Buyers guide: How do I Choose the Right Classical Guitar?
So, you want to buy an acoustic guitar and have decided to go for a classical guitar. But which one should you choose? There are so many different kinds out there that the choice can easily become overwhelming. Perhaps you already have a preference for a particular brand, or maybe someone who knows about guitars told you to get a one made of a certain wood type. Of course, price is going to play a big role in your choice, as will your intentions for the guitar—are you planning to use it at gigs? What kind of music do you want to play? There's no need to fret though, once you've had a look at our buyers guide, you'll have all of the information you need to make an informed decision.
A short history of the classical guitar
Before we begin, it's important to make the distinction between classical, Spanish and Flamenco guitars. Today, when folks refer to a classical guitar or a Spanish guitar, they're talking about the same instrument, which is predominantly used to play classical music. Flamenco guitars, on the other hand, are used in traditional Spanish Flamenco music, as the name implies.
Spanish, classical and Flamenco guitar
The modern classical guitar is a 19th century design by the Spanish guitar builder Antonio de Torres. Back then it was only built in Spain and was used to play traditional Spanish music, which is why it's often referred to as a Spanish guitar.
In the beginning of the 20th century, de Torres' Spanish guitar started to be used to play classical pieces from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and slowly the guitar came to be known as the classical guitar. Guitar makers started experimenting with different wood types, and they also made small alterations to the design so the guitar would have more melodic intonation.
Traditional Spanish Flamenco music is known for having a bright, loud, percussive sound, which requires an acoustic guitar with a bright, tight, direct sound. The original guitar by de Torres, which is today's Flamenco guitar, is therefore used more for rhythm parts.
Today, classical guitars always have nylon strings. In the olden days, the strings were made from sheep and goat intestines, but now they're made of polymers such as nylon, and the three bass strings are then wound with metal. Winding the strings makes them more substantial so they can be tuned lower. In fact, without the metal windings, the nylon would have to be so thick that it would render the guitar unplayable! Of course, the core of the wound strings is still nylon, which is why classical / Spanish guitars are also referred to as nylon-string guitars. In contrast with steel-string guitars, nylon-string guitars produce a warmer, sweeter, softer sound.
We've included the diagram below to show you all of the most important parts of a classical guitar so you can better understand the advice in the rest of this guide.
Wood type and design
The most important factors for the sound of a classical guitar is the wood type and design of the body. A guitar body consists of a top, sides, and a back, and is responsible for amplifying the resonating string vibrations and projecting the sound via the soundhole. The better the resonance, the more acoustic volume the guitar can produce. The timbre of a classical guitar depends on the combination of wood types used to build it. One wood type offers a warm tone with full bass (such as cedar), while another produces a much brighter sound (like spruce).
The top: solid top or laminated?
The most essential part of an acoustic guitar is the top. This thin piece of wood is in direct contact with the bridge, and is responsible for transferring the string vibrations to the sides and back of the body so it can resonate as one whole. If you're in the market for a classical guitar, you'll undoubtedly come across the terms 'solid top' and 'laminated top' in our product texts and specifications. But what does that actually mean?
A classical guitar with a solid top has a top made of one solid piece of wood. If the top is laminated, that means it's made out of three or more thin layers (plies) of wood glued together, not to be confused with plywood you'd get at the hardware store. Laminated wood is a lot stronger than solid wood, meaning that it can withstand changes in temperature and climate much better. That strength, however, comes at the cost of the sound. It's the main task of a guitar top to vibrate optimally, and solid wood does that best, as it's naturally flexible. As such, you'll find that solid-top guitars sound fuller and louder than guitars with a laminated top. Why don't all classical guitars have solid tops then? Simply because solid wood is more expensive, and laminated wood is easier to produce. That's why most beginner models and budget models feature laminated tops.
If you're wondering about the sides and back, you can rest assured that it's not too important whether they're solid or laminated, especially if you're just getting started. A good full-solid classical guitar costs a pretty penny, and it takes a more advanced musician to be able to hear and feel the difference.
What are you planning to use the guitar for?
Before you start worrying about the kinds of sounds different wood types produce, it's important to know what sound you're actually looking for. This will depend on factors such as your personal taste and the type of music you want to play. Are you a classically-trained guitarist looking for a warm sound with plenty of sustain? Or perhaps you want to strum hard with your fingers after the Flamenco fashion, and are therefore looking for a guitar with a lot of volume and bite. These are a few of the questions you should ask yourself before you decide what type of wood your future guitar should be made of.
Most common wood types
If you're looking for a particular sound, then you'll want to take a look below at the most common wood types used for nylon-string guitars, along with their characteristic traits.
Spruce, more specifically Sitka spruce, is the most common wood type use for classical guitar tops. It has a light colour and sleek grain, and often has an overall yellow or slightly reddish tint. Spruce combines strength and elasticity, resulting in a bright, articulate sound with a wide dynamic range. There are many different types of spruce out there, and each of them has their own sound.
Like Sitka, Engelmann spruce is also from North America. This type of spruce has a 'riper' sound, resulting in a more rounded timbre with richer mids. Then there's the scarce Adirondack spruce, which is a bit more dynamic than Sitka, making it louder and simultaneously brighter and more articulate when you play hard with your nails. Finally, there's European spruce, which combines the power and dynamics of Adirondack with the kind of warmth you get from cedar wood.
Cedar, or, Western Red cedar, is typically grey-brown with a red tint. Its grain composition is comparable to spruce, though because it is less dense and thus lighter than spruce, it produces a much warmer tone. Where spruce is extremely dynamic, soft sounds are louder with a cedar top guitar, making it the ideal wood type for soft fingerpicking. That said, cedar produces overall less volume than spruce. So if you're strumming hard with your fingers, you'll reach the dynamic limit much more quickly on a cedar-top guitar. A good way to think of it is that spruce is great for projecting the sound to the other side of the room, while cedar fills the room with sound. Cedar is also more forgiving, which means that small mistakes in your playing will be less noticeable, making it ideal for beginners.
Mahogany is a reddish brown wood type with speckled grain, and on classical guitars it's only ever used for the sides and back. This wood type is relatively dense and stiff, resulting in a bright sound. In fact, mahogany is known for producing a rich, punchy mid range that only gets fuller with time. Because mahogany produces such warm, sweet mids, it tends to sound deeper than spruce.
Rosewood, like mahogany, is only used for the sides and back on classical guitars. This reddish brown wood has wild chocolate brown grain, and produces the rich mid range of mahogany, but with extra-deep bass and crystal-clear, articulated trebles. Because the bass and trebles are so pronounced, the mids tend to be somewhat 'scooped', or toned down. Rosewood is ideal if you're looking for a lovely piece of wood that produces a deep, yet sparkling sound. The most common types of rosewood used for guitars are Indian Rosewood and the rare and expensive Brazilian Rosewood (Rio Rosewood).
You'll really only find basswood being used for beginner models. It's a soft, lightweight wood type that's both plentiful and easy to work with, making it ideal for budget brands. Because it's so soft, it's only ever used in laminated designs. If a guitar is made of basswood, it's almost always used for the top, sides and back. Basswood produces a rounded sound without sharp edges, so you shouldn't expect a particularly deep or sparkling sound.
Maple tends to have either a light-yellow or pinkish tint, and is almost always used for the bridge and fretboard on budget models. Usually, it's painted black to give it the ebony look that you'd get with more expensive models.
Classical guitar design
In contrast with steel-string guitars, classical guitars almost always have the same shape. You will, however, find classical guitars in different sizes, which means they're also accessible for young children. Classical guitars come in sizes 4/4, 7/8, 3/4, 1/2 and 1/4, with 4/4 being the full-size model. Don't be fooled by the size names though, because a 1/4 guitar isn't actually a quarter of the size of a regular guitar! Generally speaking, these are the measurements of the different classical guitar sizes:
Do keep in mind that the ages in the table are merely indications. Since children come in all shapes and sizes, it's a good idea to have them try out the guitar to make sure it fits properly.
What else should you keep in mind?
Classical guitars are finished with a very thin layer of lacquer, which helps to optimise the way the body resonates. The more expensive the guitar, the thinner the finish. When choosing a finish, you'll want to decide if you want glossy or matte, and then whether you want it to be natural or tinted black, for instance. The colour is purely a question of taste and has no influence on the sound.
The details of a classical guitar heavily influence its price. Such details include wooden body bindings, inlays and rosettes (decoration around the soundhole). A lot of work goes into adding these types of features, and considering it's often done by hand, it naturally bumps up the price of the guitar. As such, you shouldn't expect to see much decoration on budget guitars, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, since such details are a question of taste and don't have any effect on the sound or playability of the instrument. That being said, the decorative details are usually an excellent indication of how much time and care was put into the instrument's finish.
Six, seven or eight strings?
For the real virtuosos and adventurers out there, Ibanez offers classical guitars with 7 or 8 strings. The 7-string model has an additional B string for and extra-deep sound, and the 8-string model also has a low D string between the low E and B strings. In short, the range of notes over the entire neck is greatly extended, so you can play chords that would otherwise be impossible. Due to the wider neck size, however, we would not recommend these models for beginners.
If you're a beginner, you might not know exactly which accessories you need when you get your first guitar. That's why we've set up a special acoustic guitar set category in our shop. In the category you'll find starter sets that come with all manner of accessories, such as gig bags, tuners, guitar stands, foot rests and guitar straps, so you have everything you need to get started. Of course, you'll also find discount and recommended bundles on guitar product pages.