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Classical guitars: nylon string instruments

Stemming from even earlier instruments such as the baroque guitar and lute, today’s classical guitars have been around for centuries. Sometimes referred to as a “Spanish guitar,” a classical guitar has nylon strings, which gives it a warm, mellow tone.

Besides classical music, these guitars are used primarily in flamenco music, although “flamenco guitars” differ in both construction (they tend to be made from lighter, thinner wood) and tone. They have a much more percussive sound, with less sustain than a standard classical guitar.

Playing the Classical Guitar

Although classical guitars can be played with a pick, they are generally played with the fingertips or fingernails of the right hand. In classical music especially, the right hand technique is integral in achieving both the sound and the varied melodic and harmonic lines of which these instruments are capable.

Extremely effective as a solo instrument, the classical guitar can deliver multiple melodies and harmonies simultaneously. Leading guitarists such as Christopher Parkening, Julian Bream, and the venerable Andres Segovia, perform everything from Bach and Scarlatti to Debussy and Chopin.

Expanded Horizons in Modern Music

Mason Williams brought the classical guitar into focus in the late ‘60s with his seminal composition Classical Gas. After he performed it several times on the hit TV show The Smothers Brothers, the song became a Top 10 radio hit. It has since been covered numerous times by other artists, such as Australian guitar master Tommy Emmanuel, legend Chet Atkins, and Glen Campbell.

More recently, Carlos Santana’s 1999 Grammy-winning smash album Supernatural served up the hit song “Maria Maria,” which features Carlos playing his trademark melody lines on a classical guitar throughout the song.

Construction and Materials

The body most often consists of woods such as spruce, mahogany, redwood or red cedar while the back and sides are more likely to be Indian rosewood or mahogany; once commonly used, Brazilian rosewood is no longer available. The neck is also generally cedar or mahogany while the fretboard is a contrasting wood like rosewood or ebony. Classical guitars normally do not have fret markers.

Component parts, including bridge, saddle, tuning pegs and posts can be made from plastic or bone. Just about the only metal that appears on these guitars is that of the gears on the tuning pegs. Decorative inlaid wood ornamentation, called kerfing, binding, or purfling, may be placed around the sound hole, down the back, or around the edges of the body. While attractive, these touches can also serve to reinforce the construction of the instrument.


Additional Resources

Carriage House Violins

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