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….

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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.

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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!

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Been playing guitar for a while? It it time to take a break?

As regular readers of this blog will know I’ve recently been away on my holidays, visiting good ol’ Blightly (my mother country). And this was a holiday away from the guitar as much as anything else too.

Yes, believe it or not, there are times when I’m not playing guitar. This particular time I did have access to a guitar (I choose not to fly with my guitar if I can at all help it), courtesy of my brother in the UK, however, I think it is extremely important – just once or twice a year – to step away from the guitar completely for one, two or even three weeks.

Why is this?

Well, if you’re practicing and playing (or even teaching) on a regular (i.e. daily or more or less daily basis) then some downtime gives you a physical break from the rigours of that daily playing. Downtime, especially after an exam or other big performance, allows the fingers, hands, arms, shoulders and so on an opportunity to rest and recuperate.

If you’re practicing and playing regularly, taking a break of week or two is really not going to impact on your development. In fact, it’s likely to have the opposite effect. Rather like a professional athlete, who cannot maintain the same level and intensity of physical training throughout the year – this would almost certainly lead to injury and fatigue. We guitarists also need to take some time out.

Stepping back from your guitar for a week or two can also provide a mental rest. We all know that when we’re learning something new, and even when we’re working on something tried and true, it takes a fair amount of concentration, mental effort and energy to learn, prepare and play a piece of music.

So putting the guitar down for a little while can help you to refresh and recharge the mental batteries, giving you renewed energy and vigour for playing and moving on with your playing. Stepping back from the guitar for a time can also help you to see the woods for the trees with regard to a piece or pieces you’re learning or have even been playing for a while. When we’re playing the same things day in, day out we can run the risk of becoming that bit too close, too immersed in something that we may miss something, be that voicings, fingerings, notes in a chord, musical direction or whatever. A little bit of distance from the music for a while can sometimes help see and hear things in a different light.

And you may also surprise yourself, as I certainly did yesterday. Picking up my guitar yesterday for the first time really in three weeks and set about playing a piece I’d started to learn a couple of weeks before I went on holidays – I was very pleasantly surprised to find the piece a whole lot easier to play than I’d previously felt it to be (or recalled it to feel like). So along with some physical and mental rest time, I’d allowed my brain to stew on the information I’d been feeding it in the preceeding weeks.

So, whilst your fingers may feel a little like you’ve had a couple of pints before sitting down to play in that couple of days after your holiday (that will soon disappear), I’d strongly recommend taking a look at your schedule and programming in some rest from the guitar – it will do your playing a world of good!