Classical guitar

Classical guitar
Classical guitar
Classical Guitar two views.jpg
A modern classical guitar from the front and side
String instrument
Hornbostel–Sachs classification 321.322-5
(Composite chordophone sounded by the bare fingers or fingernails)
Developed modern classical guitar was developed in the late 19th century
Playing range
Range guitar.svg
Related instruments
  • List of classical guitarists

The classical guitar — (also called the "Spanish guitar" or "nylon string guitar") — is a 6-stringed plucked string instrument from the family of instruments called chordophones. The classical guitar is well known for its comprehensive right hand technique, which allows the soloist to perform complex melodic and polyphonic material, in much the same manner as the piano.

The phrase "classical guitar" is ambiguous in that it might refer at least three different concepts:

  • the instrumental technique — the individual strings are usually plucked with the fingernails or rarely without nails.
  • its historic repertoire — though this is of lesser importance, since any repertoire can be (and is) played on the classical guitar (additionally: classical guitarists are known to borrow from the repertoires of a wide variety of instruments)
  • its shape, construction and material — modern classical guitar shape, or historic classical guitar shapes (e.g. early romantic guitars from France and Italy). A guitar family tree can be identified.[1] (The flamenco guitar is derived from the modern classical, but has differences in material, construction and sound[2][3])

The name classical guitar does not mean that only classical repertoire is performed on it, although classical music is a part of the instrument's core repertoire (due to the guitar's long history); instead all kinds of music (folk, jazz, flamenco, etc.) are performed on it.

The term modern classical guitar is sometimes used to distinguish the classical guitar from older forms of guitar, which are in their broadest sense also called classical, or more descriptively: early guitars. Examples of early guitars include the 6-string early romantic guitar (ca. 1790 - 1880), and the earlier baroque guitars with 5 courses.

Today's modern classical guitar is regarded as having been established from the late designs of the 19th century Spanish luthier Antonio Torres Jurado. Hence the modern classical guitar is sometimes called the "Spanish guitar".


Classical Guitar viewed from various contexts

The classical guitar has a long history and one is able to distinguish various:

Both instrument and repertoire can be viewed from a combination of various contexts:

  • historical (chronological period of time)
  • geographical
    • e.g. in the 19th century: Spanish guitars (Torres), and French guitars (René Lacôte, ...), etc.
  • cultural/stylistic and social aspects
    • e.g. baroque court music, 19th century opera and its influences, 19th century folk songs, Latin American music, etc.

Brief examples using the above classifications (historical, cultural/stylistic, social etc.), to show the colourful diversity of the classical guitar:

  • Robert de Visée (ca. 1650–1725) with French Court music for baroque guitar and lute. He was the guitar player (maître de guitare du Roy) of Louis XIV of France at the court of Versailles. His works are influenced by hearing Jean-Baptiste de Lully (1632–1687) who was also engaged at the court of Louis XIV.
  • Mauro Giuliani (1781–1829) with Italian/Viennese classical music for the 19th century so-called early romantic guitar. He was chamber-virtuoso of Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria.[4] Some of his works include strong influences from his visits to 19th century opera performances.
  • Francisco Tárrega (1852–1909) of Spain. His intimate salon-style music is both romantic in character and includes charming character pieces such as polkas and waltzes. He even played for the Queen of Spain, Isabel II. From 1869, Tárrega used a guitar by Antonio de Torres (1817–1892).
  • Agustín Barrios (1885–1944) from Paraguay, towards the end of his life using a modern classical guitar (his last instrument was a gift from Queen Eugenia of Spain in 1935[5]). His music is romantic in style, with some works showing strong folkloric Paraguayan influences, shaped from his cultural background.
  • Sergei Orekhov (Сергей Орехов) (1935–1998) with music for the Russian 7-string guitar. In his compositions and arrangements, he draws inspiration from his intimate knowledge of traditional Russian folk music and folk songs.

Interpreting works of a specific composer in a specific style requires an understanding of the historical cultural/stylistic and social aspects/influences, considering music an expressive art. This is often called the study of performance practice, with attempts at historically informed performance (sometimes abbreviated HIP).

Classical guitar from a historical perspective

The classical guitar as an instrument today has access to repertoire that spans numerous chronological periods:

  • renaissance
  • baroque
  • classical
  • romantic
  • modern (neo-classical, avant garde...)

Instrument Aesthetics (Early guitars)

Baroque Guitars from the Cité de la Musique in Paris
Baroque Guitars from the Museum Cité de la Musique in Paris (which houses almost 200 classical guitars[6])
Guitars from the Museum Cité de la Musique in Paris
Guitars from the Museum Cité de la Musique in Paris (which houses almost 200 classical guitars[6])

While "classical guitar" is today mainly associated with the modern classical guitar design, there is an increasing interest in early guitars; and understanding the link between historical repertoire and the particular period guitar that was originally used to perform this repertoire.

  • Nowadays it is customary to play this repertoire on reproductions of instruments authentically modelled on concepts of musicological research with appropriate adjustments to techniques and overall interpretation. Thus over recent decades we have become accustomed to specialist artists with expertise in the art of vihuela (a 16th-century type of guitar popular in Spain), lute, Baroque guitar, 19th-century guitar, etc.[7]

Different types of guitars have different sound aesthetics, e.g. different colour-spectrum characteristics (the way the sound energy is spread in the fundamental frequency and the overtones), different response, etc. These differences are due to differences in construction, for example modern Spanish guitars usually use a different bracing (fan-bracing), than was used in earlier guitars (they had ladder-bracing); and a different voicing was used by the luthier. See Classical guitar making for more information.

It is interesting to note the historical parallel between musical styles (baroque, classical, romantic, Spanish nationalist, flamenco, jazz) and the style of "sound aesthetic" of the musical instruments used, for example: Robert de Visée played on a baroque guitar with a very different sound aesthetic than the guitars used by Mauro Giuliani and Legnani - they used 19th century guitars. These guitars in turn sound different from the Spanish models used by Segovia, that are suited for interpretations of romantic-modern works such as Moreno Torroba.

When considering the guitar from a historical perspective, the musical instrument used is just as important as the musical language and style of the particular period. As an example: It is impossible to play a historically informed de Visee or Corbetta (baroque guitarist-composers) on a modern classical guitar. The reason is that the baroque guitar used courses, which are two strings close together (in unision), that are plucked together. This gives baroque guitars an unmistakable sound characteristic and tonal texture that is an integral part of an interpretation. Additionally the sound aesthetic of the baroque guitar (with its strong overtone presence) is very different from modern Spanish-type guitars, as is shown below.

Today's overuse of Torres and post-Torres type Spanish guitars for repertoire of all periods is somewhat critically viewed: Torres and post-Torres style modern guitars (with their fan-bracing and design) have a thick and strong tone, very suitable for Spanish and modern-era repertoire. However they are considered too saturated in fundamental (opposed to overtone partials) for earlier repertoire (Classical/Romantic: Carulli, Sor, Giuliani, Mertz, ...; Baroque: de Visee, ...; etc.). "Andres Segovia presented the Spanish guitar as a versatile model for all playing styles",[8] to the extent, that still today, "many guitarists have tunnel-vision of the world of the guitar, coming from the modern Segovia tradition".[9]

Interestingly, while fan-braced Spanish (Torres, post-Torres style) instruments coexisted with traditional central European ladder-braced (19th century style) guitars at the beginning of the 20th century; the central European guitars eventually fell away. Some attribute this to the popularity of Segovia, considering him "the catalyst for change toward the Spanish design and the so-called 'modern' school in the 1920's and beyond".[8] The styles of music performed on ladder-braced guitars were becoming more and more unfashionable; and e.g. in Germany musicians were in part turning towards folkstyle music (Schrammel-music and the Contraguitar), but this only remained localized in Germany and Austria and was quickly unfashionable again, etc. On the other hand, Segovia was concertizing around the world, popularizing his Spanish guitar, as well as a new style of music in the 1920s: Spanish romantic-modern style, with guitar works by Moreno Torroba, de Falla, etc. Some people consider it to have been this influence of Segovia, which eventually led to the domination of the Spanish instrument - factories all over the world began producing them in large numbers.

Short overview of instrument characteristics

  • Vihuela, renaissance guitars and baroque guitars have a bright sound - rich in overtones - and their chords (double strings) give the sound a very particular texture.
  • Early guitars of the classical and romantic period (early romantic guitars) have single strings but their design and voicing are still such that they have their tonal energy more in the overtones (but without starved fundamental), giving a bright intimate tone.
  • Later in Spain a style of music emerged (Spanish) that favored a stronger fundamental:
    With the change of music a stronger fundamental was demanded and the fan bracing system was approached. [...] the guitar tone has been changed from a transparent tone, rich in higher partials to a more "broad" tone with a strong fundamental.[10]
  • Thus modern guitars with fan bracing (fan strutting) have a design and voicing that gives them a much more thick heavy sound, with far more tonal energy found in the fundamental.

Classical Guitar history along style periods

As was explained above, the classical guitar as an instrument today has access to repertoire that spans numerous style periods. This section attempts to provide an overview of some of these periods, their composers; and the guitars that were used in the particular period.

Renaissance (Vihuela, Renaissance guitar)

Composers of the Renaissance period include Luis de Milán and Alonso Mudarra.


Vihuela, Four course guitar


Composers of French baroque include Robert de Visée and Francesco Corbetta. In Spain Gaspar Sanz was active.

Example Instruments
  • Baroque guitar by Nicolas Alexandre Voboam II : This French instrument has five courses (double-strings) and a flat back.[11]
  • Baroque guitar attributed to Matteo Sellas : This Italian instrument has five courses and a rounded back.[12]

Classical and early romantic period

An image from 1825 by Charles de Marescot entitled "La Guitaromanie".

From approximately 1780 to 1850 the guitar was an extremely popular instrument with numerous composers and performers such as;

Hector Berlioz studied the guitar as a teenager,[13] Franz Schubert owned at least two and wrote for the instrument with facility,[14] Ludwig van Beethoven, after hearing Giuliani play, commented the instrument was "a miniature orchestra in itself".[15]

Francisco Tárrega

Born at Vilareal, Spain in November 29, 1852, Tarrega was one of the great guitar virtuosos and teachers. As professor of guitar at the conservatories of Madrid and Barcelona he defined many elements of modern classical technique, renewed the importance of the guitar in Spanish music and prepared the way for its renewed popularity in the 20th century, notably by contributing several classical guitar repertoire favourites. He died December 15, 1909.

Modern Period

In the 20th century numerous different styles of music (using a classical guitar) emerged:

At the beginning of the 20th century (especially in the 1920s), Andrés Segovia popularized the modern Spanish classical guitar with a particular style of romantic-modern and neo-romantic music composed by Federico Moreno Torroba, Manuel Ponce, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Alexandre Tansman. These works were often dedicated to Segovia. This music can be called Segovia-repertoire, since it would not exist without Segovia. In the middle of the century, Luiz Bonfá popularized Brazilian musical styles such as the newly created Bossa Nova, which was successfully received by audiences in the USA.

"New Music" - Avant-garde

The classical guitar repertoire also includes modern contemporary works – sometimes termed "New Music" – such as Elliott Carter's Changes,[16] Cristóbal Halffter's Codex I,[17] Luciano Berio's Sequenza XI,[18] Maurizio Pisati's Sette Studi,[19] Maurice Ohana's Si Le Jour Paraît,[20] Sylvano Bussotti's Rara (eco sierologico),[21] Ernst Krenek's Suite für Guitarre allein, Op. 164,[22] Franco Donatoni's Algo: Due pezzi per chitarra,[23] etc.

Performers who are known for including modern repertoire are Jürgen Ruck, Elena Càsoli, Leo Brouwer (when he was still performing), John Schneider, Reinbert Evers, Maria Kämmerling, Siegfried Behrend, David Starobin, Mats Scheidegger, Magnus Andersson, etc.

This genre of composition is controversial. Some audiences expect classical guitar to be devoted to beautiful melody. Accordingly this repertoire does not feature as prominently in typical classical guitarist's repertoire – rather being performed by guitarists who have particularly chosen to focus on the avant-garde in their performances. There are however some works by Brouwer and Hans Werner Henze that are performed quite often and hence are more widely known.

Within the contemporary music scene itself, there are also works which are generally regarded as extreme. These include works such as Brian Ferneyhough's Kurze Schatten II,[24], Sven-David Sandström's away from[25] and Rolf Riehm's Toccata Orpheus,[26] etc. which are notorious for their extreme difficulty and accordingly are seldom performed even by contemporary performers/specialists on aesthetic grounds, or because of their difficulty, or due to question as to their value.

There are also a variety of databases documenting modern guitar works such as Sheer Pluck[27] and others.[28][29]

Background information

The evolution of the classical guitar and its repertoire spans more than four centuries. It has a history that was shaped by contributions from earlier instruments, such as the Lute, the vihuela, and the baroque guitar. The popularity of the classical guitar has been sustained over the years by many great players, arrangers, and composers. A very short list might include, Gaspar Sanz (1640–1710), Fernando Sor (1778–1839), Mauro Giuliani (1781–1829), Francisco Tárrega (1852–1909), Agustín Barrios Mangoré (1888–1944), Andrés Segovia (1893–1987), Alirio Díaz (1923), Presti-Lagoya Duo (active from 1955-1967: Ida Presti, Alexandre Lagoya), Julian Bream (1933), and John Williams (1941).

The last guitarist to follow in Segovia´s footsteps was Julian Bream and Julian Bream will be 73 years old on July 15th 2006. Miguel Llobet, Andres Segovia and Julian Bream are the three performer personalities of the 20th century. Do not understand me wrong, we have many guitarists today that are very excellent performers, but none with such a distinct personality in their tone and style as Llobet, Segovia and Bream. In all instrumental areas, not just the guitar, there is a lack of individualism with a strong tendency to conformity. This I find very unfortunate since art (music, theatre or the pictorial arts) is a very individual and personal matter.[30]
—Bernard Hebb, Interview


Throughout the centuries, the classical guitar has evolved principally from three sources: the lute, the vihuela, and the Renaissance guitars.


Instruments similar to what we know as the guitar have been popular for at least 5,000 years. The ancestry of the modern guitar appears to trace back through many instruments and thousands of years to ancient central Asia. Guitar like instruments appear in ancient carvings and statues recovered from the old Iranian capital of Susa. This means that the contemporary Iranian instruments such as the tanbur and setar are distantly related to the European guitar, as they all derive ultimately from the same ancient origins, but by very different historical routes and influences.

Overview of the classical guitar's history

During the Middle Ages, guitars with three, four, and five strings were already in use. The Guitarra Latina had curved sides and is thought to have come to Spain from elsewhere in Europe. The so-called Guitarra Morisca, brought to Spain by the Moors, had an oval soundbox and many sound holes on its soundboard. By the 15th century, a four course double-string guitar called the vihuela de mano, half way between the lute and the guitar, appeared and became popular in Spain and spread to Italy; and by the 16th century, a fifth double-string had been added. During this time, composers wrote mostly in tablature notation. In the 17th century, influences from the vihuela and the renaissance five string guitar were combined in the baroque guitar. The baroque guitar quickly superseded the vihuela in popularity and Italy became the center of the guitar world. Leadership in guitar developments switched to Spain from the late 18th century, when the six string guitar quickly became popular at the expense of the five string guitars. During the 19th century, improved communication and transportation enabled performers to travel widely and the guitar gained greater popularity outside its old strongholds in Iberia, Italy and Latin America. During the 19th century the Spaniard, Antonio de Torres, gave the modern classical guitar its definitive form, with a broadened body, increased waist curve, thinned belly, improved internal bracing, single string courses replacing double courses, and a machined head replacing wooden tuning pegs. The modern classical guitar replaced older form for the accompaniment of song and dance called flamenco, and a modified version, known as the flamenco guitar, was created.

The Renaissance guitar

The gittern, often referred to as Renaissance guitar, is a musical instrument resembling a small lute or guitar. It is related to but is not a citole, another medieval instrument. The gittern was carved from a single piece of wood with a curved ("sickle-shaped") pegbox. An example has survived from around 1450.

See also Renaissance music.

The Vihuela

The written history of the classical guitar can be traced back to the early 16th century with the development of the vihuela in Spain. While the lute was then becoming popular in other parts of Europe, the Spaniards did not take to it well because of its association with the Moors. They turned instead to the four string guitarra, adding two more strings to give it more range and complexity. In its most developed form, the vihuela was a guitar-like instrument with six double strings made of gut, tuned like a modern classical guitar with the exception of the third string, which was tuned half a step lower. It has a high sound and is rather large to hold. There are few still.

The Guitar Player (c. 1672), by Johannes Vermeer, guitar Voboam

Baroque guitar

See also Baroque music.

"Early romantic guitar" or "Guitar during the Classical music era"

The earliest extant six string guitar was built in 1779 by Gaetano Vinaccia (1759 - after 1831) [31][32] in Naples, Italy. The Vinaccia family of luthiers is known for developing the mandolin. This guitar has been examined and does not show tell-tale signs of modifications from a double-course guitar.[33] The authenticity of guitars allegedly produced before the 1790s is often in question. This also corresponds to when Moretti's 6-string method appeared, in 1792.

See also Classical music era.

Contemporary classical guitar

Contemporary concert guitars occasionally follow the Smallman design, which replaces fan braces with a much lighter balsa brace attached to the back of the sound board with carbon fiber. The balsa brace has a honeycomb pattern and allows the (now much thinner) sound board to support more vibrational modes. This leads to greater volume and longer sustain but compromises the subtle tonalities of the Spanish sound.


The modern classical guitar is usually played in a seated position, with the instrument resting on the left lap - and the left foot placed on a footstool. Alternatively - if a footstool is not used - a guitar support can be placed between the guitar and the left lap (the support usually attaches to the instrument's side with suction cups). (There are of course exceptions, with some performers choosing to hold the instrument another way.)


Fingerings for both hands are often given in detail in classical guitar music notation. Fretting hand fingers are given as numbers in circles, plucking hand fingers are given as letters

Finger Notation Finger Notation
- - Thumb p
Index 1 Index i
Middle 2 Middle m
Ring 3 Ring a
Little 4 Little c

When a fretting hand string is held over more than one string, that is called a barre chord. The notation for a barre is the Latin numeral for the fret in question.

Plucking of the string

Right-handed players use the fingers of the right hand to pluck the strings, with the thumb plucking from the top of a string downwards and the other fingers plucking from the bottom of string upwards. The little finger in classical technique as it evolved in the 20th century is used only to ride along with the ring finger without striking the strings and to thus physiologically facilitate the ring finger's motion. Some modern guitarists, such as Štěpán Rak, use the little finger independently, compensating for the little finger's shortness by maintaining an extremely long fingernail. In contrast, Flamenco technique, and classical compositions evoking Flamenco, employ the little finger semi-independently in the Flamenco four-finger rasgueado, that rapid strumming of the string by the fingers in reverse order employing the back of the fingernail—a familiar characteristic of Flamenco.

Direct contact with strings

As with other plucked instruments (such as the lute), the musician directly touches the strings (usually plucking) to produce the sound. This has important consequences: Different tone/timbre (of a single note) can be produced by plucking the string in different manners and in different positions.


To achieve tremolo effects and rapid, fluent scale passages, the player must practice alternation, that is, never plucking a string with the same finger twice in a row. Using p to indicate the thumb, i the index finger, m the middle finger and a the ring finger, common alternation patterns include:

  • i-m-i-m Basic melody line on the treble strings. Has the appearance of "walking along the strings".
  • i-m-a-i-m-a Tremolo pattern with a triplet feel (i.e. the same note is repeated three times).
  • p-a-m-i-p-a-m-i Another tremolo pattern.
  • p-m-p-m A way of playing a melody line on the lower strings.

Tone production/variation and freedom of performance

Guitarists have a lot of freedom within the mechanics of playing the instrument. Often these decisions with influence on tone/timbre - factors include:

Right Hand:

  • At what position along the string the finger plucks the string (This is actively changed by guitarists since it is an effective way of changing the sound(timbre) from "soft"(dolce) plucking the string near its middle, to "hard"(ponticelo) plucking the string near its end).
  • Use of nail or not: today almost all concert guitarists use their fingernails (which must be smoothly filed and carefully shaped[34] ) to pluck the string since it produces a sharper clearer sound, and also a better-controlled loud sound. The "use of nail or not" is usually a fixed consistent decision of the player and not varied; the thumb is an exception and might actively be varied between nail [sharper clearer sound] and flesh. Playing parameters include
  • Which finger to use
  • What angle of attack to hold the wrist and fingers at with respect to the strings
  • Rest-stroke apoyando; the finger that plucks a string rests on the next string—traditionally used in single melody lines—versus free-stroke (tirando ( plucking the string without coming to a rest on the next string)

Left Hand:

  • Use of hammer-on and pull-off (Legato, slurs): This is where only the left hand is used in producing the sound. Since the string is usually already vibrating prior to applying the hammer-on or pull-off, the change of pitch is very smooth: it is hence used for articulation purposes and fast note progressions (since only a single hand is involved). The technique is often used in trills.
  • Vibrato: Whilst a finger of the left-hand is pressing the string towards a fret, it can rapidly move the string slightly to and from (along the string), resulting in a slight but fast-changing increase and decrease in the string's tension and thus a proportional change in pitch - giving the impression of a fuller tone.

Both Hands/Other:

  • One and the same note (in terms of pitch), can be played on many different strings (depending on the appropriate fret being used). Since the different strings have distinctive tones, the guitarist may choose to play on certain strings for particular tonal effects: The difference is greatest between the 3rd string (G - pure nylon) and the 4th string (D - nylon wound with thin metal). This, however also poses a difficulty in producing a uniform sound in melodic lines.
  • Harmonics: The strings can be brought into different modes of vibration, where its overtones can be heard.

Since it is the hands and fingers that pluck the string and every person has different fingers, there are great differences in playing between guitarists; who often spend a lot of time finding their own way of playing that suits them best in terms of specific objectives: tone-production ("beauty"/quality of tone), minimum noise (e.g. clicking), large dynamic range (from soft to controlled loud), minimum (muscle) effort, fast "motion-recovery" (fast plucking when desired), healthy movement in fingers, wrist, hand and arm.

John Williams has remarked[35] that since guitarists find it superficially very easy to play even things such as melody with accompaniment (e.g. Giuliani), [some guitarists'] "approach to tone production is also superficial, with little or no consideration given to voice matching and tonal contrasts".


The classical guitar repertoire in practical terms includes not only music written specifically for the classical guitar, but also music written for the guitar's predecessors and related instruments. These include the vihuela, popular in 16th-century Spain, and the lute used everywhere else in Europe in the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Music written specifically for the classical guitar dates from the addition of the sixth string (the baroque guitar normally had five pairs of strings) in the late 18th century.

A guitar recital may include a variety of works, e.g. works written originally for the lute or vihuela by composers such as John Dowland (b. England 1563) and Luis de Narváez (b. Spain c. 1500), and also music written for the harpsichord by Domenico Scarlatti (b. Italy 1685), for the baroque lute by Sylvius Leopold Weiss (b. Germany 1687), for the baroque guitar by Robert de Visée (b. France c. 1650) or even Spanish-flavored music written for the piano by Isaac Albéniz (b. Spain 1860) and Enrique Granados (b. Spain 1867). The most important composer who did not write for the guitar but whose music is often played on guitar is Johann Sebastian Bach (b. Germany 1685), whose works for solo violin, solo cello, and baroque lute have proved highly adaptable for the guitar.

Of music written originally for guitar, the earliest important composers are from the classical period and include Fernando Sor (b. Spain 1778) and Mauro Giuliani (b. Italy 1781), both of whom wrote in a style strongly influenced by Viennese classicism. In the 19th century guitar composers such as Johann Kaspar Mertz (b. Slovakia, Austria 1806) were strongly influenced by the dominance of the piano. Not until the end of the nineteenth century did the guitar begin to establish its own unique atmosphere. Francisco Tárrega (b. Spain 1852) was central to this, sometimes incorporating some stylized aspects of flamenco, with its Moorish influences, into his romantic miniatures. This was part of the phenomenon of musical nationalism that was part of the wider European mainstream in the late 19th century. The aforementioned piano composers Albéniz and Granados were central to this movement and their evocation of the guitar was so successful that guitarists have largely appropriated their music for piano to the guitar. Guitarists who were active at that time, such as Angel Barrios (Spain, 1882–1964) contributed to the incorporation of flamenco style (e.g. the Phrygian mode) and flamenco guitar techniques such as rasgueado.

With the 20th century and the wide-ranging performances of artists such as Andrés Segovia and Agustín Barrios Mangoré the guitar began to regain some of the popularity it had lost to the harpsichord and piano in the 18th century. It again became a popular instrument, but not always in its classical version. The steel-string and electric guitars, integral to the rise of rock and roll in the post-WWII era, became more widely played in North America and the English speaking world. The classical guitar also became widely popular again. Barrios composed many excellent works and brought into the mainstream the characteristics of Latin American music, as did the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Andrés Segovia commissioned many works from Spanish composers such as Federico Moreno Torroba and Joaquín Rodrigo, Italians such as Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Latin American composers such as Manuel Ponce of Mexico, Agustín Barrios Mangoré of Paraguay, Leo Brouwer of Cuba, Antonio Lauro of Venezuela, Enrique Solares of Guatemala. Julian Bream of Britain managed to get nearly every British composer from William Walton to Benjamin Britten to Peter Maxwell Davies to write significant works for guitar. Bream's collaborations with tenor Peter Pears also resulted in song-cycles by Britten, Lennox Berkeley and others. There are also significant works by composers such as Hans Werner Henze of Germany. The classical guitar also became widely used in popular music and rock & roll in the 1960s after guitarist Mason Williams popularized the instrument in his instrumental hit Classical Gas. Guitarist Christopher Parkening is quoted in the book Classical Gas: The Music of Mason Williams as saying that it is the most requested guitar piece besides Malagueña and perhaps the best known instrumental guitar piece today.

In the field of New Flamenco, the works and performances of Spanish composer and player Paco de Lucía are known worldwide.

Physical characteristics

The classical guitar is distinguished by a number of characteristics:

  • It is an acoustic instrument. The sound of the plucked string is amplified by the soundboard and resonant cavity of the guitar.[36]
  • It has six strings, though some classical guitars have seven or more strings.
  • All six strings are made from nylon, or nylon wrapped with metal, as opposed to the metal strings found on other acoustic guitars. Nylon strings also have a much lower tension than steel strings, as do the predecessors to nylon strings, gut strings (made from ox or sheep gut). The lower three strings ('bass strings') are wound with metal, commonly silver plated copper.
  • Because of the low string tension
    • The neck can be entirely of wood without a steel truss rod
    • The interior bracing can be lighter
  • Typical modern six-string classical guitars are 48–54 mm wide at the nut, compared to around 42 mm for electric guitars.
  • Classical fingerboards are normally flat and without inlaid fret markers, or just have dot inlays on the side of the neck—steel string fingerboards usually have a slight radius and inlays.
  • Classical guitarists use their right hand to pluck the strings. Players shape their fingernails for ideal tone and feel against the strings.
  • Strumming is a less common technique in classical guitar, and is often referred to by the Spanish term "rasgueo," or for strumming patterns "rasgueado," and uses the backs of the fingernails. Rasgueado is integral to Flamenco guitar.
  • Machine heads at the headstock of a classical guitar point backwards—in contrast to most steel-string guitars, which have machine heads that point outward.
  • The overall design of a Classical Guitar is very similar to the slightly lighter and smaller Flamenco guitar.

Parts of the guitar

Acoustic guitar parts.png
Parts of typical classical guitars, numbered[37]
1 Headstock
2 Nut
3 Machine heads (or pegheads, tuning keys, tuning machines, tuners)
4 Frets
7 Neck
8 Heel
9 Body
12 Bridge
14 Bottom deck
15 Soundboard
16 Body sides
17 Sound hole, with rosette inlay
18 Strings
19 Saddle (Bridge nut)
20 Fretboard


The fretboard (also called the fingerboard) is a piece of wood embedded with metal frets that constitutes the top of the neck. It is flat or slightly curved. The curvature of the fretboard is measured by the fretboard radius, which is the radius of a hypothetical circle of which the fretboard's surface constitutes a segment. The smaller the fretboard radius, the more noticeably curved the fretboard is. Fretboards are most commonly made of ebony, but may also be made of rosewood or of phenolic composite ("micarta").


Frets are the metal strips (usually nickel alloy or stainless steel) embedded along the fingerboard and placed at points that divide the length of string mathematically. The strings' vibrating length is determined when the strings are pressed down behind the frets. Each fret produces a different pitch and each pitch spaced a half-step apart on the 12 tone scale. The ratio of the widths of two consecutive frets is the twelfth root of two (\sqrt[12]{2}), whose numeric value is about 1.059463. The twelfth fret divides the string in two exact halves and the 24th fret (if present) divides the string in half yet again. Every twelve frets represents one octave. This arrangement of frets results in equal tempered tuning.


A classical guitar's frets, fretboard, tuners, headstock, all attached to a long wooden extension, collectively constitute its neck. The wood used to make the fretboard will usually differ from the wood in the rest of the neck. The bending stress on the neck is considerable, particularly when heavier gauge strings are used (see Strings).

Neck joint or 'heel'

This is the point where the neck meets the body. In the traditional Spanish neck joint the neck and block are one piece with the sides inserted into slots cut in the block. Other necks are built separately and joined to the body either with a dovetail joint, mortise or flush joint. These joints are usually glued and can be reinforced with mechanical fasteners. Recently many manufacturers use bolt on fasteners. Bolt on neck joints were once associated only with less expensive instruments but now some top manufacturers and hand builders are using variations of this method. Some people believed that the Spanish style one piece neck/block and glued dovetail necks have better sustain, but testing has failed to confirm this. While most traditional Spanish style builders use the one piece neck/heel block, Fleta a prominent Spanish builder used a dovetail joint due to the influence of his early training in violin making. One reason for the introduction of the mechanical joints was to make it easier to repair necks. This is more of a problem with steel string guitars than with nylon strings, which have about half the string tension. This is why nylon string guitars often don't include a truss rod either.


The body of the instrument is a major determinant of the overall sound variety for acoustic guitars. The guitar top, or soundboard, is a finely crafted and engineered element often made of spruce, red cedar or mahogany. This thin (often 2 or 3 mm thick) piece of wood, strengthened by different types of internal bracing, is considered the most prominent factor in determining the sound quality of a guitar. The majority of the sound is caused by vibration of the guitar top as the energy of the vibrating strings is transferred to it. Different patterns of wood bracing have been used through the years by luthiers (Torres, Hauser, Ramírez, Fleta, and C.F. Martin being among the most influential designers of their times); to not only strengthen the top against collapsing under the tremendous stress exerted by the tensioned strings, but also to affect the resonation of the top. The back and sides are made out of a variety of woods such as mahogany, Indian rosewood and highly regarded Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra). Each one is chosen for its aesthetic effect and structural strength, and such choice can also play a significant role in determining the instrument's timbre. These are also strengthened with internal bracing, and decorated with inlays and purfling.

The body of a classical guitar is a resonating chamber that projects the vibrations of the body through a sound hole, allowing the acoustic guitar to be heard without amplification. The sound hole is normally a round hole in the top of the guitar (under the strings), though some have different placement, shapes, or multiple holes.

An instrument's maximum volume is determined by how much air it can move.

Binding, purfling and kerfing

The top, back and sides of a classical guitar body are very thin, so a flexible piece of wood called kerfing (because it is often scored, or kerfed so it bends with the shape of the rim) is glued into the corners where the rim meets the top and back. This interior reinforcement provides 5 to 20 mm of solid gluing area for these corner joints.

During final construction, a small section of the outside corners is carved or routed out and filled with binding material on the outside corners and decorative strips of material next to the binding, which are called purfling. This binding serves to seal off the endgrain of the top and back. Binding and purfling materials are generally made of either wood or high quality plastic materials.


The main purpose of the bridge on a classical guitar is to transfer the vibration from the strings to the soundboard, which vibrates the air inside of the guitar, thereby amplifying the sound produced by the strings. The bridge holds the strings in place on the body. Also, the position of the saddle, usually a strip of bone or plastic that supports the strings off the bridge, determines the distance to the nut (at the top of the fingerboard).


The modern full size classical guitar has a scale length[38] of around 650 mm (25.6 inches), with an overall instrument length of 965–1016 mm (38-40 inches). The scale length has remained quite consistent since it was chosen by the originator of the instrument, Antonio de Torres. This length may have been chosen because it's twice the length of a violin string. As the guitar is tuned to one octave below that of the violin, the same size gut could be used for the 1st strings of both instruments.

Smaller scale instruments are produced to assist children in learning the instrument as the smaller scale leads to the frets being closer together making it easier for smaller hands. The scale size for the smaller guitars is usually in the range 484–578 mm (19-22.5 inches) with an instrument length of 785–915 mm (31-36 inches). Full size instruments are sometimes referred to as 4/4, while the smaller sizes are 3/4, 1/2 or 1/4.[39]

These sizes are not absolute, as luthiers may choose variations around these nominal scale lengths;

  • 4/4 650 mm (25.6 inches)
  • 3/4 578 mm (22.75 inches)
  • 1/2 522 mm (20.5 inches)
  • 1/4 484 mm (19 inches)


A variety of different tunings are used. The most common by far, which one could call the "standard tuning" is:

  • eI - b - g - d - A - E

The above order, is the tuning from the 1st string (highest-pitched string e'—spatially the bottom string in playing position) to the 6th string (lowest-pitched string E—spatially the upper string in playing position, and hence comfortable to pluck with the thumb.

String Sci. pitch Helmholtz pitch Interval from middle C Semitones from A440 Freq., if using an Equal temperament tuning (using \sqrt[12]{2} = 2^{(\frac{1}{12})})
1st (highest pitch) E4 e' major third above -5 440 \rm{ Hz}\cdot (\sqrt[12]{2})^{-5} \approx 329.63 Hz
2nd B3 b minor second below -10 440 \rm{ Hz}\cdot (\sqrt[12]{2})^{-10} \approx 246.94 Hz
3rd G3 g perfect fourth below -14 440 \rm{ Hz}\cdot (\sqrt[12]{2})^{-14} \approx 196.00 Hz
4th D3 d minor seventh below -19 440 \rm{ Hz}\cdot (\sqrt[12]{2})^{-19} \approx 146.83 Hz
5th A2 A minor tenth below -24 440 \rm{ Hz}\cdot (\sqrt[12]{2})^{-24} = 110 Hz
6th (lowest pitch) E2 E minor thirteenth below -29 440 \rm{ Hz}\cdot (\sqrt[12]{2})^{-29} \approx 82.41 Hz

This tuning is such that neighboring strings are at most 5 semitones apart. There are also a variety of commonly used alternate tunings.


  • The Guitar and its Music (From the Renaissance to the Classical Era) (2007) by James Tyler, Paul Sparks. ISBN 0199214778
  • Cambridge Studies in Performance Practice (No. 6): Performance on Lute, Guitar, and Vihuela (2005) edited by Victor Anand Coelho. ISBN 0521455286
  • The Guitar: From the Renaissance to the Present Day by Harvey Turnbull; published by Bold Strummer, 1991. ISBN 0933224575
  • The Guitar; by Sinier de Ridder; published by Edizioni Il Salabue; ISBN 88-87618-09-7
  • La Chitarra, Quattro secoli di Capolavori (The Guitar: Four centuries of Masterpieces) by Giovanni Accornero, Ivan Epicoco, Eraldo Guerci; published by Edizioni Il Salabue
  • Rosa sonora - Esposizione di chitarre XVII - XX secolo by Giovanni Accornero; published by Edizioni Il Salabue
  • Lyre-guitar. Étoile charmante, between the 18th and 19th century by Eleonora Vulpiani
  • Summerfield, Maurice, The Classical Guitar: Its Evolution, Players and Personalities since 1800 - 5th Edition, Blaydon : Ashley Mark Publishing Company, 2002.
  • Various, Classical Guitar Magazine, Blaydon : Ashley Mark Publishing Company, monthly publication first published in 1982.
  • Wade, Graham, Traditions of the Classical Guitar, London : Calder, 1980.
  • Antoni Pizà: Francesc Guerau i el seu temps (Palma de Mallorca: Govern de les Illes Balears, Conselleria d'Educació i Cultura, Direcció General de Cultura, Institut d'Estudis Baleàrics, 2000) ISBN 84-89868-50-6

See also

Main articles
Related instruments
Early guitars
Classical guitar lists


  1. ^ "The Guitar Family Tree". Dennis Cinelli. 
  2. ^ Classical vs. Flamenco Guitar Construction (Fernandez Music)
  3. ^ "FAQ about Classical Guitars and Flamenco Guitars". Zavaleta's La Casa de Guitarras. 
  4. ^ Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung: mit besonderer Rücksicht auf den österreichischen Kaiserstaat, 1823. 
  5. ^ "Agustin Barrios's Jose Maria Dura Argente publisher= Acoustic Guitar; January 2008 by Federico Sheppard". [dead link]
  6. ^ a b Cité de la Musique: Les guitares classiques du Musée de la musique (almost 200 classical guitars);      Catalog: Instruments et oeuvres d'art - use search-phrase: Mot-clé(s) : guitare
  7. ^ "SEGOVIA, Andres: 1950s American Recordings, Vol. 4". Graham Wade. 
  8. ^ a b Early Classical Guitar and Early Romantic Guitar Time Period by
  9. ^ Early Romantic Guitar Period Technique by
  10. ^ Function, Construction and Quality of the Guitar; 1983
  11. ^ Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Collection Search Results
  12. ^ ref Guitar | Matteo Sellas | All | Musical Instruments
  13. ^ The Hector Berlioz Website - La Côte Saint-André Berlioz’s birthplace
  14. ^ The myth of Schubert and the Guitar, An article seeking to clarify what relationship Schubert may - or may not - have had with the guitar
  15. ^ A. Segovia, The Romance of the Guitar, ETUDE May 1930, volume XLVIII number 5, page 317-318, 367, reproduced here as of June 2011
  16. ^ Changes by Elliott Carter – Boosey & Hawkes
  17. ^ Codex I by Cristóbal Halffter – Universal Edition (score sample)
  18. ^ Sequenza XI by Luciano Berio – Universal Edition
  19. ^ Sette Studi by Maurizio Pisati – Ricordi (score sample)
  20. ^ Si Le Jour Paraît by Maurice Ohana – Billaudot
  21. ^ Rara (eco sierologico) by Sylvano Bussotti – Ricordi; "Rara (eco sierologico) of 1967 is one of a series of other Rara works that include Rara (film) of 1967-70, The Rara Requiem of 1969-70 and Ultima rara (Pop Song) of 1970." ref
  22. ^ Suite für Guitarre, Op. 164 by Ernst Krenek – Doblinger Musikverlag (score sample)
  23. ^ Algo: Due pezzi per chitarra by Franco Donatoni – Edizioni Suvini Zerboni (Analysis)
  24. ^ Kurze Schatten II by Brian Ferneyhough – Edition Peters (score sample)
  25. ^ away from by Sven-David Sandström – Gehrmans Musikförlag
  26. ^ Toccata Orpheus by Rolf Riehm – Ricordi München (see also)
  27. ^ Sheer Pluck – Database of Contemporary Guitar Music
  28. ^ Sound and Music
  29. ^ Australian Music Center
  30. ^ "Interview with Bernard Hebb". 
  31. ^ The Classical Mandolin by Paul Sparks (1995)
  32. ^ Early Romantic Guitar
  33. ^ Stalking the Oldest Six String Guitar
  34. ^ [|Tennant, Scott] (1996). Pumping Nylon. Alfred pub. co.. ISBN 978-0882847214. 
  35. ^ "John Williams Interview with Austin Prichard-Levy". The Twang Box Dynasty. 
  36. ^ Guitar acoustics, University New South Wales
  37. ^ Fretted instrument terminology: An Illustrated Glossary
  38. ^ Guitar scale length Hampshire guitar orchestra
  39. ^ How to Choose the correct size & type of Guitar for a Child

External links

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Guitar History - Types of Guitars

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