Classical Guitar Buying Guide – How to Choose a Guitar


So you’re considering purchasing a new guitar. Wonderful!

There are few things that inspire us more than spending time with a new instrument.

Contents:

What Beginner Classical Guitar Should I Buy?

If you are just starting out on the classical guitar or rediscovering the guitar after many years and your instrument is not up to par, you may need a new classical guitar.

The short answer to, “how much do I need to spend” is not a lot.

A nylon-string classical guitar. Greg Miller, luthier

With technology and the improvement in building techniques and materials nowadays, it is easy for us to buy a decent quality guitar for around $300-1000.

This website does not officially endorse any specific brands. For guitars in the ~$300-1000 range, we can confidently mention Alhambra, Cordoba, or Yamaha. These companies make instruments with consistent quality.

Other smaller companies, like Kremona, also sell reliable instruments at an entry-level price.

Anything in the $300-$700 dollar price range will work wonderfully for you.

Get a Nylon-String Classical Guitar

A “classical” guitar has three nylon strings. These look like fishing line.

The body of the guitar is smaller, the neck is a little wider. The strings are easier to press down, which causes less finger pain. The sound is also richer and fuller.

For these reasons, most beginners are more comfortable on a nylon string guitar than a steel-string guitar.

What Should I look for in my First Guitar

Even if you have never played a note on the guitar before, there are some tips you can use to help you select a good guitar.

First, DO NOT buy a “hybrid” guitar or a guitar made by a steel string guitar company. Buy a “classical guitar,” even if you don’t plan to play classical music.

Rosewood Guitars in Seattle, WA

Companies like Taylor, Martin, Fender, Gibson, Washburn, etc. are famous for steel-string and electric guitars. They generally do NOT make very good classical guitars. Instead, they tend to make nylon string guitars for steel-string players.

It’s not the same. The sound is thin and the guitars often buzz when played with decent classical guitar technique. (There may be an occasional exception, but as a rule, this has held accurate.)

>>>Get a real classical guitar from a company that specializes in classical guitars.<<<  It does not have to be fancy.

A few trustworthy classical guitar brands are Alhambra, Cordoba, Yamaha, and Kremona. You can find many good guitars at XGuitars.com.

You can also buy a new guitar in a store.

Choose a standard classical guitar. Avoid bells and whistles.

Tips for choosing a guitar in a store:

  • Find out how much wood is in the guitar. Sometimes entry-level models will have plastic or other cheap filler materials that will take away from the sound of the instrument. Only buy a wood guitar.
  • Ask someone to play it and listen to how it sounds. Does it sound good? Do you enjoy the sound that is being produced?
  • If you can get someone to play it for you, ask them if it’s easy to play. Their opinions are only opinions, but if they are an accomplished player, it could be helpful.
  • Avoid any of those “deals” that you may find in big box stores for under $100. While you can’t beat the price, the quality of the guitar will not last you that long. And it probably will not stay in tune (frustrating).
  • Ask a friend – if you have a friend that plays classical guitar, ask them to come along and help you select a guitar. A non-classical guitarist friend may not be of much help.

Our main objective when selecting our first guitar isn’t to buy the shiniest and most expensive one available. It’s only to get something we can experiment with and see if the guitar is something we’ll enjoy.

Also, if you have an old guitar, you could fix it up the guitar. This way you can have a like-new instrument at a lower cost.

What is the difference between a $300 and a $3000+ guitar?

A $300 guitar will be made in a factory.

It is assembled almost like a car. One person does one part, and then it’s moved down the assembly line and someone does another part.

All the materials on the guitar may not be premium and the woods will not be top quality. They may also be made of laminated wood (plywood) or composite instead of solid wood.

Also, entry-level guitars are often built heavier. This is so there is less damage in shipping. The guitars may be more sturdy, but the sound may not be as resonant. They often sound somewhat “closed” and muted in comparison to more expensive instruments.

Important: the tuning keys (tuners) on very inexpensive instruments are usually very low-quality. This means the guitar will not stay in tune and can be difficult to tune. This is a daily annoyance and can break the will of new guitarists, as the guitar always sounds bad.

Guitar by Greg Miller, a fine luthier

A $3000+ guitar will probably be handmade by a guitar-builder (aka. luthier)

These guitars are more like custom-built hot-rods.

Each guitar is typically built by one person that hand-builds each and every part.

The materials they use will be premium and the woods will be high quality. You can often choose the wood and hardware (tuners).

The build on these is often lighter. The top is thinner, so it vibrates more readily. This makes the sound richer and it projects more.

On the downside, they may be more fragile. They may react to humidity and temperature fluctuations more than factory-built guitars.

Which Guitar do I Need?

If you are just starting out with classical guitar playing, an entry-level guitar is all you need. Given the price to quality ratio, a <$500 guitar is going to more than meet your current expectations.

You can always upgrade later and use your entry model as a “beater” guitar. You can use it for a travel guitar, without worrying about scratching or breaking it.

Buying a Luthier Built Guitar

Tony Ennis, Luthier (image from XGuitars.com)

A luthier-built instrument is a joy to play each day. 

Handmade guitars are also called luthier-built guitars. These guitars are often made one at a time by a highly-skilled guitar-builder. Each guitar can take hundreds of hours to complete.

A successful guitar-builder will often commit to their craft full time. Likewise, the skill and time that are required are reflected in the price.

Where to Find a Handmade guitar

There may also be good luthiers in your area.  You can google “__your city or state___ luthier”.  You may find one specializing in classical guitars.

(Tip: don’t get a classical guitar from a luthier who does mostly steel-string acoustic guitars.)

Guitar Bracing. Greg Miller, luthier

If you are in or near a big city, you may be able to find a store that sells high-end instruments.  If so, play as many as possible, so you understand the differences.  Most are a matter of taste.  At that price point, it may make sense to travel to a larger store and spend a couple of days looking and listening.  It’s a fun field trip!

Here are some pointers

  • First, spend as much money as you can.  The quality of the instrument makes a difference in your daily experience and enjoyment. 
  • If possible, it can be a great deal to get a nicer used instrument instead of a new one.  But this is subject to availability and location.  
  • Before you buy, play each note of the guitar (every fret on every string). Listen for anything wonky (loud buzzes, rattles, things like that).     
  • Before you buy, turn each of the tuning keys a few turns in each direction.  the smoother, the better.  
  • Compare the high notes to the low notes in volume and presence. While higher notes will be thinner, there should be a decent balance.
  • If you find anything wrong (trust your instincts), and you are at a store, ask them to fix it, or do a free “set up” on the instrument.    They may or may not.  If it’s really bad, just avoid the guitar and keep looking.  

And if you buy an expensive classical guitar, get a high-quality case. A good case can range from ~$200 up to $1000 or more. But if you plan to travel with your high-end guitar, it’s worth the protection.

Here is a report with tips on buying a guitar that has been generously shared by high-end luthiers Jeff Elliott and Cyndy Burton.

The most important thing

Look for something that gives you a thrill.  If you form a personal connection with a guitar, get it.  One of the best parts of getting a new instrument is the motivation you get.  If you love it, you’ll play it. And you’ll get better for it. 

Guitar Woods: A Brief Introduction

The type of wood from which a guitar is built affects the sound and performance. Some woods have become known as excellent guitar woods.

The most common woods for the top of a classical guitar are cedar and spruce.

Cedar on the left, Spruce on the right

Guitar Tops: Cedar vs. Spruce Guitar

Most of the sound of a classical guitar is made by the top. The top is also called the soundboard.

Cedar is dark and sometimes appears a rich tan-orange color. Some guitar-makers even stain cedar tops orange to exaggerate this.

Cedar can give a very warm, rich sound. They often sound full and dark. It may sound and feel louder to the player.

And cedar can also hide string noise. For this reason, many people prefer cedar, because they feel they play better on them. (They don’t of course, but the bumps and buzzes are generally less pronounced than on a spruce top.) Beginners may enjoy cedar as it’s more forgiving.

Spruce guitars are lighter in color. They range from almost white to a golden honey color.

And they may have a wider range of tone quality and sounds. The tone of a spruce-top guitar is more bell-like and clear. Each note is more distinct.

Very often, cedar is preferred for Spanish classical and Latin music. Spruce is thought of as preferable for baroque and classical music. Though we can play any style of music on any instrument. It’s a personal choice.

Both cedar and spruce have a period of time they take to “open” when the guitar is new. The wood fibers adjust to the vibrations. The cells open and the wood becomes more resonant and responsive. Cedar opens very quickly, often within months. Spruce can take over a year.

Cedar classical guitars are said to have a lifespan of several decades before the sound quality degrades. Whereas spruce guitars can sound good for centuries. This is highly speculative, and may just be a rumor or legend. It wouldn’t make much difference in one lifetime, anyway.

Rosewood back. Greg Miller, luthier

Other woods in the guitar

There are many types of wood used for making classical guitars. The back and sides of a guitar do affect the sound quality a little. Most of the sound is generated by the vibrating top.

Rosewoods are commonly used for the back and sides. And most any hardwood will do the job of bouncing the sound back out through the hole.

Some woods can add considerably to the cost of the guitar. Brazilian Rosewood, for example, is difficult to find (legally) and can be quite pricey. For boutique woods, the benefit is primarily aesthetic.

Mahogany is used for beginner guitars because it is much cheaper than rosewood. But the sound is noticeably thinner.

Pearwood with a white holly stripe. Greg Miller, luthier

The guitar fingerboard (which contains the frets) is often made of ebony because it is very hard and can withstand use.

The guitar neck itself is often made of cedar or another straight-grained wood. Some builders put a bar of ebony down the neck for added insurance against warping.

For the bracing within the guitar, different builders have their preferences. Cedar and spruce are both common. And some high-end luthiers are experimenting with carbon fiber and other materials.

Other Materials and Finishes

The type of finish on the guitar can affect the sound and playability.

High-end classical guitars often have a French Polish finish. This is also known as shellac. It is a very thin coating of a natural product. The wood stays protected from the environment. But impacts can break through this finish quite easily. One of the great benefits of this finish is that it can be retouched over time. Other finishes are “all or nothing,” while French polish can be applied to spots.

Many entry-level guitars have a thick lacquer or polyurethane finish. This protects the wood from scratches very well.

However, this thick finish can stop the wood from vibrating as much as it otherwise would. So the sound can be restricted. These guitars are not as resonant and loud as guitars with lighter finishes.

If you would like the option of using a guitar support, get a guitar with a shiny finish. The suction cups on many guitar supports will not stick to satin finishes. Also, suction cups can remove French polish over time.

Different Sized Guitars – Scale Length

Most standard classical guitars are made with a 650mm scale length. This means that the distance from the bridge (below the soundhole) to the nut (up by the tuners) is 650mm, or 65cm.

This size is fine for most people. Especially if you use a good sitting position and hold your guitar at an upward angle. Guitar supports and footstool serve to elevate the neck.

If you have very large hands, you may want to try a longer-scale guitar. But many large-handed people are fine on the 650mm.

Likewise, if you have very small hands or short arms, you could experiment with a shorter scale length.

3/4 and 7/8 size guitars are available from many manufacturers. These are typically for children, and the build quality varies. These are quite small for most adults, so try one before you purchase (or make sure you can return it if need be.)

Shorter scale length full-size instruments are harder to find. These are usually built by luthiers. The body of the guitar may be the same size as a 650mm guitar, but the string scale length can be down to 630 or below.

Smaller scale-length guitars can be very comfortable to play in the lower positions. But they may feel much more crowded higher on the neck.

Be Brave! It’s Only a Guitar.

image courtesy of XGuitars.com

While buying a classical guitar can be a big decision, the main thing is that you’re practicing and enjoying your music practice.

Most any classical guitar will do for a beginner. Some will be nicer than others. Cheap tuning keys, for example, can be frustrating.

But within a range, the guitar matters less than your relationship to it.

If the purchasing decision becomes stressful, feel free to postpone it. Or get a trusted guitar in your price range from Cordoba or Alhambra. It will be great, and you’ll be pleased.

If graduating to a more expensive classical guitar, take your time and play many guitars. Even play those above your price range, so you come to understand the differences.

Guitar is a lovely addition to life, and your guitar is the vehicle with which you make your music. Let it be as nice as you can, but don’t let it get too precious. At the end of the day, it’s a tool. And it’s what you make that counts more.


Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 


I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.





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