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Choosing a Classical Guitar
One of the roles I play in this life is to teach high school students to play guitar. This page is for the person who wants to learn to play nylon stringed guitar, otherwise known as "classical" or "classic" guitar. Classical guitars are different from other acoustic guitars. They are distinguished by nylon strings and usually, a wider neck, so the strings are farther apart than they are on it's cousin, the steel-stringed guitar. Mainly due to the strings, the classical guitar has a softer and often deeper tone and is capable of great expressivity. This tone is finding its way into many form of popular music as the nylon guitar is making a bit of a resurgence.
Myths and Realities
I want to debunk some myths about the uses of nylon-stringed guitars right away. You don't have to play guitar in the rigid classical tradition to effectively use a nylon guitar. The classical method entails intricate finger picking techniques with the right hand, holding the guitar a certain way resting on the left leg and using a footstool underneath the left foot. Why do they do that? Its not just an old arcane tradition (though it feels like that at first) but it puts the strings at an angle so the finger picking techniques actually work really well. But like I say, you don't have to play in this manner. You can play a nylon stringed guitar the same way a steel string guitar is played, with the guitar resting on the right leg, and no footstool. Believe it or not, some accomplished guitarists will actually use a pick with a nylon stringed guitar. Hey, there is no law against doing this (despite what the purists may tell you). Using a pick with a nylon stringed guitar will give it a faster attack, tone wise, and it will be easier to strum and mute with the palm in the steel-stringed position. For those of us recording accompaniment tracks in a multi-track composition, this is often ideal. Few things can warm up a cold digital midi composition like some soft sensuous strums of nylon!
Of course if you want to do finger picking, the nylon string guitar excels. Because the strings are farther apart it is easier to hit a single string without touching the adjacent strings. While finger picking can be done on a steel stringed guitar, it is usually hard to learn on it without picking up bad habits like using the little finger of the right hand as an anchor or collapsing the wrist so it lays on the guitar body. We pick up these habits on steel-stringed axes because the space between strings is so small we need an anchor to attain better accuracy. These bad habits will often keep you from attaining the best possible tone and speed as your years of experience accumulate. Hence it is wise to learn finger picking on a nylon guitar using the correct right hand positions. Once your right hand learns the proper technique and you become accurate, then you can apply the techniques to steel stringed and even electric guitars with no bad habits slowing you down.
Good Starter Guitars
Choosing a starter nylon stringed guitar is not rocket science, thankfully. The good thing is that there are some great sounding and playing nylon stringed guitars that are quite inexpensive. Its interesting that this is not so much the case with electric or steel stringed acoustics. With those, the more you pay, the more playable the guitar becomes. The "action" of the guitar, the distance between the frets and and strings is very small to enable extremely fast playing. However, low action is not as essential on a nylon stringed guitar. You will find that when comparing a budget classical guitar to an expensive model, the action is not much different. What is different is the tone--the richness, mellowness, clarity of the notes produced. Of course there are other things like the quality of the neck, frets and overall craftsmanship of the guitar and the type of woods used. I find the Yamaha's, the C40 and CG101, to be incredible values, a darn near perfect starter nylon guitar, with good tone and playability. Great for students and even for seasoned electric and steel string guitarist who want the sound and touch of nylon.
The Electro-Acoustic Nylon-stringed Guitars
Some nylon stringed guitars have electronics fitted. Electronics will dramatically raise the price and be careful here because many times manufacturers will trade off tone if they put electronics in. Some will have a "thinner" depth (the distance from the front to the back of the guitar) by a few inches and will have a much thinner almost "toy-like" tone as a result, when played without an amp. Another new development is to use a more narrow neck on these electro-acoustic-nylon guitars for faster playing and lower action. The traditional classical guitars will have a 2 inch wide neck at the nut where some of the electro acoustics (but not all) have a 1 7/8th inch neck. Does an eighth of an inch make a difference? Yep! You can play faster and barre chords are easier. If you will be using a pick, you might find this kind of guitar ideal. If you are doing traditional classical pieces in finger picking styles, the learning may be tougher, but still not as hard as on a steel string. Naturally, if you are in a band, the electronics will give you the volume you need on stage. Recording, however is again another story. With excellent small condenser mics, even a budget classical guitar can be made to sound beautiful. Going through pickups will take away some of the natural acoustic flavor. The cheaper the electronics, the less acoustical it will sound recorded.
Yamaha C40 Classical Guitar Package
Shure SM81LC Cardioid Condenser Microphone