Top Three Tips for Buying Your First Classical Guitar

Back in January this year I published a blog post on selecting a new guitar. I thought I would update this a little, partly to complement my recent post on my top seven dos and don’ts for beginner guitarists and partly in response to a number of emails I’ve been receiving recently seeking advice about purchasing a classical guitar for the first time.

So here we are, my top three tips for the newbie would-be classical guitarist….

Allan Bull Spruce Top Classical Guitar

(1) If you want to play classical guitar you’ll need, yep you guessed it, a classical guitar. This is the quintessentially “Spanish”-type guitar (like the photo) fitted with nylon strings. Not steel strings. Well, strictly speaking a set of classical guitar strings contains three treble strings (these are the three highest pitched strings, or the three strings furthest away from you when holding the guitar) made of nylon (or carbon also these days) and three bass strings made of nylon tightly wound with a metal compound.

And it’s really not advised to go whacking nylon strings onto a guitar intended for steel strings, and definitely not vice versa. Without getting to much into it this is all to do with tension across the body of the guitar, the soundboard (the front of the guitar) and the neck.

And the classical guitar is not the same as a flamenco guitar – these guitars are built a little differently, have slightly different materials and generally produce a different kind of sound. They’re really geared to the playing of flamenco style music. So if you’re interested in playing flamenco or even other folk/ world music types you may want to do a little research into the best kind of guitar to get for the music you really want to play.

(2) Always play the guitar you have in mind, even better yet try a few different ones out. It may sound good on paper (or screen), seem like a good deal or look real pretty in the picture, but we all know that we can be disappointed by things that are not quite as good as they seem in real life compared to the picture or bought something off of the internet that turned out to be a little bit NQR (not quite right).

I would avoid, if at all possible, purchasing a guitar via the internet from either a shop or eBay or wherever, without having played the instrument in question first. If you play it first you can find out if you really like it, like the sound, like the feel of it, even the look of it in real life. This is too avoid that “ahh this is a little bit too heavy, too big/ deep a body, or too wide a neck shape for your hands” thing. Or the “I really don’t like how this sounds” thing when you now own the thing that isn’t shaped right for you or sounds like poo to your ears.

And try a few different guitars out. Classical guitars may all look the same but there can be considerable variation in how they feel to play and how they sound, even at the entry, “value for money” end of the market.

Yours Truly Playing John Price Cedar Top Concert Guitar

You could even try out the difference between the two main soundboard types. The soundboards on classical guitars are, 99.9% of the time, constructed out of either spruce (the lighter colour wood, shown in the image above) or cedar (the slightly darker colour wood, as per my own John Price guitar in the photo below). These two different tone woods, as they’re called, produce two different sound qualities. Spruce top guitars tend to sound very bright and zingy, especially in the first 12-18 months of playing them, then they start to mellow out a little. Cedar tops sound more immediately warm and more mellow. Neither is inherently better than the other, it just depends on your personal preference.

There are also of course the very cheaply made guitars which have orange or yellow painted plywood (not solid) soundboards. These are known as orange box guitars – because they sound like they’ve been made out of old orange boxes (probably have!). Avoid!!

(3) As tempting as it may be to purchase a $100 orange box guitar just to give it a bash I would avoid it if at all possible. It really is a false economy to do this because (a) you’ll end up hating the thing because it sounds bloody awful and/ or it feels awful to play, (b) you’ll be limited in your learning on this type of “instrument” (believe me, I’ve seen and heard it with my own eyes) and you’ll either give up on it or buy the guitar you perhaps should have bought in the first place. Another consideration is that these guitars don’t resell very well (if you do decide to give it away), where as the respectable entry level guitars do reasonably well in terms of resale if you did want to sell it on.

I would say, if you can afford it, you’re probably looking at starting around the $600 mark (in Australia) to get kitted up with a reasonable, solid top guitar, in your choice of either spruce or cedar. I have a student of mine, an absolute beginner to the guitar and to musical learning just a few months ago, who took my advice and did just this – she told me just this week how much she loves her guitar and how she enjoys playing it. And she sounds great playing it, really coming on leaps and bounds in her learning, ably assisted by her lovely student guitar. If you can do it, I would seriously recommend saving up the pennies to get you started out in the right direction.

Good luck and happy guitar buying!

8 thoughts on “Top Three Tips for Buying Your First Classical Guitar

  1. thanks nicole I wish you had wrote this article 4 months ago, I wasted a lot of time browsing ebay and the trading post looking for a bargain. Turns out all I had to do was rock on down to the local music shop, they were only too happy to sell me a spanish solid top at a great price-very happy, now all I have to do is to stop biting my nails.
    thanks john

  2. Very useful for me, thanks for the tips, especially about the difference in sound between the woods used for the soundboard! Am about to get my first ever guitar this weekend, so your tips will come in very useful! Thankfully my local music shop has a great guy who does all the (non-piano) instrument sales, so I wouldn’t get ripped off, but it’s useful to know what to listen out for 🙂

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