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Classical guitar
Classical Guitar two views.jpg
A modern classical guitar from the front and side
String instrument
Hornbostel-Sachs classification 321.322-5
(Composite chordophone sounded by the bare fingers or fingernails)
Developed modern classical guitar was developed in the late 19th century
Playing range
Range guitar.svg
Related instruments

The classical guitar, also known as the "nylon string guitar" — is a plucked string instrument from the family of instruments called chordophones. It typically has 6 nylon strings (the 3 bass-strings additionally being wound with a thin metal thread). The classical guitar is well known for its comprehensive fingerpicking technique, which enables the solo rendition of melody, multi-voiced harmony and polyphony (in much the same manner as the piano can).

The classical guitar is characterized by:

  • its strings — today primarily nylon; the bass-strings additionally being wound with a thin metal thread (traditionally they were made of gut - gut strings are still available today[1])
  • the instrumental technique — the individual strings are usually plucked with the fingers or the fingernails — plectra are rarely used
  • its historic repertoire, though this is of lesser importance, since any repertoire can (and is) played on the classical guitar (additionally: classical guitarists are known to borrow from the repertoires of a wide variety of instruments)
  • its shape, construction and material — modern classical guitar shape, or historic classical guitar shapes (e.g. early romantic guitars from France and Italy). A guitar family tree can be identified[2]. (The flamenco guitar is derived from the modern classical, but has differences in material, construction and sound[3][4].)

The name classical guitar does not mean that only classical repertoire is performed on it, although classical music is a part of the instrument's core repertoire (due to the guitar's long history); instead all kinds of music (folk, alternative, jazz, flamenco, etc.) can be and are performed on it.

The term modern classical guitar is sometimes used to distinguish the classical guitar from older forms of guitar, that are in their broadest sense also called classical, or more descriptively: early guitars. Examples of early guitars include the 6-string early romantic guitar (ca. 1790 - 1880), and the earlier baroque guitars with 5 courses.

Today's modern classical guitar is regarded as having been established from the late designs of the nineteenth century Spanish luthier Antonio Torres Jurado. Hence the moderyn classical guitar is sometimes called the "Spanish guitar".

The modern classical guitar is usually played in a seated position, with the instrument resting on the left lap - the left foot is usually placed on a footstool. Alternatively - if a footstool is not used - a guitar support can be placed between the guitar and the left lap (the support usually attaches to the instrument's side with suction cups). (There are of course exceptions, with some performers choosing to hold the instrument another way.)


Classical Guitar viewed from various contexts

The classical guitar has a long history and one is able to distinguish various:

Both instrument and repertoire can be viewed from a combination of various contexts:

  • historical (chronological period of time)
  • geographical
    • e.g. in the 19th century: Spaniosh guitars (Torres), and French guitars (René Lacôte, ...), etc.
  • cultural/stylistic and social aspects
    • e.g. baroque court music, 19th century opera and its influences, 19th century folk songs, Latin American music, etc.

Brief examples using the above classifications (historical, cultural/stylistic, social etc.), to show the colourful diversity of the classical guitar:

  • Robert de Visée (ca. 1650 – 1725) with French Court music for baroque guitar and lute. He was the guitar player (maître de guitare du Roy) of Louis XIV of France at the court of Versailles. His works are influenced by hearing Jean-Baptiste de Lully (1632 – 1687) who was also engaged at the court of Louis XIV.
  • Mauro Giuliani (1781 – 1829) with Italian/Viennese classical music for the 19th century so-called early romantic guitar. He was chamber-virtuoso of Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria [5]. Some of his works include strong influences from his visits to 19th century opera performances.
  • Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909) of Spain. His intimate salon-style music, is both romantic in character and includes charming character-pieces such as polkas and walzes. He even played for the Queen of Spain, Isabel II. From 1869, Tárrega used a guitar by Antonio de Torres (1817-1892); an instrument whose design is somewhat similar to today's modern classical guitar.
  • Agustín Barrios (1885 – 1944) from Paraguay, towards the end of his life using a modern classical guitar (his last instrument was a gift from Queen Eugenia of Spain in 1935[6]). His music is romantic in style, with some works showing strong folkloric Paraguayan influences, shaped from his cultural background.
  • Sergei Orekhov (Сергей Орехов) (1935 – 1998) with music for Russian 7-string guitar. In his compositions and arrangements he pulls inspiration from his intimate knowledge of traditional Russian folk music and folk songs.

Interpretation of works of a specific composer in a specific style, requires an understanding of the historical cultural/stylistic and social aspects/influences, considering music an expressive art. This is often called the study of performance practice, with attempts at historically informed performance (sometimes abbreviated HIP).

Background information

The evolution of the classical guitar and its repertouire spans more than four centuries. It has a history that was shaped by contributions from earlier instruments, such as the renaissance period four course guitar types, the vihuela, and the baroque guitar. The popularity of the classical guitar has been sustained over the years by many great players, arrangers, and composers. A very short list might include, Gaspar Sanz (1640-1710), Fernando Sor (1778-1839), Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829), Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909), Agustín Barrios Mangoré (1888-1944), Andrés Segovia (1893-1987), Alirio Diaz (1923), Presti-Lagoya Duo (active from 1955-1967: Ida Presti, Alexandre Lagoya), Julian Bream (1933), and John Williams (1941).

The last guitarist to follow in Segovia´s footsteps was Julian Bream and Julian Bream will be 73 years old on July 15th 2006. Miguel Llobet, Andrjes Segouvia and Julian Bream are the three performer personalities of the 20th century. Do not understand me wrong, we have many guitarists today that are very excellent performers, but none with such a distinct personality in their tone and style as Llobet, Segovia and Bream. In all instrumental areas, not just the guitar, there is a lack of individualism with a strong tendency to conformity. This I find very unfortunate since art (music, theatre or the pictorial arts) is a very individual and personal matter.[7]
Bernard Hebb, Interview


The right and left hand descriptions in this section are typical for right-handed guitarists.

Plucking of the string

Right-handed players use the fingers of the right hand to pluck the strings, with the thumb plucking from the top of a string downwards and the other fingers plucking from the bottom of string upwards. The little finger in classical technique as it evolved in the 20th century is used only to ride along with the ring finger without striking the strings and to thus physiologically facilitate the ring finger's motion. Some modern guitarists, such as Štěpán Rak, use the little finger independently, compensating for the little finger's shortness by maintaining an extremely long fingernail. In contrast, Flamenco technique, and classical compositions evoking Flamenco, employ the little finger semi-independently in the Flamenco four-finger rasgueado, that rapid strumming of the string by the fingers in reverse order employing the back of the fingernail which is such a familiar characteristic of Flamenco.

Changing a string's active vibrating length (frets)

The fingers of the other hand are usually used to change the vibrating length of a string: the finger pushes the string towards a fret to achieve this. The shorter the string, the higher its pitch.

Direct contact with strings

As with other plucked instruments (such as the lute), the musician directly touches the strings (usually plucking) to produce the sound. This has important consequences: Different tone/timbre (of a single note) can be produced by plucking the string in different manners and in different positions.

Tone production/variation and freedom of performance

Guitarists have a lot of freedom within the mechanics of playing the instrument. Often these decisions influence the tone/timbre - factors include:

Right Hand:

  • At what position along the string the finger plucks the string (This is actively changed by guitarists since it is an effective way of changing the sound(timbre) from "soft"(dolce) plucking the string near its middle, to "hard"(ponticelo) plucking the string near its end)
  • Use of nail or not: today almosst all concert guitarists use their fingernails (which have to be smoothly and roundly filed) to pluck the string since it produces a sharper clearer sound, and also a better controlled loud sound is possible. When using the nail (of index, middle, ring or little finger) to pluck the string, the hand is usually held so that the left side of the nail makes the first contact with the string: this is not achieved by "rolling" the hand to the leftt, but rather by holding the hand in such a way that the outstretched fingers are angled slightly to the left relative to the strings (as opposed to perpendicular). Before plucking, usually both the left side of the nail and the fingertip touch the string; this enables the finger (and hand) to rest on the string in a balanced way. When the plucking motion is made, only the nail-contact remains: The curvathure of the nail (starting from its left side) allows the string to be pulled back while the string slides towards the tip of the nail where it is released. This occurs so quickly that the gliding of the string over the fingernail is not perceived, but a smoothly filed nail is necessary.
    The "use of nail or not" is usually a fixed consistent decision of the player and not varied; the thumb is an exception and might actively be varied between using nail [sharper clearer sound] and using flesh.
  • Which finger to use (the thumb may be able to produce a different tone than the other fingers)
  • At what angle the wrist and fingers are held with respect to the strings (angle of attack), for plucking. This is varied by guitarists (however only minimally) and effects the produced tone. Modern guitarists (often use a fair amount of nail and thus) seldom hold their hand (such that the outstretched fingers are) at right angles to the strings (this produces excessive clicking noises), but use a more natural angled hand position (with variations), which produces a better tone. Often a tradeoff is involved: Some rich sounds that are achieved by having the finger rather parallel (if it were outstretched) to the string do not easily allow fast plucking.
  • Rest-stroke (apoyando; having the finger that plucks a string come to a rest on the next string - traditionally used in single melody lines) versus free-stroke (tirando; plucking the string without coming to a rest on the next string): Usually influenced by the nails. Some guitarists with rather long nails avoid the rest-stroke altogether; others avoid it when they feel they have more control over the free-stroke. When two neighboring strings are to be plucked simultaneously, the rest-stroke cannot be used.

Left Hand:

  • Use of hammer-on and pull-off (Legato, slurs): This is where only the left hand is used in producing the sound - during hammer-on, the finger hits the already vibrating string down towards a fret, thus shortening the vibrating string and increasing the pitch. During pull-off, a finger that holds the string lengthened to a particular fret, is pulled off, resulting in a lengthening of the string either to its open length or to another finger-fret position, thus decreasing the pitch. Since the string is usually already vibrating prior to applying the hammer-on or pull-off, the change of pitch is very smooth: it is hence used for articulation purposes and fast note progressions (since only a single hand is involved). The technique is often used in trills, where e.g. the first finger remains pivoted at a lower fret and the 2nd finger might hammer-on and pull-off repeatedly resulting in the trill.
  • Vibrato: Whilst a finger of the left-hand is pressing the string towards a fret, it can rapidly move the string slightly to and fro (along the string), resulting in a slight but fast-changing increase and decrease in the string's tension and thus a proportional change in pitch - giving the impression of a fuller tone.

Both Hands/Other:

  • One and the same note (in terms of pitch), can be played on many different strings (depending on the appropriate fret being used). Since the different strings have distinctive tones, the guitarist may choose to play on certain strings for particular tonal effects: The difference is greatest between the 3rd string (G - pure nylon) and the 4th string (D - nylon wound with thin metal). However at the same time this is also a great difficulty when a melody line (which should have a uniform sound) is played across the strings; since the guitarist has to adjust so as to emphesize tonal similarity, rather than difference. Another example for the use of strings is tone production is the cross-string trill, where the different pitches of the trill are plucked on neighboring strings[8][9]: this can be used to create a rather dissonant trill (but with the benefit of better volume), since both strings may be allowed to sound simultaneously if the guitarist so chooses.
  • Harmonics: The strings can be brought into different modes of vibration, where its overtones can be heard. This is achieved by laying a left-hand finger lightly at a position of an integer division of the string's length (1/2, 1/3, 2/3, etc.) and plucking the string with the other hand (followed by removing the left-hand finger). This causes separate string-parts to vibrate separately, with a "standing, motionless" point where the left-hand finger originally touched the string.

Since it is the hands and fingers that pluck the string and every person has different fingers, there are great differences in playing between guitarists; who often spend a lot of time finding their own way of playing that suits them best in terms of specific objectives: tone-production ("beauty"/quality of tone), minimum noise (e.g. clicking), large dynamic range (from soft to controlled loud), minimum (muscle) effort, fast "motion-recovery" (fast plucking when desired), healthy movement in fingers, wrist, hand and arm

There is not one definite way of reaching these goals (there is not a single definite optimal guitar technique): rather there are different ways of reaching these goals, due to differences in the hands and fingers (including nails) of guitarists.

When guitarists are performing music (while playing), they continually search (by actively moving/changing their hands, fingers) for a ggood sound in terms of tone/tambre, to enhance the musical interpretation.

John Williams has remarked[10] that since guitarists find it superficially very easy to play even things such as melody with accompaniment (e.g. Giuliani), [some guitarists'] "approach to tome production is also superficial, with little or no consideration given to voice matching and tonal contrasts".

See also Classical guitar technique.


The history of the classical guitar and its repertoire span over four centuries. Included in its ancestry is the baroque guitar. Throughout the centuries, the classical guitar has evolved principally from three sources: the lute, the vihuela, and the Renaissance guitars.


Instruments similar to what we know as the guitar have been popular for at least 5,000 years. The ancestry of the modern guitar appears to trace back through many instruments and thousands of years to ancient central Asia. Guitar like instruments appear in ancient carvings and statues recovered from the old Iranian capital of Susa. This means that the contemporary Iranian instruments such as the tanbur and setar are distantly related to the European guitar, as they all derive ultimately from the same ancient origins, but by very different historical routes and influences.

Overview of the classical guitar's history

During the Middle Ages, guitars with three, four, and five strings were already in use. The Guitarra Latina had curved sides and is thought to have come to Spain from elsewhere in Europe. The so-called Guitarra Morisca, brought to Spain by the Moors, had an oval soundbox and many sound holes on its soundboard. By the 15th century, a four course double-string guitar called the vihuela de mano, half way between the lute and the guitar, appeared and became popular in Spain and spread to Italy; and by the sixteenth century, a fifth double-string had been added. During this time, composers wrote mostly in tablature notation. In the 17th century, influences from the vihuela and the renaissance five string guitar were combined in the baroque guitar. The baroque guitar quickly superseded the vihuela in popularity and Italy became the center of the guitar world. Leadership in guitar developments switched to Spain from the late 18th century, when the six string guitar quickly became popular at the expense of the five string guitars. During the 19th century, improved communication and transportation enabled performers to travel widely and the guitar gained greater popularity outside its old strongholds in Iberia, Italy and Latin America. During the 19th century the Spaniard, Antonio de Torres, gave the modern classical guitar its definitive form, with a broadened body, increased waist curve, thinned belly, improved internal bracing, single string courses replacing double courses, and a machined head replacing wooden tuning pegs. The modern classical guitar replaced older form for the accompaniment of song and dance called flamenco, and a modified version, known as the flamenco guitar, was created.


The Renaissance guitar

The gittern, English for Renaissance guitar, is a musical instrument resembling a small lute or guitar. It is related to but is not a citole, another medieval instrument. The gittern was carved from a single piece of wood with a curved ("sickle-shaped") pegbox. An example has survived from around 1450.

The Vihuela

The written history of the classical guitar can be traced back to the early sixteenth century with the development of the vihuela in Spain. While the lute was then becoming popular in other parts of Europe, the Spaniards did not take to it well because of its association with the Moors . They turned instead to the four string guitarra, adding two more strings to give it more range and complexity. In its most developed form, the vihuela was a guitar-like instrument with six double strings made of gut, tuned like a modern classical guitar with the exception of the third string, which was tuned half a step lower. It has a high sound and is rather large to hold. There are few still around.

Baroque guitar

A guitar from the Baroque era.

The Guitar Player (c. 1672), by Johannes Vermeer, guitar Voboam

"Early romantic guitar" or "Guitar during the Classical music era"

The earliest extant six string guitar was built in 1779 by Gaetano Vinaccia (1759 - after 1831) [11][12] in Naples, Italy. The Vinaccia family of luthiers is known for developing the mandolin. This guitar has been examined and does not show tell-tale signs of modifications from a double-course guitar.[13] The authenticity of guitars allegedly produced before the 1790s is often in question. This also corresponds to when Moretti's 6-string method appeared, in 1792.

Contemporary classical guitar

Contemporary concert guitars occasionally follow the Smallman design which replaces the fan braces with a much lighter balsa brace attached to the back of the sound board with carbon fiber. The balsa brace has a honeycomb pattern and allows the (now much thinner) sound board to support more vibrational modes. This leads to greater volume and longer sustain but compromises the subtle tonalities of the Spanish sound.

Multi-string classical guitar

A multi-string classical guitar is a classical guitar with more than 6 strings, usually between 7 and 10.

History of early (pre 1945) guitar recordings

Putting sound recordings into perspective:
The phonograph was invented by Thomas Edison on 18 July 1877 - it used phonograph cylinders as recording medium. In 1888, Emile Berliner patented the grammophone which used a flat disk - a gramophone record. The two mediums were at first both used, but by 1910 the disk replaced the cylinder as the most popular recording medium. (Today the words phonograph and grammophone are sometimes used interchangeably.) Other type of recordings were instrument-specific, such as the pianola (or reproducing piano), which used a piano roll as recording medium[14][15].Edwin Scott Votey produced the first true pianola in 1895.

Early recordings often have low/limited audio quality, since recording technology was just in its beginning phases - it took many years to reach the high standards of audio fidelity known in today's recordings.

At the time of writing, the earliest known guitar recording is by Mexican guitarist Octaviano Yañes performing his "Mexican Dance" (Habanera). The record, Victor 05662, is dated August 25, 1908[16]. Another version of this piece exists on Edison Foreign Series cylinder (catalogue number 20204)[17]. Mario Maccaferri recorded 8 works in 1929 (Granados: Danza no. 5 (rec. 1929), Bach: Courante (rec. 1929), ref ref2)[18]. The Paraguayan guitarist and composer Agustín Barrios (1885-1944) made recordings between 1913 and 1942, including performances of his own works[19]. Spanish guitarist and composer Miguel Llobet (1878-1938) made recordings between 1925 and 1929[20]. Luigi Mozzani (1869–1943) recorded three 78 rpm LPs with much of his music[21]. Andrés Segovia (1893–1987) made his earliest recordings in 1927[22][23]. Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959) privately made recordings between mid-1920s and the early 1940s, including important performances of two of his guitar works[24]. Italian guitarist Pasquale Taraffo (1887–1937) made recordings between 1926 and 1930 on a harp-guitar (Taraffo's Sonatina in A Major[25])[26][27]. Abel Fleury (1903-58) recorded ten pieces between 1935 and 1954[28]. There exists a recording of Italo Meschi from 1929[29].

Other early performers who have recorded include Emilio Pujol[30], Josefina Robledo[31] (Tárrega: Capricho Arabe, ref), Luise Walker (1910-1998)[23][32], Julio Martínez Oyanguren (1901-1973) from Uruguay[23][33][34](track - Jota ref), Guillermo Gómez (1880-1955)[23], Maria Luisa Anido (1907-1996), Vicente Gomez (1911-2001), Francisco Salinas (1892-1993), Regino Sainz de la Maza (1896–1981) (Concierto de Aranjuez, rec. 1948 dedicated to Regino Sainz de la Maza), José Rey de la Torre (1917-1994), Nelly Ezcaray (1920-), etc. Some of the recordings have been reissued on CD[23][35][36].

Julio Sagreras also made radio recordings, though it is not known if the tracks are still available, or if they have been released on CD.

There are probably still more early guitar recordings of high value and historic importance, that can discovered (e.g. there seems to be a surprising lack of early recordings by Central and Eastern European guitarists, etc.) - possibly in archives of record companies (or discontinued record companies), or in early radio recordings, or in private collections.


The classical guitar repertoire in practical terms includes not only music written specifically for the classical guitar, but also music written for the guitar's predecessors and related instruments. These include the vihuela, popular in sixteenth-century Spain, and the lute used everywhere else in Europe in the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Music written specifically for the classical guitar dates from the addition of the sixth string (the baroque guitar normally had five pairs of strings) in the late 18th century.

A guitar recital may include a variety of works, e.g. works written originally for the lute or vihuela by composers such as John Dowland (b. England 1563) and Luis de Narváez (b. Spain c. 1500), and also music written for the harpsichord by Domenico Scarlatti (b. Italy 1685), for the baroque lute by Sylvius Leopold Weiss (b. Germany 1687), for the baroque guitar by Robert de Visée (b. France c. 1650) or even Spanish-flavored music written for the piano by Isaac Albéniz (b. Spain 1860) and Enrique Granados (b. Spain 1867). The most important composer who did not write for the guitar but whose music is often played on guitar is Johann Sebastian Bach (b. Germany 1685) whose works for solo violin and solo cello as well as those written for baroque lute have proved to be highly adaptable for the guitar. Indeed, they have become core repertoire for guitarists.

Of the music written originally for guitar the earliest important composers are from the classical period and include Fernando Sor (b. Spain 1778) and Mauro Giuliani (b. Italy 1781) both of whom wrote in a style strongly influenced by Viennese classicism. In the nineteenth century guitar composers such as Johann Kaspar Mertz (b. Slovakia, Austria 1806) were strongly influenced by the dominance of the piano. It is not until the end of the century that the guitar began to emerge with its own unique atmosphere. Francisco Tárrega (b. Spain 1852) was central to this, sometimes incorporating some stylized aspects of flamenco, which has Moorish influences, into his romantic miniatures. This was part of the phenomenon of musical nationalism that was part of the wider European mainstream in the late nineteenth century. The aforementioned piano composers Albéniz and Granados were central to this movement and their evocation of the guitar was so successful that guitarists have largely appropriated their music for piano to the guitar. Guitarists who were active at that time, such as Angel Barrios (Spain, 1882 - 1964) contributed to the incorporation of flamenco style (e.g. the Phrygian mode) and flemenco guitar techniques such as rasgueado.

With the twentieth century and the wide-ranging performances of artists such as Andrés Segovia and Agustin Barrios-Mangore the guitar began to regain some of the popularity it had lost to the harpsichord and piano in the eighteenth century. It again became a popular instrument, but not always in its classical version. The steel-string and electric guitars, integral to the rise of rock and roll in the post-WWII era, became more widely played in North America and the English speaking world. The classical guitar also became widely popular again. Barrios composed many excellent works and brought into the mainstream the characteristics of Latin American music, as did the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Andrés Segovia commissioned many works from Spanish composers such as Federico Moreno Torroba and Joaquin Rodrigo, Italians such as Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Latin American composers such as Manuel M. Ponce of Mexico, Agustin Barrios-Mangore of Paraguay, Leo Brouwer of Cuba, Antonio Lauro of Venezuela, Enrrique Solares of Guatemala. Julian Bream of Great Britain managed to get nearly every British composer from William Walton to Benjamin Britten to Peter Maxwell Davies to write significant works for guitar. Bream's collaborations with tenor Peter Pears also resulted in song-cycles by Britten, Lennox Berkeley and others. There are also significant works by composers such as Hans Werner Henze of Germany. The classical guitar also became widely used in popular music and rock & roll in the 1960s after guitarist Mason Williams popularized the instrument in his instrumental hit Classical Gas. Guitarist Christopher Parkening is quoted in the book Classical Gas: The Music of Mason Williams as saying that it is the most requested guitar piece besides Malagueña and perhaps the best known instrumental guitar piece today.

The golden age of the guitar (19th century guitar - classical and romantic era)

La Guitaromanie

During the period from approximately 1780 to 1850 the guitar was an extremely popular instrument with numerous composers and performers such as

There is even an image from 1825 by Charles de Marescot entitled "La Guitaromanie".

Carlo Barone (from the Accademia "l'Ottocento" - Academy of Nineteenth Century Music in Italy) has conducted wide research into this flourishing early 19th century period and mentions: "The guitar's history in this [20th] century has been profoundly influenced, by prejudices, [...] regarding the scarcity and inadequacy of its musical literature of the past 200 years."[37] (from 1700 to 1900)

Still today, there exists a view amongst some, that there is a lack of quality guitar works from these early periods, for example: "One of Segovia’s main goals was to expand the then current guitar repertoire, which he felt was lacking in both quantity and quality."[38]

The statement can only be said to be "true", if one sees it from Segovia's perspective... taking into consideration, that Segovia's stylistic preference was not the 19th century guitar-works, but spanish romantic-modern works (from the end of the 19th into the early 20th century); in the spanish romantic-modern style - which he expanded, with works by Torroba and others.

There is no recorded evidence of how guitar compositions from the early 19th century era were performed. In fact the style and interpretative aspects of compositions from this period (Sor, Giuliani, Carulli, etc.) have been described as a "dead language for us" ("lingua morta, per noi"[39]), i.e. a language which many are not familiar with, and hence a music which many have difficulty in interpreting in a way that evokes the intended expressive emotion, by using colourful timbral variations and rhythmic freedoms:

  • [...] fa risaltare le modificazioni timbriche e le libertà ritmiche legate alla “teoria degli affetti”, lingua morta, per noi [...][39]
  • [...] highlighting the timbre variations and rhythmic freedoms relating to the "theory of emotions", a dead language, for us [...]

There is considerable controversy about the rather strict and restrained way in which some modern performers and musicologists today think this classical music should be performed.

"How should one perform Sor's music? I believe the answer is with considerably more freedom, expression and passion than has, for the most part, been done in the recent past. Sor, in his method of 1830 has much to say about the use of tone color on the guitar and even discusses how to imitate the various orchestral instruments. This use of color is something that is very uncommon amongst modern guitarists. Ironically Sor says very little about other aspects of expression, but other guitar methods from the era do recommend much use of portamento, arpeggiation of chords, and other expressive devices which most people today consider anachronistic and completely out of style in the interpretation of the guitar music from this very era! (It never ceases to amaze me how so many modern guitarists and musicologists [...] don't even consider the wealth of material and instruction from Sor's era which cries out that this music is meant to be expressed with such devices as dynamics, tone color, portamento, chordal arpeggiation [...]. These same modern guitarists with the conspiratorial support of supposedly enlightened musicologists will often perform this music, sometimes on a "period" guitar, and use practically none of the above-mentioned expressive devices.)"
Fernando Sor - Master Composer For Guitar?[40]
"The guitar dominated the salons of early nineteenth century Europe but much of the repertoire and interpretive practices that developed in this ‘golden age’ of the guitar were lost as the instrument declined in popularity as the century progressed. Through an exploration of original source material this thesis reappraises the repertoire of the early nineteenth century guitar, revives lost performance practices [...]"[41]
The Early Nineteenth Century Guitar: An Interpretive Context for the Contemporary Performer; with a specific focus on the compositions of Mauro Giuliani and Fernando Sor.
    PhD Thesis[42] by Adrian Charles Walter (2008; Charles Darwin University - Casuarina Campus Library)

A prime factor in an effective interpretation of these works is that they should be lyrically and characterfully phrased. A reconstruction of the musical and interpretative aspects can be achieved by considering not only guitar methods, but also methods for other instruments[43] and more importantly vocal/singing methods of the period (e.g. especially bel canto)

  • "[...] ricostruita con attenzione a tutte le fonti disponibili, anche riguardanti non direttamente la chitarra, e soprattutto ad alcuni testi per l'insegnamento del "bel canto", vera miniera di informazioni sulle varie possibilità di realizzazione di ogni dettaglio stilistico e fraseologico."[39]
  • [The style can be] carefully reconstructed from all available original sources, not only for guitar, and but especially from texts on the teaching of "bel canto", with a true wealth of information on the various possibilities for realizing the stylistic aspects and phrasing.

Example for such vocal treatises include

These historical texts (as well as others by Leopold Mozart and Johann Nepomuk Hummel; and historic guitar methods) are e.g. used in the course Advanced Studies 19th Century Style and Performance Practice[43] (at the Accademia "l'Ottocento" - directed by Carlo Barone), targeted primarily at guitarists.

Carlo Barone mentions that when examining original source material, some of views on 19th century guitar literature and artistic values can still be misinterpreted, and maintains that a global view must be kept:

  • "In examining primary sources from the period, whether didactic methods or concert works, one must keep a global view, indispensable in attempting to synthesize the original musical practices. A patient reconstruction of the musical taste of the era renders the guitar's musical literature more comprehensible and sheds completely new light on artistic values which today are unfortunately frequently misinterpreted."[37]

Classical guitar making

Classical guitar pedagogy

Physical characteristics

The classical guitar is distinguished by a number of characteristics:

  • It is an acoustic instrument. The sound of the plucked string is amplified by the soundboard of the guitar which acts as a resonator.
  • It has six strings; however, a few classical guitars have eight or more strings to expand the bass range, and to expand the repertoire of the guitar.
  • All six strings are made from nylon, as opposed to the metal strings found on other acoustic guitars. Nylon strings also have a much lower tension than steel strings, as do the predecessors to nylon strings, gut strings (made from ox gut). The lower three strings ('bass strings') are wound with metal, commonly silver plated copper.
  • Because of the low tension of the strings the neck can be made entirely of wood, not requiring a steel truss rod.
  • The interior bracing of the sound board can be lighter, due to the low tension of the strings. This can allow for more complex tonal qualities. A common classical guitar bracing pattern is the fan bracing. A center spruce brace is glued on the inside of the soundboard along the center line of the guitar to just before the bridge. Additional braces fan out on ether side of the first brace.
  • A typical modern six-string classical guitar has a width of 48–54 mm at the nut, compared to around 42 mm for a modern electric guitar design. The classical fingerboard is normally flat and without inlays (Some have dot inlays on the side of the neck at the 5th and 7th frets), whereas the steel string fingerboard has a slight radius and inlays.
  • Classical guitarists use their dominant hand fingers to pluck the strings. Players shape their fingernails, much the way a clarinetist will shape their reed to achieve a desired tone.
  • Strumming is a less common technique in classical guitar, and is often referred to by the Spanish term "rasgueo", or for strumming patterns "rasgueado", and utilises the backs of the fingernails. Rasgueado is integral to Flamenco guitar.
  • Tuning pegs (or "keys") at the head the fingerboard of a classical guitar point backwards (towards the player when the guitar is in playing position; perpendicular to the plane of the fretboard). This is in contrast to a traditional steel-string guitar design, in which the tuning pegs point outward (up and down from playing position; parallel to the plane of the fretboard).
  • The overall design of a Classical Guitar is very similar to the slightly lighter and smaller Flamenco guitar.

Parts of the guitar

Acoustic guitar parts.png
Parts of typical classical guitars, numbered
  1. 1 Headstock
  2. 2 Nut
  3. 3 Machine heads (or pegheads, tuning keys, tuning machines, tuners)
  4. 4 Fretwires
  5. 7 Neck
  6. 8 Heel
  7. 9 Body
  8. 12 Bridge saddle (Bridge nut)
  9. 14 Bottom deck
  10. 15 Sound board
  11. 16 Body sides
  12. 17 Sound hole, with rosette inlay
  13. 18 Strings
  14. 19 Bridge
  15. 20 Fretboard

See also: An Illustrated Glossary (Fretted instrument terminology)


The fretboard (also called the fingerboard) is a piece of wood embedded with metal fretwires that constitutes the top of the neck. It is flat or slightly curved. The curvature of the fretboard is measured by the fretboard radius, which is the radius of a hypothetical circle of which the fretboard's surface constitutes a segment. The smaller the fretboard radius, the more noticeably curved the fretboard is. Pinching a string against the fretboard effectively shortens the vibrating length of the string, producing a higher tone (a string, unfingered, will vibrate from the saddle to the nut; once fingered, it will vibrate only along the distance between the saddle and the fretwire directly before the finger). Fretboards are most commonly made of ebony, but may also be made of rosewood or of phenolic composite ("micarta").


Frets are the metal strips (usually nickel alloy or stainless steel) embedded along the fingerboard and placed at points that divide the length of string mathematically. The strings' vibrating length is determined when the strings are pressed down behind the frets. Each fret produces a different pitch and each pitch spaced a half-step apart on the 12 tone scale. The ratio of the widths of two consecutive frets is the twelfth root of two (\sqrt[12]{2}), whose numeric value is about 1.059463. The twelfth fret divides the string in two exact halves and the 24th fret (if present) divides the string in half yet again. Every twelve frets represents one octave. This arrangement of frets results in equal tempered tuning. For more on fret spacing, see the Strings and Tuning section.

Frets are placed at fractions of the length of a string (the string midpoint is at the 12th fret; one-third the length of the string reaches from the nut to the 7th fret, the 7th fret to the 19th, and the 19th to the saddle; one-quarter reaches from nut to fifth to twelfth to twenty-fourth to saddle). This feature is helpful when playing harmonics.

Frets are usually the first permanent part to wear out on a heavily played guitar. They can be re-shaped to a certain extent and can be replaced as needed. Frets are available in several different gauges, depending on the type of guitar and the player's requirements.


A classical guitar's frets, fretboard, tuners, headstock, and truss rod, all attached to a long wooden extension, collectively constitute its neck. The wood used to make the fretboard will usually differ from the wood in the rest of the neck. The bending stress on the neck is considerable, particularly when heavier gauge strings are used (see Strings and tuning), and the ability of the neck to resist bending (see Truss rod) is important to the guitar's ability to hold a constant pitch during tuning or when strings are fretted. The rigidity of the neck with respect to the body of the guitar is one determinant of a good instrument versus a poor one. The shape of the back of the neck can also vary, from a gentle "C" curve to a more pronounced "V" curve.

Neck joint or 'heel'

This is the point at which the neck meets the body of the guitar. In the traditional Spanish neck joint the neck and block are one piece with the sides inserted into slots cut in the block. Other necks are built separately and joined to the body either with a dovetail joint, mortise or flush joint. These joints are usually glued and can be reinforced with mechanical fasteners. Recently many manufacturers use bolt on fasteners. Bolt on neck joints were once associated only with less expensive instruments but now some top manufacturers and hand builders are using variations of this method. Some people believed that the Spanish style one piece neck/block and glued dovetail necks have better sustain, but testing has failed to confirm this. While most traditional Spanish style builders use the one piece neck/heel block, Fleta a prominent Spanish builder used a dovetail joint due to the influence of his early training in violin making. One reason for the introduction of the mechanical joints was to make it easier to repair necks. This is more of a problem with steel string guitars than with nylon strings which have about half the string tension. This is why nylon string guitars often don't include a truss rod either.


The body of the instrument is a major determinant of the overall sound variety for acoustic guitars. The guitar top, or soundboard, is a finely crafted and engineered element often made of spruce, red cedar or mahogany. This thin (often 2 or 3 mm thick) piece of wood, strengthened by different types of internal bracing, is considered to be the most prominent factor in determining the sound quality of a guitar. The majority of the sound is caused by vibration of the guitar top as the energy of the vibrating strings is transferred to it. Different patterns of wood bracing have been used through the years by luthiers (Torres, Hauser, Ramírez, Fleta, and C.F. Martin being among the most influential designers of their times); to not only strengthen the top against collapsing under the tremendous stress exerted by the tensioned strings, but also to affect the resonation of the top. The back and sides are made out of a variety of woods such as mahogany, Indian rosewood and highly regarded Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra). Each one is chosen for its aesthetic effect and structural strength, and such choice can also play a significant role in determining the instrument's timbre. These are also strengthened with internal bracing, and decorated with inlays and purfling.

The body of a classical guitar is a resonating chamber which projects the vibrations of the body through a sound hole, allowing the acoustic guitar to be heard without amplification. The sound hole is normally a round hole in the top of the guitar (under the strings), though some may have different placement, shapes or multiple holes.

An instrument's maximum volume is determined by how much air it can move.

Binding, purfling and kerfing

The top, back and sides of a classical guitar body are very thin (1–2 mm), so a flexible piece of wood called kerfing (because it is often scored, or kerfed to allow it to bend with the shape of the rim) is glued into the corners where the rim meets the top and back. This interior reinforcement provides 5 to 20 mm of solid gluing area for these corner joints.

During final construction, a small section of the outside corners is carved or routed out and then filled with binding material on the outside corners and decorative strips of material next to the binding, which are called purfling. This binding serves to seal off the endgrain of the top and back. Binding and purfling materials are generally made of either wood or high quality plastic materials.


The main purpose of the bridge on a classical guitar is to transfer the vibration from the strings to the soundboard, which vibrates the air inside of the guitar, thereby amplifying the sound produced by the strings. The bridge holds the strings in place on the body. Also, the position of the saddle, usually a strip of bone or plastic across the bridge upon which the strings rest, determines the distance to the nut (at the top of the fingerboard). This distance defines the positions of the harmonic nodes for the strings over the fretboard, and is the basis of intonation. Intonation refers to the property that the actual frequency of each string at each fret matches what those frequencies should be according to music theory. Because of the physical limitations of fretted instruments, intonation is at best approximate; thus, the guitar's intonation is said to be tempered. The twelfth, or octave, fret resides directly under the first harmonic node (half-length of the string), and in the tempered fretboard, the ratio of distances between consecutive frets is approximately 1.06 (see "Frets" above).


The modern full size classical guitar has a scale size of around 650 mm (25.6 inches), with an overall instrument length of 965-1016 mm (38-40 inches). The scale size has remained consistently between 640-650 mm (25.2- 25.6 inches) since 650 mm was chosen by the originator of the instrument, Antonio de Torres. This length was probably chosen as twice the length of a violin string. As the guitar is tuned to one octave below that of the violin, the same size gut could be used for the 1st strings of both instruments.

Smaller scale instruments are produced to assist children in learning the instrument as the smaller scale leads to the frets being closer together making it easier for smaller hands. The scale size for the smaller guitars is usually in the range 484-578 mm (19-22.5 inches) with an instrument length of 785-915 mm (31-36 inches). Full size instruments are sometimes referred to as 4/4, while the smaller sizes are 3/4, 1/2 or 1/4.[44]

Scale size table

These sizes are not absolute, as luthiers may choose variations around these nominal sizes.

  • 4/4 650 mm (25.6 inches)
  • 3/4 578 mm (22.75 inches)
  • 1/2 522 mm (20.5 inches)
  • 1/4 484 mm (19 inches)


A variety of different tunings are used. The most common by far, which one could call the "standard tuning" is:

  • eI - b - g - d - A - E

The above order, is the tuning from the 1st string (highest-pitched string e', physically visible as the bottom string when correctly holding a guitar) to the 6th string (lowest-pitched string E, physically visible as the top string, and hence usually comfortable to be plucked with the thumb).

String Sci. pitch Helmholtz pitch Interval from middle C Semitones from A440 Freq., if using an Equal temperament tuning (using \sqrt[12]{2} = 2^{(\frac{1}{12})})
1st (highest pitch) E4 e' major third above -5 440 \rm{ Hz}\cdot (\sqrt[12]{2})^{-5} \approx 329.63 Hz
2nd B3 b minor second below -10 440 \rm{ Hz}\cdot (\sqrt[12]{2})^{-10} \approx 246.94 Hz
3rd G3 g perfect fourth below -14 440 \rm{ Hz}\cdot (\sqrt[12]{2})^{-14} \approx 196.00 Hz
4th D3 d minor seventh below -19 440 \rm{ Hz}\cdot (\sqrt[12]{2})^{-19} \approx 146.83 Hz
5th A2 A minor tenth below -24 440 \rm{ Hz}\cdot (\sqrt[12]{2})^{-24} = 110 Hz
6th (lowest pitch) E2 E minor thirteenth below -29 440 \rm{ Hz}\cdot (\sqrt[12]{2})^{-29} \approx 82.41 Hz

This tuning is such that neighboring strings are at most 5 semitones apart and this has a pragmatic reason which is outlined below - see Rationale.

A guitar using this tuning, enables one to properly tune the strings relative to one another, by the fact the 5th fret on one string is the same note as the next open string i.e. a 5th fret note on the 6th string is the same note as the 5th string, apart from between the third and second string, where the 4th fret note on the third string equals the second string. (The requirement is of course a well-crafted instrument with correct fret-placement.) This tuning has evolved to provide a good compromise between simple fingering for many chords and the ability to play common scales with minimal left hand movement. There are also a variety of commonly used alternate tunings.

Rationale of the tuning, in relation to frets and the left hand

The lateral position of the left hand determines which frets the fingers can reach (or more precisely: onto which frets the strings can be pushed down with the fingers). Keeping the left hand fixed, usually allows a span of 4 consecutive frets to be reachable (by using the following 4 consecutive left-hand fingers: index, middle, ring, small).

The tuning of the strings, is such, that one can play all chromatic notes occurring between 2 consecutive strings, by using the frets of the lower-tuned string without having to change the hand-position (I): Thus to move progressively from the pitch of a open lower string to the next higher string, we can use

  1. 1st fret of the lower string (with index finger)
  2. then the 2nd fret (with middle finger)
  3. then the 3rd fret (with ring finger)
  4. then the 4th fret (with little finger)
  5. then finally we reach the higher-pitched string (open string).

Since these are 5 steps (and consecutive frets are a semitone apart) it would be ideal if consecutive strings are tuned 5 semitones apart. In fact this is the very tuning that is most often used for the guitar, with the small exception that the 2nd and 3rd string are tuned 4 semitones apart:

open 1st fret (index) 2nd fret (middle) 3rd fret (ring) 4th fret (little)
1st string e' f' f' g' a'
2nd string b c' c' d' e'
3rd string g a a b ...
4th string d e e f f
5th string A B B c c
6th string E F F G A
Chromatic note progression

It is important to note that the relative harmonic ratio (e.g. semitones-steps) between neighboring strings, does not change when moving up the frets. For example when considering the 1st and 2nd strings: e' to b (open strings) is like f' to c' (1st fret) is like f' to c' (2nd fret) etc.

The bass strings have a particular tuning which is harmonically related to the main typical keys in which most works are performed, since the bass strings can be plucked openly (providing a harmonic bass) at any time, irrespective of the lateral fret-position at which the left hand happens to be located.

The "lowest" fret-position is position I: this is when the left hand is positioned such that the index finger is over the 1st fret (the small finger can comfortably reach the 4th fret) The next-higher fret-position is position II: this is when the left hand is positioned closer to the guitar's body, such that the index finger is now over the 2nd fret (the small finger can comfortably reach the 5th fret) etc.

The higher the left hand's fret-position, the more a string is shortened when a string is pressed against an available higher fret: this results in a higher pitch from that string.

Playable/Reachable notes of the guitar

Important for the notes playable on the guitar, are

  • the left-hand's position, since it determines the reachable frets
  • the open strings, since they can always be played, irrespective of the left-hand's position. (This is of particular importance with regard to the bass strings.)

When moving the hand to such a higher-pitched fret-position, previously played lower notes are still playable without having to move the lateral hand-position back: this is possible by pressing a lower-pitched string towards an appropriate higher fret in the new higher fret-position. e.g. f#' on the 1st string in position I is usually fretted with the left-hand's middle finger. The same f#' pitch can be played in e.g. position V by using the 2nd string and fretting the 7th fret with the 3rd finger.

0 1 2 3 4
1st string e' f' f' g' ... ...
2nd string e' f' f' g'
1 2 3 4

(1 = left-hand index finger; 2 = left-hand middle finger; etc.)

Thus one and the same note (in terms of pitch) can be played on different strings (by using appropriate frets), because the pitches of consecutive strings are only at most 5 semitones apart.


See also


  1. ^ "Aquila Corde Armoniche". Aquila USA. 
  2. ^ "The Guitar Family Tree". Dennis Cinelli. 
  3. ^ Classical vs. Flamenco Guitar Construction (Fernandez Music)
  4. ^ "FAQ about Classical Guitars and Flamenco Guitars". Zavaleta's La Casa de Guitarras. 
  5. ^ "Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung: mit besonderer Rücksicht auf den österreichischen Kaiserstaat, 1823". 
  6. ^ "Agustin Barrios's Jose Maria Dura Argente publisher= Acoustic Guitar; January 2008 by Federico Sheppard". 
  7. ^ "Interview with Bernard Hebb". 
  8. ^ "Two String Trills". Tip of the Season. David Russell. 
  9. ^ "Interview with David Russell - mp3 (tracktime 10:35 - 24:00)". Two string trills. Classical Guitar Alive. 
  10. ^ "John Williams Interview with Austin Prichard-Levy". The Twang Box Dynasty. 
  11. ^ The Classical Mandolin by Paul Sparks (1995)
  12. ^ Early Romantic Guitar
  13. ^ Stalking the Oldest Six String Guitar
  14. ^ "The Reproducing Piano Roll Foundation". 
  15. ^ "The Pianola Institute". 
  16. ^ "Golden Era 63 Early Classical Guitar Solos 1908-1955 CD". Fine Fretted String Instruments. 
  17. ^ "Classic Record Collector", Autumn 2002
  18. ^ "Mario Maccaferri, Concert Harp Guitarist". Harpguitars.,macc.htm. 
  19. ^ "Agustin Barrios - The Complete Guitar Recordings 1913-1942". Chanterelle Verlag. 
  20. ^ "Miguel Llobet - Historical Recordings 1925-1929". Chanterelle Verlag. 
  21. ^ "Luigi Mozzani". 
  22. ^ "Icon: Andrés Segovia (includes the same works as: "Recordings 1927-1939" and "The Legendary Andrés Segovia")". EMI. 
  23. ^ a b c d e "Segovia and his contemporaries". Doremi. 
  24. ^ "Villa-Lobos plays Villa-Lobos". SanCtuS Recordings. 
  25. ^ "Pasquale Taraffo - playing his Sonatina in A Major". Devega Scores by Sinfonica. 
  26. ^ "Pasquale Taraffo - A Legend of the Guitar". Devega. 
  27. ^ "Pasquale Taraffo". Harp Guitar. 
  28. ^ "Golden Era 43: Abel Fleury (1903-58) - The Poet of the Guitar 1935-54". Fine Fretted String Instruments. 
  29. ^ "Italo Meschi, the Last Italian Troubadour". Harpguitar. 
  30. ^ 12345678
  31. ^ "Francisco Tárrega - Selección de Obras (book and recording)". Adrián Rius Espinós. 
  32. ^ "Luise Walker recordings". 
  33. ^ "Biography: Julio Martínez Oyanguren". Guitarra Magazine, Issue 3, Page: 16. 
  34. ^ "Recordings of Julio Martínez Oyanguren". Oviatt Library Digital Collections. 
  35. ^ "Golden Era CDs". Fine Fretted String Instruments. 
  36. ^ "Italian String Virtuosi (1908-1930)". Rounder. 
  37. ^ a b Carlo Barone. "Accademia "l'Ottocento"". 
  38. ^ "Introduction to Classical Guitar Music: A Classical Guitar Primer". 
  39. ^ a b c Italian presentation of Carlo Barone's recording ref.
  40. ^ "Fernando Sor - Master Composer For Guitar?". Lawrence Johnson. 
  41. ^ The Early Nineteenth Century Guitar (page 24) by Adrian Charles Walter
  42. ^ The Early Nineteenth Century Guitar: An Interpretive Context for the Contemporary Performer; with a specific focus on the compositions of Mauro Giuliani and Fernando Sor by Adrian Charles Walter (2008; Charles Darwin University - Casuarina Campus Library)
  43. ^ a b Carlo Barone. "Advanced Studies 19th Century Style and Performance Practice". Accademia "l'Ottocento". 
  44. ^ How to Choose the correct size & type of Guitar for a Child

External links

Scores (Sheetmusic)

in the public domain

includes Sor, Giuliani, autographs by J.K. Mertz, etc.
(Index - Online access to pdf, via "Connect to resource or more info")

Guitar History - Types of Guitars

Photos and Images

Online catalog - Search for guitarra
Instruments et oeuvres d'art - search-phrase: Mot-clé(s) : guitare
Facteurs d'instruments - search-phrase: Instrument fabriqué : guitare
Photothèque - search-phrase: Instrument de musique, ville ou pays : guitare



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