An Introduction to Nylon-Stringed Guitars
Some of the most uplifting music ever created was composed for and played with classical guitars. But what exactly IS classical guitar? In this article, we will go over many of the basics of this instrument.
What is a classical guitar?
Classical guitar has its roots in ancient times, with numerous guitar-like stringed instruments being made and played. The shapes were quite different in most cases from that which we acknowledge as a guitar shape, and many of them had only three or four strings. The gittern was a renaissance-era stringed instrument carved from a single piece of wood.
The earliest known six-string guitar was produced during the late 18th century in Naples. This was the beginning of what was to be called baroque or romantic guitar.
What is referred to as modern classical guitar was developed in the late 19th century. (Flamenco guitars are similar, but are slightly different in construction and sound.) Most classical guitars are much smaller than their steel-stringed and electric counterparts. Their shape is based on designs of early romantic guitars from France and Italy. Strings were originally made from catgut, but today are much more commonly made from nylon, with a fine wire wrap around the bass strings.
Contemporary classical guitarists often use what is called the Smallman design of guitar, which uses a balsa brace and can be played louder and with more sustain, but loses some of the tonality of Spanish (traditional classical) guitar.
How to Play a Classical Guitar
Classical guitar is typically played while seated, with the guitar on the left lap and the left foot placed on a footstool. (Some players choose alternate positions, or to use a guitar support other than a footstool.) 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 (downstroke) and the other fingers plucking from the bottom of string upwards (upstroke). 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. Unlike other methods of guitar, fingers are always in contact with the strings – no picks are used. This allows for a greater control over the tone of each single note.
Repertoire, artists, and examples
Many classical guitar recitals include works dating back to the 16th century that were originally written for other instruments such as the piano or the lute. Works composed directly for guitar made their first appearance in the late 1700s, although they were derivative of compositions for other instruments. Guitar music came into its own in the late 19th century. Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909) was considered the father of modern classical guitar. Andres Segovia (1893-1987) was the most popular classical guitarist of the modern era. Here is an example of a composition by Tarrega:
Here is a performance by the great Segovia himself:
Give classical a try
This great form of music is widely available online, on the radio and in music stores. Give classical guitar a listen-you will probably find it to be a remarkably uplifting experience.