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