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How to Choose a

Nylon-string Guitar

FELIX SALAZAR, COURTESY GUITAR SALON INTERNATIONAL

A specialty store,
such as Guitar Salon
International in Santa
Monica, California, allows
careful comparison of
classical guitars at all levels.

Classical Shopper
How to choose and shop for a classical guitar
By Teja Gerken

So youre getting ready to buy a classical guitar. In


many parts of the world, nylon-string guitars are
what youre most likely to find in any music store,
but the American market is dominated by steelstrings, so shopping for a classical or nylon-string
guitar can be more of a challenge. Whether youre
a beginner looking to buy a classical as your first
guitar, a steel-string player who wants to diversify,
or a serious classical player who wants to step up
to a luthier-made instrument, there are lots of
great guitars available. In this article, well look at
how to choose and find a classical guitar that will
be right for you.
QUALITY CHECKS
Classical guitars are available in a huge price
range. But, because they lack some of the

obvious identifying features of steel-strings


distinct body and headstock shapes, inlays, pickguards, electronics, etc.classical guitars can
look very similar, regardless of the price. But
many of the indications of a steel-string guitars
overall quality also apply to nylon-strings. For
example, if youre looking for an affordable
instrument, a guitar with a solid rather than
laminated (plywood) top will typically yield a
better sound.
Similarly, the guitars finish shouldnt be so
thick that you can see it bunching up in areas like
the neck/body joint or where the fingerboard is
glued to the top, because that will inhibit the
sound more than a thinner finish. The rules for
checking intonation (comparing a fretted note
and harmonic at the 12th fret) are also the same,

and you should make sure that the guitars saddle


has enough room left to lower the action if that
should become necessary.
ENTRY-LEVEL INSTRUMENTS
Since inexpensive nylon-strings are the worlds
most common guitars, there are numerous
choices. And because of their somewhat simpler
construction (and greater demand), you can actually buy an adequate beginners nylon-string for
less than a comparable steel-string: Guitars
offering solid-top construction (with laminated
wood back and sides) for less than $300. Most
guitar companies that offer entry-level instruments include classical models in their lines, so
you can also find similar instruments from Dean,
Fender, Ibanez, Washburn, and others. Even

brands known for their higher-end classicals, such


as Crdoba and Rodriguez, include entry-level
instruments in their catalogs. In general, guitars
in this price range are good choices for guitarists
who are starting their classical studies or are relatively casual about their nylon-string playing.
MID-PRICE INSTRUMENTS
The range of guitars found between entry-level
classicals and luthier-made professional grade
instruments is a vast one. Because most of these
guitars share similar designs and construction
techniques, and are built with all solid woods,
the difference between the lower end of the
spectrum comes down to the quality of the materials used and the degree of individualized attention given in the construction process. The
majority of guitars in this range are made in
China, Japan, and Spain, with some North Americanmade guitars offered as well.
Guitars in this range are great choices for many
players. If youre a beginner and can afford it,
buying one of these guitars will mean that you
wont need to upgrade as soon as if youd started
with an entry-level guitar. The upper end of this
range is popular with guitarists who play classical
guitar as a serious hobby or who are accomplished
players but arent performing acoustically in large
halls. Outfitted with a pickup (either as an acousticelectric version from the factory or with aftermarket
electronics), these are the guitars most often used
by people who play nylon-string in a band context.
In addition, many pro players whose main instrument is a custom-made guitar often use these
guitars for playing restaurant or wedding gigs.
LUTHIER-MADE GUITARS
One of the most significant distinctions between
classical and steel-string guitars is that, traditionally, classicals have been hand-made in small
shops, while steel-strings have until fairly
recently been the domain of factories. And while
there are now many high-end classicals coming
out of factories in Spain, Japan, and China, there
is still an important difference: While pro-level
steel-string players often use factory-made
instruments, there are virtually no top-level classical performers who use a factory-made guitar.
For this reason, high-end luthier-made classicals
are referred to as concert-level guitars, as
opposed to student guitars. Its not that factorymade classicals arent as good as their steelstring counterparts, but because classical
performers have exacting requirements for the
playability of their instruments and often play
unamplified to large audiences, they require
guitars that offer the highest performance in all
areas.
High-end classical guitars were once the
domain of European luthiers, especially those in
Spain and Germany. But today the craft is an international one, with many American builders taking
the lead. Luthier-made classicals start at around
$4,000, with designs that range from copies of
famous vintage guitars to highly advanced

contemporary instruments with modern features


such as double tops, lattice bracing, and arched
backs. Renowned contemporary classical builders
include such American makers as Kenny Hill, Dake
Traphagen, and Stephen Connor; Australias Greg
Smallman; Germanys Gernot Wagner; and Spains
Paulino Bernabe and Manuel Contreras, among
many others.
WHERE TO BUY A CLASSICAL GUITAR
Finding a good classical guitar isnt difficult, but
if youre in the market for something other than
an entry-level instrument, youll have to look
past the chain stores and even your local independent guitar store, unless youre lucky enough
to live in an area with a shop that specializes in
classicals. Many guitar shops keep a selection of
entry- to mid-level instruments in stock, especially if they carry steel-strings by manufacturers
who also make nylon-string guitars. Unless you
know exactly what youre looking for, ask if the
store has an employee who specializes in classical guitars. If youre taking lessons, dont hesitate to ask your teacher about instrument
choices, and even see if he or she would be
willing to accompany you on a shopping trip.
If youre in the market for a high-end
concert instrument, your best bet is to seek out a
specialty store such as Guitar Solo in San Francisco, California; Rosewood Guitars in Seattle,
Washington; or Trilogy Guitars in Playa del Rey,
California. There are also specialty dealers with
by-appointment showrooms who sell instruments
online and over the phone such as Guitars International in Cleveland, Ohio; The Guitar Salon in
New York City; and Guitar Salon International in
Santa Monica, California. Some shops and
by-appointment guitar boutiques that carry
high-end luthier-made steel-strings, such as
Dream Guitars in Asheville, North Carolina;
Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto, California; Guitar Gallery in Franklin, Tennessee; and
Mandolin Brothers, in Staten Island, New York,
also offer a selection of classicals.
Guitar shows and exhibitions are also
excellent places to check out luthier-made classicals and to meet their builders. Classical-oriented events such as the annual GFA (Guitar
Foundation of America) convention (location
varies every year) and La Guitarra California,
feature specific exhibit areas for luthiers who specialize in classical guitars, as do other more
general guitar shows.
HAVE FUN!
Even though hunting for the right classical guitar
might be a bit more work than shopping for a
steel-string, dont forget to enjoy the process. The
classical guitar world is a tight-knit community,
and youll discover that once you begin looking,
many resources will open up to you. As you begin
checking out various guitars, make sure to enjoy
their tonal subtleties, playability, and designs, and
before you know it, youll have an ideal partner
for playing Bach, Scarlatti, or Trrega.

Spruce

Cedar

SPRUCE OR
CEDAR TOP?
If you hang out with classical
guitarists, youll find that
the first question they tend
to ask about an instrument
is whether its top is made
from spruce or cedar. Its
safe to say that most classical
players tend to feel much
stronger about their guitars
top woods than what its back
and sides are made of, and
many are partial to one or
the other, regardless of the
instruments style or maker.
Popularized by Jos Ramrez
guitars in the 1960s, cedar
often has a round tone with
a sensitive attack and the
growl associated with
Spanish guitars. Spruce is
often brighter sounding but
has a larger dynamic range.
Both kinds of woods are
available on guitars at every
price level.
The latest development in
classical design is the double
top, a design that sandwiches
a honeycombed layer of a
Kevlar material called Nomex
between two extremely thin
pieces of wood for a very
lightweight, yet strong
superstructure. Some luthiers
who build with double tops
use one type of wood on the
outside and another on the
inside, thereby combining
the qualities of both.

CLASSICAL
VS. STEEL-STRING
Some differences between
classical and steel-string guitars
are more obvious than others.
And while there are many
variations and exceptions to
every rule, here are some of
the key features that distinguish
a classical guitar from a steelstring.

NO TRUSS ROD
Since nylon strings put much less
tension on the neck than steel
strings, classical guitars are
traditionally built without a truss
rod. Some contemporary builders
include truss rods to make the
necks adjustable, but theyre in
the minority.

WIDE NECK
While the necks on most steelstring guitars have a width at
the nut between 11116 and 178
inches, classicals tend to be
much wider, more in the
neighborhood of 2 inches.
In addition, most classicals have
a more pronounced neck profile
and a flatter shape that makes
it easier to play with the thumb
resting in the center of the neck.

TIE-ON BRIDGE
Because nylon strings are more
flexible than steel strings, they
typically come without ball-ends
and are instead tied to the bridge
behind the saddle.

FLAT FINGERBOARDS
WITH NO INLAY
Although some modern classical
guitars are built with a slight
fingerboard radius, the vast
majority are completely flat.
And while most steel-strings
have position markers or other
inlay in the fingerboard, classical
guitar fingerboards are almost
always plain.
SLOTTED HEADSTOCK
This is a feature classicals share
with some vintage-style steelstrings, but with the exception
of flamenco guitars that use
violin-style friction tuning pegs,
solid headstocks are almost
never used on classical guitars.

SPANISH-FOOT
NECK JOINT
Most classical guitars are built
with a Spanish-foot (sometimes
also called Spanish heel or
Spanish boot) neck joint.
This type of construction directly
integrates the neck and body
during the guitars construction
the sides are glued into slots in
the neck block, which extends to
the inside of the guitars back,
creating a foot-like shape.
LIGHT BRACING
Again, because nylon strings have
much lower tension than steel
strings, classical guitars are
braced very lightly. Most classical
guitar tops are braced with a
fan pattern (originally developed
by Antonio de Torres in the late
1800s) rather than the X-bracing
most typical for steel-strings, but
some contemporary instruments
use a lattice pattern instead.

Jos Ramirez 125 Aos