What is “classical” guitar?

Classical guitar
Classical guitar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those of you who are regular readers this may seem like a bizarre question to put forward (or not – I should make no assumptions!). In talking with a few non-musicians and non-guitarists recently, explaining that I’m a classical guitarist and teacher I’ve found the most common responses or reactions to be either one of three things:

Oh, so what’s that then? Beethoven/ Tchaikovsky/ Bach/ (Insert name of other popular Western classical composer here)/ (Insert imagery of stuffy old conductors and huge symphony orchestras) and stuff on the guitar?

or

Oh right, that’s like flamenco stuff right?

or

So that’s like folk/ acoustic/ singer-songwriter type music then?

At this juncture one could easily get all high-and-mighty and huffy-and-puffy and remonstrate that the classical guitar is absolutely not any of these things. Any remonstrations to this effect doesn’t help our cause however, as they are probably totally justifiable responses.

You can’t blame the uninitiated for their responses as certainly the first two examples above are kind of right in their own way. Yes, we do transcribe some of those above mentioned composers to be played on our most wonderful of instruments. We all seem particularly fond of Bach on the guitar (I know I am!!). And the recent “The Seasons” album by the Grigoryan Brothers demonstrates that Tchaikovsky translates equally well to six nylon strings too.

And yes, we do also have inherited some elements of flamenco style and Spanish folk flavouring – how could we not, given the classical guitar’s provenance?!

If you really consider it, there is plenty of contemporary music written for the classical guitar heavily influenced by folk styles and even rock/ pop type influences (check out Richard Charlton’s music).

Perhaps we, in fact, need a better – or just different –  way of describing our instrument, who we are and what we do.

As players we are all “classical guitarists”, in that we all play this instrument that we call the “classical guitar”, but we may not all necessarily play in the “classical” style. Some of us prefer to play in the Renaissance and Baroque styles (or what we understand those to be) – which is not “capital C” Classical at all. Some of us prefer to stretch the boundaries of the repertoire and focus on playing late 20th and 21st century Contemporary “art music” styles. Some of us prefer fado, blues, samba, choro. Some of us like a mix!

So, coming back to the title of this post – what is “classical” guitar? My response would be, it is a guitar of the six nylon stringed variety, and features:

  • music from a wide-variety of cultural influences – Spanish, Brazilian, German, Italian, English, Japanese, North American, Australian and more
  • music influenced not only by Western “art” music, but also jazz, blues, rock, Latin styles and everything in between; and
  • music ranging from the Mediaeval times through to composers that are alive and well today.

As guitarists, we are incredibly lucky to be influenced by so many and varied styles of guitar that exist – there are few other instruments that could justifiably claim this (OK I’m probably a little biased in saying this, but hey ho!).

And let’s not forget, most importantly I think, as “classical guitarists” we are first and foremost musicians. So my own personal viewpoint is to embrace this wholeheartedly and maintain an open mind and an open heart to the veritable smorgasbord of influences, styles, directions and forms of expression and communication.

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