
Classical Guitar Brands
Classical guitar brands are slightly different to other types of guitar. While there are some brands which offer multiple types of guitar, a lot of classical brands have a specialism in this area.
At the top end of the market, brands like “Dupont” and other more obscure manufacturers are prevalent. There are many different small boutique brands which are available, not because they are poor quality, quite the opposite. A lot of manufacturers make these products by hand on a small scale, and may only ever produce a few hundred classical guitars.
If there is an instrument to be manufactured, the chances are that Yamaha will be making their own offering. This is no different for classical guitars, but that doesn’t mean they’re poor quality. In fact, Yamaha makes some very good classical guitars at pretty much any of the price points which we’ve discussed as being acceptable. For beginners, a Yamaha guitar will almost guarantee quality.
One of, if not the best brand to mass produce classical guitars, is Cordoba. It feels like this manufacturer has a massive history. In fact, they’ve only been producing instruments since 2007. This is a relatively short time in the grand scheme of instruments. The quality on offer as well as the value within their range means Cordoba classical guitars are among the most popular. Their guitars range from around $150 all the way up to $1000.
A growing list of pro musicians use Cordoba guitar, as their website shows. Though they do manufacture Ukuleles and some other instruments such as acoustic bass guitars, classical is undoubtedly the specialism.
Takamine manufactures a lot of different guitars, mainly acoustic, with a small section of their brand devoted to classical guitars. Though it isn’t their specialism, there are some acceptable models within their range.
Fender (and Squier)
Similarly, though we associate Fender largely with their range of iconic electric guitars, they manufacture acoustic products, too. This includes a few classical guitars, some of which are pretty good quality. The Squier options include a Classical Acoustic Guitar bundle which is great for beginners and available at a very reasonable price.
Another brand with a huge range. These manufacture bass guitars, electric, acoustic and classical models. Their classical guitars vary a lot in materials and price, so there is plenty of selection for those who intend to purchase from this range.
Stagg is something of a budget manufacturer of guitars in all shapes and sizes. They make a few different types of classical guitar, but these are not hugely impressive and are definitely on the ‘budget’ end of the market. Read reviews very carefully if you plan to go down this route, to ensure you don’t end up with one of their less reliable products.
Other brands which only offer one or two classical guitars in their range include Ibanez and Epiphone.
Looking After a Classical Guitar
There are numerous reasons for taking good care of your guitar once you’ve bought it. As well as making it easier and more pleasant to play, it preserves the value. A poorly maintained guitar can be affected in ways you may not have considered. Did you know that temperature changes can have a big impact on the wood, and even warp your guitar? This is one of the reasons for properly looking after your guitar.
Our tips for maintaining and protecting your guitar include:
- Invest in a good quality case, especially if you are taking you guitar out and about with you a lot. The case can protect your guitar from humidity and extreme temperature changes and stop it from warping.
- Avoid temperature changes and extremes altogether. Don’t do anything silly like store it in the garage through a cold winter!
- Use a humidifier. The best humidity for wood is 40-55% and this can be preserved by keeping conditions right in the case or in the room where your guitar is stored.
- Oil and polish the fingerboard regularly. Oil means that any dirt comes to the surface of the guitar and can be wiped away more easily. Oil also provides a layer or protection stopping the wood from soaking up any water from the environment or just from sweat.
- Clean the fretboard semi-regularly with a soft, dry cloth.
- Lubricate the string slots within the nut in order to stop them from creaking and getting difficult to move when you are tuning.
- Replace strings regularly. This won’t impact your guitar for the long term, but old strings can go out of tune more easily and not sound anywhere near as good.
If you’ve invested in a guitar, it is well worth taking it for regular check-ups. A good quality music store will have staff who are capable of helping with things like replacing the strings and even tweaking the action of the guitar if needed. Guitar maintenance is a good skill to have, but you don’t have to go it all alone.
Electro-Acoustic (Do You Need Electrics?)
An electro-acoustic guitar is one which is designed to have a pickup built in and can send the sound via a signal to be amplified in an amp or PA system. Electro-acoustic guitars are available in all different types including classical. So, should you opt for this type of guitar?
They can certainly offer plenty of versatility. When practicing on your own you can play your guitar as an acoustic model, and when the time comes to play with others or in front of an audience you can hook it up to amplification. Some electro-acoustic models also have inbuilt tuners, which can be an added bonus.
If you are determined that you want the ability to plug into an amplifier straight away then an electro-acoustic model could be the way to go, but this isn’t the only way to amplify, so to start with it is not totally essential.
If you want to, at a later date, you can add a pickup to the soundhole of the guitar. This is not too difficult and allows you to send the sound as an electronic signal just like an electro-acoustic guitar does.
A lot of people also like the traditional method of using a microphone in front of the soundhole. If you are a solo musician then this is certainly a simple option, and if you sit down to play it is far easier. Doing so preserves the natural tone of your guitar and can avoid the harsh sounds an electro-acoustic sometimes offers. These guitars can sometimes amplify a harsh attack of a string or the strum a bit too much, which can be unpleasant and unnatural. Microphones avoid this issue.
What is a crossover guitar?
Crossover guitars are designed like a standard acoustic guitar, often with a cutaway section, but with nylon strings just like a classical guitar. This means the tone is similar to a classical guitar, but the crossover is designed to be easier to access the higher register of the guitar and the intricate high frets! They also have thinner necks, designed to be closer to playing an acoustic guitar. If you are used to the dynamics of an acoustic guitar and don’t want a drastic change, these could be your answer.
How can I stop buzzing?
Buzzing is a common issue among beginner guitarists, and often comes from the fact they haven’t quite nailed their technique yet. If you are certain that the guitar itself is causing the buzzing, it could be down to the action of the guitar not being quite right. It could be worth taking it to a music store to get the action checked and adjusted if needed. The ideal action is low to the fretboard but not so low that it buzzes.
Is a Classical guitar tuned differently?
Though there are a multitude of tunings for any type of guitar, a classical guitar is not tuned any differently to a normal acoustic guitar. The standard tuning is still E-A-D-G-B-e. This means that notation which is designed for acoustic or even electric guitar can still be used for learning classical guitar, you don’t have to get specific classical tabs.
What is the difference between a classical and Flamenco guitar?
These can commonly be confused. Classical guitars can be used for playing a lot of the Latin styles of music. Flamenco guitars have quite a specific sound, and a percussive sort of pluck sound. This comes from their design of a cypress body (back and sides) with a spruce soundboard. Flamenco guitars also have a thinner design, which give the percussive quality to the sound.
How often should I change guitar strings?
There are a few different schools of thought here. You will develop your own preference having played for a while, but somewhere between 50-80 playing hours should be about right, or if you leave your guitar for a few months without playing it may need a new set!