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What is the difference between Classical Guitar and Other Styles of Guitar?
Written by Scott Gossage
As a classical guitar teacher, I am often asked this question. And you know, it’s a tough one. It’s always hard to nail down any specific type or genre of music.
The closer you get to a definition, the more slipperier it gets, kind of like trying to grab hold of a bar of soap that is floating in the bathtub.
So I will try to explain, beginning at a general level of detail. It is my hope that after my explanation the reader will be a little less confused than before my explanation, but optimistically I give myself a 50-50 chance, at best.
Type of Instrument:
There are several characteristics that can help us find a definition for the term, classical guitar. An obvious one: the type of instrument used.
Classical guitar, generally speaking, is played on a nylon-string instrument, like this.
That is rather than a steel-string guitar, like this one,
which is generally used more for other styles such as folk, rock, or country music. We’ll unpack the whole nylon vs. steel-string instrument a little later on, but for now, to try and address the original question: classical equals nylon strings, other styles equals steel strings.
While we’re talking about the instrument, we should also point out that classical guitar is generally played without amplification. That is to say, “acoustically”. Right away, this is a problem in terms of a useful definition, because acoustic, taken literally, means relating to sound or the sense of hearing.
I’m pretty sure that is true of all music: it relates to sound and the sense of hearing. But let’s go ahead and accept the spirit of what is trying to be said, here, absurdly inadequate as the language may be: classical guitar isn’t usually played on an electric guitar:
So, that’s the instrument piece of the definition, at a high level. Let’s move on and talk about another general defining characteristic:
Generally speaking, which is to say this definition has holes in it big enough to drive a Tommy Emanuel tour bus through, classical guitar is played using the fingers of the right hand, rather than with a pick or plectrum, which is generally a feature of other styles, like folk, rock, country.
(The absurdity of this definition may be illustrated quite easily by pointing out that there is a whole other genre of guitar playing, not classical, known widely as “finger-style guitar” for the very same characteristic!). But, whatever, classical equals fingers, other styles equals pick.
Repertoire (the music that is played)
A third general characteristic is the music played, which in classical guitar is (and please don’t hit me in the head with a board for saying this), classical music.
So now I’m in real trouble, because what on earth does that mean? I mean, you have got to be kidding me! There’s entire sections of entire libraries that are filled with volumes upon volumes devoted to this topic, written over hundreds of years, by some pretty smart people.
And there’s no real answer that anybody can agree on as to what the word classical means, in general, let alone what is classical music? There’s a pretty good video from 1959 of Leonard Bernstein explaining his point of view on this topic:
I guess I’d summarize this third characteristic as: with classical guitar, we are working in a literal tradition, as opposed to other styles being from more of an oral tradition. Literal meaning you are playing exactly the music written down in musical notation.
So, what have got so far? Classical guitar equals acoustic not electric, nylon strings not steel strings, fingers not pick, literal tradition not oral tradition.
So why are we talking about this? In what context does this question usually arise? Usually it is with a new student, or their parents, who might show up to their first lesson with a steel string or electric guitar. As classical guitar teachers, we will inform the student and parents that these are not suitable for our particular use case.
Explaining further, we tell them they need a nylon-string instrument.
A logical question immediately presents itself: if it’s the strings that’s the problem, could we change the strings and use the guitar we have? Because that way, we won’t have to buy a whole new guitar. Like I said, perfectly logical, reasonable question. But the answer is no, we can’t do that because the guitars are built differently.
The electric guitar has a solid body that doesn’t respond to un-amplified nylon strings. The steel string guitar is built heavier to handle the tension of the metal strings, which is much greater than that of nylon strings, and the nylon strings aren’t heavy enough to get the wood vibrating, which is what really makes the sound.
So the answer is: the guitar won’t sound very good if you do that. You could do that, kind of like you could eat cereal with a fork, or pound nails with a screwdriver…you could do it, but a spoon or a hammer works a lot better!
So, beyond the problematic definition, what are the benefits, pedagogically speaking, of studying the classical guitar? The answer is it allows us to build sound, solid foundation of technical and musical skills, giving us access to a whole repertoire of beautiful classical guitar music. There is also the benefit that these skills are transferable to others style of guitar, and also even to other instruments.
If you’d like to hear more, I hope you’ll give us a call at Silicon Valley Classical Guitar School and schedule your free introductory classical guitar lesson.
— Scott Gossage
Music Practicing Tips 2022
Hi Everyone! Summer is approaching, and with that more time to practice. The foundation of musical study, (or any study for that matter) is practice, and while the amount of time and regularity with which you practice is the single most important factor, HOW you practice is nearly as important.
Don’t start practicing just from the beginning. If you always start practicing from the beginning of the piece, you’ll have a strong beginning, but a weak ending. Also, if the intention is to memorize the piece, you have created a muscle memory chain that is far too long, and a memory slip will force you to restart from the beginning. Make sure to divide your music into logical phrases, then work on the very last phrase, then the phrase before that, etc. Work backwards by phrase.
Practice slowly. Keep errors in repetitions to an absolute minimum. If you keep making mistakes in repetitions, keep slowing down until your repetitions are clean and precise. You may need to use a metronome set to the shortest note value to be slow enough.
Take frequent mini breaks: practice hard for 10 minutes, break for a couple minutes, practice hard again for 10 minutes, break for a couple minutes, etc. Stay as focused as you can.
If you feel like you’re getting frustrated, shift to another practice activity, like a different phrase, different piece, or different exercise. While proper practicing is work and can be tedious at times, it shouldn’t be frustrating. You should feel like you’re making progress.
That’s all folks!
Until next time…..
— Rob Watson
Jon Mendle winds 2nd prize at Lute Competition
I just won second prize at the Concorso di Musica Antica “Maurizio Pratola” international lute competition in L’Aquila, Italy!!This has been a whirlwind couple of weeks, I learned that this competition was happening (close to event date)….. somehow figured out how to travel to Italy amidst the pandemic, and drank enough espresso to fight jet lag long enough to compete! With such short notice, I basically tried to live with the lute in my hands for a week and then came over here.
Attaching a photo with Paul O’Dette, who was the head of the jury. I’m humbled to have played for and gotten feedback from such an incredible musician, and very grateful to have met many excellent young lute players, all of whom I want to hear more from!
Practice Tips During a Pandemic
How to Keep up your Practice Routine When You’re Stuck Inside
Creating a Habit
Sometimes the hardest part about practicing is simply opening your guitar case. Or maybe the hardest part is finding time in your daily routine, between online school, homework and pent up energy from being stuck inside all day! The best way to turn practicing into a habit is to assign it a designated time in your busy day. Maybe you prefer practicing first thing when you wake up in the morning, or right after school before doing your homework. Or if you’re a parent, maybe it’s best to practice after the kids are asleep and the house is nice and quiet. Whatever your preference, stick to it, and incorporate your new practice habit into your daily life, whether it be for 10 min, 30 min or 2 hours. You’ve got this!
Setting Up Your Practice Space
While everyone is home all the time now, it’s important to create a space that is conducive to a productive practice. Growing up in a family of four children who all played multiple instruments, I quickly learned that my cherished classical guitar was no match for the piano, violin, clarinet, trumpet, or drum set. In order to get my practicing done in a productive manner, I had to create a practice space where I could both hear myself play and hear myself think. I recommend a space with as little distractions as possible! Practicing in your bedroom or in a room with a closed door is best; that way there are no distractions from siblings, pets or clanging pots and pans from the kitchen. Once you’ve picked your space, stick with it, and make it part of your practicing habit.
The Ultimate Classical Guitar Practice Set Up
- Pick a comfortable chair or stool that allows you to sit with a tall back and your legs at a 90 degree angle.
- Have your footstool or alternative sitting device ready to go.
- Have your clip-on tuner at the ready.
- Set up your music stand with the following:
- Any music you may need
- Pencil for making notes
- Nail files for shaping/buffing
- A note on devices: if you are using an electronic device as a practice aid (tuner, metronome), it should be turned on Do Not Disturb. Remember, we are creating a space with as little distractions as possible! If you only have a set time to practice, set an alarm for the period of time that you have set aside; that way you don’t have to keep checking the clock.
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6 Favorite Bay Area Guitar Shops
The Bay Area is blessed with a surprising number of unique and independently owned guitar shops. These stores serve as a community hub for the musicians they serve, which is perhaps why they’ve so far been able to survive in these tough times for small Bay Area retailers. Here is a list of a few of our favorite places to shop. We hope this inspires you to visit your local music store, or spend a day exploring new neighborhoods you’ve yet to visit.
GSP – Guitar Solo
GSP is a recognized resource for both professional guitarists and guitar enthusiasts. Located near the At&T/Giants Ballpartk, they stock an ever changing inventory of new and used classical guitars, steel strings guitars, mandolins and ukuleles. They also house an incredibly comprehensive selection of sheet music, with over 12,000 titles of classical guitar methods, studies, music and folios. You can also find a large selection of jazz, blues, pop, folk, country, and rock methods and songbooks. For those who love to browse musical literature, it’s worth a trip to spend some time hunting through their racks and filing cabinets. GSP publish their own Editions and Recordings, introducing new players and composers to the guitar world. They also sell their own brand of custom-made guitar strings. Their online mail order service is equally extensive. Their repair shop does everything from basic set ups to full restorations. GSP is a wonderfully intimate shop that supports the Bay Area guitar community.
Address: 230 Townsend Street (between 3rd & 4th Streets, San Francisco
Hours: Mondays – Fridays from 12pm – 7:00pm • Saturdays from 11am – 6pm • Sundays from 12pm – 5pm
Mighty Fine Guitars
Mighty Fine Guitars is a mighty fine place to shop for high end acoustic guitars built by local and nationally known luthiers. This shop has the look and feel of a salon – the perfect atmosphere to try an instrument before making that big investment. Owner Stevie Coyle also offers lessons, specializing in fingerstyle guitar. This is another great example of a shop owned by a musician, for musicians. You can find the shop’s stock online. They’ve got really good photos of their instuments, along with all the specs. As an added bonus, Coyle posts webcasts about the instruments and sometimes featuring special guest artists on his Facebook page. There’s a lot of great content online, but this is also a shop you’ll definitely want to visit in person.
Address: 85 Lafayette Cir, Lafayette
Hours: Wednesdays – Fridays from 10am – 6pm • Saturdays from 10am – 5pm • closed Sundays & Mondays • Open Tuesdays for lessons only.
Gryphon Stringed Instruments
Gryphon Strings is a leading source of steel-string acoustic guitars, mandolins, nylon string guitars, and banjos. They are as much a music school as a retail store, with a packed calendar of workshops, group lessons, and private instruction. They make an effort to carry instruments built by individual luthiers, and you can also find some very interesting vintage instruments like old Martins and banjos from the early 1900’s. Where this store stands out is in their calendar of events. They get an incredible array of talented Bay Area musicians to come in and give workshops on everything from beginner basics, to improvisation, to playing in alternate tunings, to fingerstyle jazz for “folkies”. Looking to get into a new style of playing or technique? Gryphon Stringed Instruments is the place to go!
Address: 211 Lambert Ave, Palo Alto
Hours: Mondays – Thursdays from 10:30am – 7:00pm • Friday – Saturday from 10:30am – 5:30pm • Sunday closed
Real Guitars – used and vintage instruments
Specializing in used and vintage equipment, Real Guitars sells an ever changing inventory of interesting guitars, bases, amps, speakers, and gear. As San Francisco’s oldest guitar shop, (they’ve been in the same location since 1986), it feels a little like you’re back in the 80’s when you visit this shop. A lot of legends have come through this space. Need quality repair work done or looking for a vintage or custom part? This is the place to bring your axe. If it’s good enough for Bay Area musicians like Jerry Garcia, Joe Satriani, Neal Schon, and bands like Metallica,Green Day, and Hellfire, it’s good enough for us!
Address: 15 Lafayette St, San Francisco
Hours: Mondays – Saturdays from 11am – 6pm • closed Sundays
Broken Guitars, owned by Billy Joe Armstrong from Greenday, and his business partner and former bandmate of Pinhead Gunpowder, Bill Schneider, serves Oakland and the East Bay specializing in all guitar and luthier work. The store may be small, but it carries a well curated selection of electric and steel string guitars, and amplifiers. While there is some impressive gear, the store strives to be a shop for musicians, not just hobbyists with money. Their repair shop does quality work with a fast turn around. The musicians that work there are super friendly, and will communicate with you through the entire process of a repair from quote to finish. To top it off, the storefront is located across the street from 1-2-3-4 Go! Records, an independent record store, label and venue. Close to the McArthur Bart Station, this is a great destination shop to visit.
Address: 423 40th St, Oakland
Hours: Tuesdays – Saturdays from 11am – 7pm • Sundays from 12pm – 5pm • closed Sundays
The Starving Musician
The Starving Musician has been serving the community since 1985, selling, trading, and renting new and used instruments, as well as offering music lessons, repair services, and school band rentals. They’ll trade gear for cash or consignment (for rare or valuable gear). Their store houses a wide selection of guitars, amps, pedals, drums and other instruments from beginner models to higher end instruments. This shop has a bit of everything, so even if you’re just there to pick up some strings, you’re going to want to walk around, and likely find some cool instrument or accessory you didn’t know you needed. The Starving Musician also sells some of their stock online through their website and on Reverb.
Address: 2474 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley
Hours: Mondays – Fridays from 11am – 7pm • Saturdays 11am – 6pm • Sundays 12pm – 6pm