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Classical guitar tone production

Classical Guitar Tone Production

One of the main things that sets classical guitar apart from other types of guitar (like steel-string acoustic or electric) is our ability to drastically alter classical guitar tone and the sound of the guitar.

Nylon strings allow us the luxury of creating many different sounds. We can do this in a number of ways, which is what this article is all about.

If you are wondering, everything you read henceforth should apply both to free strokes and rest strokes.

Talking about sound

When talking about sounds, we are forced to use all kinds of vocabulary that doesn’t really relate to sound.  (We do the same thing with tastes: how would you describe the taste of grilled vegetables to an alien?)

Many times, we use textural, feeling (kinesthetic) words to describe a sound. Somehow, this just works. We may use words like:

  • fuzzy
  • cold
  • warm
  • bright
  • dark
  • metallic
  • wooly
  • wet 
  • dry
  • or any others you can think of.  (As a side note, sommeliers go crazy with this sort of thing when describing wines!

Any words we choose are fair game if they get the point across. If something doesn’t make sense here, just keep reading and perhaps another word will resonate.


 

First Things First: Master the Fundamentals

 

One of the biggest improvements you can make to your classical guitar tone quality on the classical guitar comes from using proper fundamental motions to play the strings.

 

Review the fundamental movements of playing classical guitar here.

 

Review the most common mistakes classical guitarists make here.

 

In a nutshell, it sounds better to push through the string with your finger, then it is to pull up on the string (plucking it).

 

“Simply using good technique will help you sound better.”

 

 

Most beginners jump right in and start plucking. It’s a bit counterintuitive to think that pushing through the string would be a better way of playing than plucking, but if you are serious about the classical guitar, mastering this fundamental classical guitar technique is an absolute must.

 

If you read no further, and focus on this alone, you will definitely improve not only your classical guitar tone production, but also your overall abilities on the instrument.  Seriously, for real.

 

Classical Guitar Nails

 

One way that we can control the tone quality on the classical guitar is by the shape and care of our fingernails.

 

Explore classical guitar nails here.

 

If you decide against having nails, and instead decide to play with the meat of your fingertips, you have less control over the tone quality, but can still use the techniques below (with less variation to your sound, but still..).

 

There is also an upside to NOT having nails.

 

Often times, if your nails are not well-shaped and polished, they can sound worse than having no nails at all.  By having no nails, and playing with the flesh only, you can create a fairly even sound.  Your basic tone will sound very similar from finger to finger, and this will even out the overall sound of your playing.  This is a good thing, and something that those of us with nails strive to achieve as well.

 

“Bad nails can sound worse than no nails.”

 

 

On the other hand, if you grow your nails out, but don’t take good care of them, polishing them with a fine nail paper or file before practice, they can easily make everything you play sound bright and brittle.

 

So simply having long nails doesn’t create good classical guitar tone, but having good nails makes a variety of sounds and “colors” available to you. 

 

 Classical Guitar Tone Production

 

Assuming you’re using good classical guitar technique, as described above, and have shaped and polished your nails (or trimmed them short), we can now talk about varying the tone quality as you play classical guitar.

 

“Relax Charlie, I’ve got an angle.”

 

The angle at which we activate the string has a huge effect on the sound of the note.

 

perpendicularIf we play perpendicular to the strings (straight across, or at a right angle to the strings) the sound is very bright. It may sound tinny or thin. It may sound metallic, like a harpsichord.

 

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are times when you want a thin, metallic sound.  Not always, but sometimes it’s just perfect for the moment.

 

obliqueAlternately, if you play very obliquely (slanted) to the string, at a 45° angle or less, you get a completely different tone quality entirely.

 

The sound when we play this way gets warmer and thicker the further you go.  

 

We can go too far with this one as well, and should always choose the tone quality that’s best for the musical moment.

 

Right Hand Position

Another way of altering the tone of your guitar is by changing where along the string your right hand actually plays.

near-bridgeOn one extreme, you can play very close to the bridge. This creates a very metallic and bright sound.

Tangent:  As a sidenote on playing expressively, playing very brightly like this can help whenever you need to play very quietly. That way you get the quiet effect but maintain the clarity and “ping” of each note. It can also be used to make the music sound “far away”.  Be sure not to use any rubato (slowing down or speeding up) when playing very quietly.  You will often lose your listener’s attention on quiet passages unless you play super-rhythmically.  End tangent.

over-the-fretsOn the opposite extreme, you can play all the way over the fretboard. Playing beyond the sound hole in this way creates a much darker sound.

This can be perfect for specific moments in your music. However, the guitar may not project as well playing in this position. When it gains in warmth, it loses in punch.  Your sound may get a bit “muddy”.

Bonus Trick!

Bonus trick:  As a special effect, your right hand can play the notes exactly 12 frets above the note that the left hand is fingering. (For instance, if you were playing the third fret on the six string, your right hand would play directly above the 15th fret.). This creates a “woodwind” effect. Technically, it mutes out some of the harmonic series, which makes it sound somewhat like a clarinet.  It’s a random effect that doesn’t get used very much, but it’s cool nonetheless.  Play with it!  Have fun!  (This one is not mentioned in the video.)

Blending the Ingredients

When you combine the angle at which you strike the string with the right hand placement on the string, you can get a wide variety of different classical guitar tone qualities.

sweet-spot2As a good, all purpose sound, playing above the sound hole at a 45° angle will usually be a good choice.  You can experiment on your own instrument to find your guitar’s “sweet spot”.

ob-near-brper-over-frYou can experiment with playing very obliquely to the strings very close to the bridge. And you can experiment playing very perpendicular to the strings over the fretboard.  All the variation will produce changes in your classical guitar tone.

Learning the extremes, and practicing moving between them is a great way to train your abilities to alter your sound on the fly.  

In time, you’ll be able to change the tone quality for individual notes within a phrase, or the different voices within an arrangement. This will help to give your overall sound more of a “three-dimensional” quality.  Combine this with balance, and you are well on your way to playing beautifully.  

Weigh In!

Got any observations or experiences with this?  Questions?  Other cool tricks we should know about?  Please share them in the comments below!

 


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9 Responses to Classical Guitar Tone Production

  1. Daniel March 1, 2016 at 5:30 pm #

    Looked quite extensively to find discussion of “striking guitar strings obliquely” and finally found it here. Thank you!

    I actually play a steel string Martin Authentic series OM size guitar, use the NeckUp strap and today found myself lifting my left foot against the chair, so tried raising the strap another notch. This may look odd for the steel string guitar as it places the nut near ear height, but I immediately found a noticeable and marked improvement in tone, and set about trying to discover whether that angle of attack accounted for the difference, or perhaps having the sound hole oriented differently so I was hearing more clearly tone produced in the lower bout.

    Your video and comments clarify that it is the altered and more oblique angle of attack that sweetened the tone. Much discussion, consideration and expense is often involved in improving tone production through altering scale length, bracing, tone woods, strings and a variety of other factors in different guitars, so I am delighted to have the confirmation that modifying the right hand position in relation to the strings is indeed so effective.

    • Allen March 1, 2016 at 10:30 pm #

      Thanks for the note, Daniel!

  2. John October 21, 2015 at 6:10 pm #

    Thanks.

  3. John October 21, 2015 at 5:28 pm #

    My first teacher when I was a kid used Segovia’s hand position quite well and urged me to do it. I could not do it at all. Bad sound and lots of tension. But I kept trying as my teacher said so I didn’t make much progress during that period of study.

    I guess a few people can do it and it works. Otherwise, forget about it.

    Allen, how about some special attention on how to get a full, round tone with the a finger on the first string? Always been a challenge for me to get a consistently good sound..

    Thanks.

    • Allen October 21, 2015 at 5:45 pm #

      Hi John,
      Thanks for the comment. I would start with making sure your hand position and fundamentals are in order. Next work on your nails. You could also try some new strings, just for kicks.
      Good luck!
      Allen

    • Wilhelmina May 22, 2016 at 7:01 am #

      I found just what I was needed, and it was entaiterning!

      • Allen May 22, 2016 at 7:09 am #

        Great, glad to hear it!

  4. Vivian Watts March 7, 2015 at 6:28 am #

    Great article as always! Thanks for posting this. I do have one question. While I agree that a slightly oblique right hand results in the best sound for most guitarists, including myself, how is it that Andres Segovia got such a magical tone while playing with a perpendicular position? It’s just something I always wondering when this topic comes up.
    Keep up the good work!

    • Allen March 7, 2015 at 8:08 am #

      Hi Vivian, Thanks for the question. Segovia also played obliquely. He pointed his fingers more toward the bridge. You can see it fairly well in this video.
      He did things a bit differently, but I would be hesitant to copy him just for the sake of it. Learning the overarching concepts of good movement and form, then playing around with variations is a better way to go. Otherwise you could end up in all sorts of undesirable positions.
      Thanks! Allen

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