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In this day and age, classical guitars have taken the back seat to electric and steel string acoustic guitars. However, there are indications that this old instrument is rising again in popularity.
For anyone who truly appreciates guitars, that's good news because a classical generates some of the most beautiful tones you'll find on any instrument ever.
Going for a classical as your next or first guitar brings a number of benefits that we'll discuss below. We'll also go into the history of this instrument, the difference between a classical guitar and a steel string acoustic, the genres that prefer and allow this type of acoustic guitar to shine, and more.
By the time we are done here, you should have a good understanding of what a classical guitar can offer and be able to make an informed purchase. There is a chance one of these will fit you much more than a standard acoustic guitar, especially if you stay within the bounds of our recommended classical axes below.
Either way, hang with us as we go into the nature and application of classical guitars in modern music and then jump into the reviews towards the bottom.
The story of the classical guitar starts all the way back when Moors invaded Spain in 711 AD. This African legion of warriors not only conquered the great Visighotic Hispania kingdom, but they also changed the way we understand music up to this day.
One of the biggest misconceptions today is that guitars are a product of Western culture. In fact, it was the Moors who brought over a whole line of instruments, including a crude version of a guitar. Bowl harps, tanburs, ouds, and lutes all are from or derived from this lineage. It didn't take long before this stringed instrument spread all over Europe, only to become widespread during the Renaissance period.
Moving into Baroque, we see guitar rising up through the ranks of instruments, becoming one of the staples in the music of the period. Interestingly enough, the Baroque guitar is the actual ancestor of what we know as acoustic guitars today.
Up next comes the Romantic period where guitars became even more popular, once again changing shape which now looks much closer to what we have today. From that point in time until now, there were smaller evolutionary events in the life of this instrument, leading up to modern classical and steel string guitars.
So what exactly separates a classical from other types of acoustic guitars?
To a complete stranger, a classical guitar and a steel string acoustic isn't all that different. Even though their general shape might be pretty similar, the difference is there. It may be subtle visually, but it is very substantial.
The first and most obvious disparity are the strings. Classical guitars use nylon strings while acoustic guitars use steel strings.
Not only is the sound of these two instruments different, but the strings they use completely change their architecture. Classical guitars often feature that well-known hourglass shape while modern steel string acoustics generally have a much wider lower bout. This isn't to say you can't string up an steel string acoustic with nylon strings; many players do and even mix the two.
Another important difference is the neck. With classical guitars, you are getting a wider neck than what you will see on steel string acoustic guitars. Playing a wide neck is a whole different ball game and can completely throw off even the more experienced guitar player.
Classical guitars are meant to be played using your fingers for the most part. No matter if you are a fan of Flamenco style or pure classical music, rarely will you ever use a pick on this instrument. It's all about fingerpicking here. But that's not a hard rule either. I strum my classical all of the time with soft picks.
Finally, we reach the tone itself. Steel-string acoustic guitars have a sharp, oftentimes bright tone. This is a byproduct of steel strings and their core material. They pack a whole lot of volume and are often very defined. That is not really the case with classical guitars.
Classical guitars are not as loud, and the tone is a whole lot warmer, accentuating the low-end and middle frequencies. The depth and range you get are just impressive, even compared to the warmest steel string model out there. With a classical guitar, you don’t need any other instrument, it can drive an entire piece on its own. For example, check out Andy McKee playing his song Drifting:
People say the downside of classical guitars is that they are very genre-oriented at the moment, but I challenge you to see any regular listener can even notice the difference in sound if it's taken out of folk, classical, flamenco, or country. Andy McKee proves that the instrument is as versatile as the player.
Many new guitar players are often wondering what are the benefits of getting a classical guitar. After all, this instrument isn't really all that popular in modern pop music, and in most cases they aren't acoustic-electric so you can't even plug it into an amplifier (but you can mike it). All of that is true, but there are still very good reasons to take the classical route.
One of the suggestions a lot of experienced guitar players like to give is to start with an acoustic guitar. The reason for this is that acoustic guitars are completely unforgiving to mistakes and errors in technique. There won't be distortion or amplification to mask off a false note or one that you missed. It all shows on an acoustic guitar and learning correctly the first time is a lot better than trying to unlearn bad habits later.
Many beginners find playing acoustic guitar pretty frustrating because of this strictness. Now, put in a classical guitar instead of an acoustic. Things get very interesting, very quickly. The first main benefit of choosing a classical guitar is the fact that your fingers will have to work much harder and stretch much farther in order to play chords and similar shapes.
It might be difficult, but learning how to play on a classical guitar will set you up for success later down the road. Your fingers will be much more flexible, reaching further notes on a standard modern guitar neck. On top of that, classical guitar is the best tool to develop your finger playing technique.
Next big advantage of classical guitars is their warm, mellow tone. The type of tonal profile a classical guitar offers is something you just won't find elsewhere. They say that everything has its time and a place and that is true, but the smooth sound of a classical axe is something almost everyone enjoys.
Lastly, we need to talk about comfort. Whether you are comfortable or not when playing any guitar will determine how well you perform. Simple as that. Electric guitars don't really have this problem seeing how slim they are, but with acoustic guitars comfort is often an issue.
What a classical offers in this regard is a thin waist and slightly smaller lower bout. If you have never played an acoustic guitar, the width of the waist of a guitar is largely going to determine how comfortable it is. The most popular steel string acoustic guitar shape, the Dreadnought, is notorious for this. If you are a person of smaller stature, or just someone who finds it difficult to play standard acoustic guitars, a classical one might be the solution.
Alright, so you have found a classical guitar which you really like, filled out the order info, and it is on its way to your house. Once it gets to your doorstep, there are several things you should do right away. First of all, inspect the instrument. Classical guitars are not made of titanium and, while rare, shipping can damage the instrument.
Check for any type of damage to the finish, body, neck, and headstock of the guitar. If you are satisfied with the condition of the guitar, give it a strum. What you are looking for is fret buzz. This is the sound that is created when the strings are hitting the frets on a portion of the fretboard which you aren’t playing.
By the way, if the guitar is out of tune, that is completely normal. Tune the guitar up and give it one more try. What entry level to medium range classical guitars risk showing is an intonation problem. Some brands pay attention to this like the ones we recommend below... others not so much.
Checking the intonation is a fairly simple process which you can perform in a few minutes. All you will need is a tuner. The process of checking the intonation goes like this. Tune a string to its matching open note and confirm it using the tuner. Now, play the harmonic at the 12th fret, and if it doesn’t show the exact same tone, you have intonation problems.
The best way to fix this is to take the guitar down to a shop and have a professional guitar technician or luthier take care of it for you. Sure, it is an extra cost but this is something that you should do even if the guitar sounds good right out of the box. Many guitar players fail to realize just how much a proper setup job can increase the performance of their instrument. Usually we're talking about $30 to $60 and a couple days for a professional setup. You'll eventually learn to do this yourself as the years progress.
Guitar Player magazine explains the 12 steps to a guitar setup:
Another good reason to do a proper setup in your local guitar store are the strings. Most entry level and mid range classical guitars come with bottom-tier quality strings. That's because the expectation is that you'll break them fairly quickly as you get used to tuning and picking. On a classical guitar, strings matter a lot. Since a technician is already working on your guitar, it might be a good idea to pick up a quality set of strings and let them install and tune them for you.
On a similar note, one thing you should get used to is changing the strings. Classical guitars, in general, require a more frequent change of strings. This is due to the fact that nylon strings lose their properties much faster than steel strings. In the end, it all comes down to how adamant you are about keeping your instrument in a top shape. It's not that big of a deal for practice but you should change strings before every performance in front of an audience.
Once you have done all of that, it is time to find a proper case for your new guitar. Going with a hard case is always the right choice. Gig bags work fine, but they don’t really offer protection to your instrument except from dust. When you are dealing with classical guitars which are super light and hard to balance, you will want all the protection you can get.
Alright, it's time for the fun part where we look at some specific choices in each general budget range so everyone is taken care of as they pursue the honorable path of mastering the classical guitar.
Note: Each image and text link leads to Amazon.com where you can read additional user reviews, find specific technical detail listings, see additional body sizes, and make your purchase.
Now that we have armed you with some basic information about classical guitars, it is time for us to show you what we think are the best models on the market. That last part is crucial. There are so many awesome classical guitars available, each one catering to a different taste and style. Guitars found below are the models we found to be the most outstanding in each price range, starting with the cheapest first. Without further ado, let’s jump right in.
The newcomers need a solid recommendation for a cheap option that still provides all of the features needed to learn and move forward in their journey, that still protects them financially from the risk of losing interest and the guitar ending up in a storage closet. With confidence, you can graduate to the intermediate skill level with this choice, where you'll then understand the instrument and begin to form preferences that you can seek out in your next model.
Beginner classical guitars need to be built reasonably well and offer a decent performance. This is one category where you don't want to chase specific brands or worry about whose name is etched on the headstock. Instead, you'd want to get something that is proven to work that won't get in the way of your learning.
The one we have chosen comes from a manufacturer that is much better known for their ukuleles. It just so happens that they make one of the best starter classical guitars on the market. The Hola! Music HG-36GLS is a 3/4 scale guitar, meaning that is a bit smaller than a full size one. However, this is actually a benefit for new players as it's much easier to get used to the shape of the instrument. Choosing between a full scale and 3/4 scale is typically always an option (it is with this guitar too), since companies want people of all sizes to enjoy the craft.
What is really amazing about the HG-36GLS is the fact that it features a spruce top paired with mahogany back and sides. The neck is also a mahogany piece which hosts a sweet looking rosewood fretboard. Starter guitars are definitely not a category where you expect to see anything but the most basic design details, but Hola ensures you get great materials regardless. But that's not to say they didn't add some frills, since you can see this Hola guitar comes with an attractive white binding around the top and the neck, as well as a nice rosette design around the sound hole.
If there is one thing that you need to worry about on this guitar, it's the strings. That is to be expected. I'd tell you to play through the first set of strings included, and then strongly recommend that you just take the guitar down to a shop for a new set of strings and a professional setup job.
Not only will those new strings really give you a good, warm tone color, but doing a proper setup will get the intonation where it needs to be. In terms of performance, this guitar offers a lot for the money. You won't get the most elite tone (nor does it matter if you can't play masterfully anyways), but that mahogany body really gives it an edge. The main reason we chose this one for beginners is that you can grow with this guitar for a long time, pretty much until you decide you want to upgrade just for fun and not need.
There's a whole bunch of us who are pretty decent players that want to score our first classical guitar but don't have a ton of cash to drop on it (you know... starving artists). For those of us in this grouping, we present to you our choice for the low budget professional.
When it comes to modern classical guitars which aren't hand made by niche Spanish luthiers, Cordoba is more or less the top choice at the moment. The reason for this is because the owner of Cordoba is driven by passion towards this instrument. Tim Miklaucic, the co-founder/CEO of Cordoba, has made it his mission to increase the popularity of classical guitars. Thanks to him, you're getting way more bang for your buck than you could in the past.
That's why you can always count on a certain level of quality with their instruments, even the more affordable ones. With that said, the Cordoba C7 CD sits somewhere right in the middle between their cheapest options and their highest priced offerings. As far as diminishing returns go on quality, this is the sweet spot before you start paying for decorations instead of an increase in tone.
The body of the C7 CD features the standard, conservative classical guitar shape. Cordoba went ahead with a Canadian cedar top paired with an Indian rosewood back and sides. Speaking of which, you will see a lot of Canadian brands use this particular type of tonewood for their solid tops, and it works great.
The neck is a mahogany piece with a rosewood fretboard and nut width of 52mm. Both the nut and saddle are made of bone, which you don't see all too often anymore, so that's a nice touch. Finally, all Cordoba guitars come with high-quality Savarez strings, which really bring out the color their instruments. You'll like them and you won't have to descend into the maddening trip of trying to settle on your favorite strings... they've done the work for you.
The tone you can count on experiencing with the C7 CD is buttery smooth, warm, and just flows. Guitar feels great when you hold it, being comfortably weighted and balanced, but the real experience starts when you start playing it. In terms of value for the money, this bad boy brings you a whole lot of performance that is not standard for this price range, as do all Cordoba's.
And that's why we chose Cordoba again for the next budget range. We're in a period of time where we needed a company to jump into the game and disrupt everything with higher quality for lower prices, and Cordoba answered the call. This is absolutely a professional guitar for those who want the only limiting factor to be themselves, because that can always be improved when you have an instrument you can trust and have confidence in.
Among numerous models in their current lineup, Cordoba's Fusion series stand out the most. What Cordoba wanted to do with the Fusion series was merge the sound of nylon string classical guitars and the functionality of steel string acoustic guitars. In many ways, they have succeeded.
The first sign that something is different here is the shape. The Cordoba Fusion 14 features a body style that is much more common with regular acoustic guitars. If that didn't give it away, the obvious cutaway most surely will. In terms of tonewood, they went with a solid Indian rosewood top combined with back and sides made of the same material. No shortcuts here!
The neck on this model is much narrower than standard classical guitar necks. Instead of 52mm nut width, we are looking at a 48mm. It's not exactly the narrowest neck out there, but it makes life much easier for those who are not used to playing classical guitars. This makes porting over your skills from normal electric and acoustic guitars much easier so you can immediately flex your chops instead of fumbling around like an newbie again. In my opinion, a guitar should be a guitar and there's no reason not to standardize certain features like Cordoba has done.
Another thing that sets the Fusion 14 apart from the rest is the fact that it comes with a built-in preamp section with an equalizer and more. Yes, you read that right, this an electric-classical guitar! Cordoba went with a Fishman Presys Blend system. This set of electronics offers a very decent control over the tone which allows you to shape the sound before it reaches the amplifier or PA system. On top of that, you also get a built-in tuner (super convenient, as you likely know by now).
The build quality is the standard high-grade Cordoba attention-to-detail. While it is not exactly known whether or not Cordoba's luthiers make these by hand or they are machined, but everything is ironed out down to the smallest details. This is apparent wherever you look. From the intricate rosette design to the detailed binding around the top and the back. If you are looking for the sound of classical guitar combined with the functionality of an acoustic-electric guitar that's also a beauty, the Fusion 14 is the solution.
Finally, we wanted to show you what the most expensive options look and sound like so you have a frame of reference to compare the recommendations above. You can already see that there's no real difference visually. So it must be related to the build and tone, right? Is the price justified? Let's find out.
In a scenario where finances are not an issue, there is one brand of classical guitars that quickly comes to mind. Jose Ramirez is a Spanish classical guitar shop that carries a centuries-old legacy. What started as the effort of a single man soon grew into the leader of Madrid's guitar guild, and is one of the most respected brands today.
Their Jose Ramirez SPR-A is a fantastic classical guitar that breathes with quality and depth. What you are looking at here is a masterpiece that was hand-made in Spain by some of the best luthiers in the world. When you acknowledge this fact and lay your eyes on the guitar for the first time, the price tag doesn't look all that preposterous anymore. But does a hand-made guitar outperform the machined options that can be produced today with specifications that include micro-tolerances and no mistakes, or are we paying for the romance of it all?
Starting from the body, we have a solid spruce top combined with Indian rosewood back and sides. The level of detail is pushed to perfection, from the beautiful rosette piece to binding to even the finish. For the fans of Ramirez guitars, this particular model was based on Amalia Ramirez's guitar which hit the streets back in 2002.
The main difference between a handmade model, such as this one, and your regular mid range guitar is in build quality. Build quality translates to performance very quickly when it comes to classical guitars. The bracing, the way the neck is joined to the body - all of that plays a major role in how the guitar behaves. With this particular model, you are getting the best of the of the best.
Describing the tone and general performance of a high-priced Ramirez is truly an unforgiving business. The real quality of the sound it offers comes from the subtle details in its voicing. That is something that can hardly be conveyed by words. Rest assured that investing in a Jose Ramirez classical guitar is a surefire way to get some of the best sounds there is, while paying for the time and effort of a hand-crafter. A machine can do the same and drive the price down, so it really depends on the individual and how much they value the guitar-maker craft and story behind each instrument. For many, that is absolutely worth it.
When all is said and done, there is a strong case to be made for classical guitars even for modern genres. This often forgotten instrument still has a lot to offer. Of course it's legacy lives on in the refined genres, but it could and should creep back into the popular music psyche. The models we have listed above are in our opinion the best you can find at the moment in each listed price range. Not everyone will agree with our picks, but that comes down to personal taste and experience.
In terms of bang for the buck, these will bring you a whole lot of value for your money. With that said, we hope we've answered some questions you had about these instruments and armed you with enough information to make an educated decision. Definitely get the best classical guitar in your budget range, but keep it realistic too. There's no need to break the bank these days with companies like Hola and Cordoba out there.