We've nearly finished our very first guitar course focussed on Classical Guitar!
Traditionally, guitarists eventually have to decide whether they want to focus on playing classical guitar or "contemporary music" (which really, is pretty much everything that's not classical).
This approach has always frustrated me for 3 reasons:
- I've never met a guitarist who ONLY wanted to play one style of music
- Thinking of yourself as a "Classical Guitarist" or a "Jazz Guitarist" invariably holds you back creatively
- Fundamentally, we're still playing the same instrument, so there's still a lot of crossover between styles
That being said, learning classical requires a high degree of discipline and drive (especially when you're first getting into the genre) because there are techniques and skills unique to the style.
So, is classical guitar for you? Here's a quick summary to help you decide.
What is "Classical Guitar"?
Strictly speaking, the classical period was from around 1730-1820, when composers like Mozart, Beethoven and JC Bach (not his Dad, JS Bach) were alive and composing.
'But wait,' I hear you history buffs saying, 'the modern acoustic guitar wasn't invented until the 1850s!'
That's sort of true. But there were other, earlier forms of guitars and lutes from well before the Classical period.
And, more importantly, most classical pieces were originally written for another instrument - not the guitar. Some songs translate really easily but others are impossible due to the limitations of our instrument.
But, when we talk about Classical Guitar today, we are really referring to a broader period of music including pieces from the Baroque, Romantic, Impressionist, Traditional Spanish and even 'modern' times.
Confused? That's ok. The boundaries of what is and isn't a classical guitar piece are not very well defined.
A better way to think of classical guitar is "arrangements of songs for the nylon string guitar, played with fingers".
Do I need a different guitar?
It's not vital...but it will make life so much easier if you have a nylon string guitar to play classical.
There's 3 main reasons:
- Most arrangements of classical pieces are written for the sound and timbre of a nylon string guitar
- The neck is wider, which makes it easier to clearly fret and pick challenging chords and melodies
- There's unique ways to play the nylon string to give pieces more flavour or colour which you just can't really emulate on a steel string or electric.
Some classical players even go so far as to play on baroque guitars or more traditional instruments for a more authentic sound.
What are the main skills needed to play classical guitar?
First, almost all of your fundamental skills (chord shapes, fretboard knowledge, rhythm, dynamics etc) are just as important in classical as any other style, so there's no need to focus on classical until you've got the guitar basics down.
But, there are a few techniques that become far, far more important for classical than other styles, which you'll eventually need to become proficient in to become a classical master.
You can find tabs for many classical pieces...but the reality is, most music in this genre is written in standard notation.
That means, to learn more advanced songs, you're going to have to learn how to read notation and translate it to the guitar.
In almost every other genre, you can get away with ignoring this skill and still becoming a great musician. Skipping sight reading if you're a rock player will only cause problems for you on the rare occasion when you need to be able to transpose a song or work out a tricky rhythm that you can't use your ears to work out.
In classical, if you can't read the music, you're going to find it really, really hard to learn classical pieces.
But don't worry - sight reading music is not hard. It's just a skill that few guitarists master.
The key is to shift yourself away from tabs and chord charts and into notation for all classical pieces.
Yes, it will be a sharp learning curve. Yes, it takes a bit more mental energy.
But after a few months of practice, you likely won't even have to think about "where is that note on the guitar", and you'll be able to work out any piece in full just from looking at a page of music.
Unconscious sight-reading. How cool would that be?
Classical is played with the fingers (traditionally, all of your fingers except your pinky).
This gives you a lot more flexibility than using a pick, but you'll be doing a lot less strumming than in most other styles of music.
It takes co-ordination, but I've met classical players who can rival my picking speeds on a single string - and I'd consider myself a pretty fast pick player!
This technique is actually pretty easy to work on and practice, because it's mostly about getting patterns into your muscle memory.
When I first changed my focus to classical guitar, I sat down with Mauro Guilliani's 120 right hand exercises and played them over and over for more than an hour a day.
Nowadays, I only really focus on classical playing for students, but those initial hours invested mean I don't really have to consciously think about what fingers I'm using to play a new classical piece - it just happens the same way strumming does for a pop player.
Interpretation and Dynamics
For modern pieces, you can just press play on the recording to hear the feel, dynamics and mood.
In classical, it's up to you to interpret the information on the page yourself.
This means you'll likely be a lot more conscious of how you play the piece than in other styles, because really, you're often trying to understand what a long-dead composer wanted a particular phrase to sound like!
Even though this skill applies to every style, you'll invariably think about it differently when playing classical due to the lack of original recordings.
How is classical guitar practice different to other guitar practice?
If I had to sum it up, I'd say classical is generally more structured and organised to practice than other styles.
Typically, you'd spend some time working on sight-reading (always new pieces, to make sure we're not playing from memory), techniques (picking patterns, trills etc) and then a couple of pieces.
Unlike rock, you'll more likely work on full pieces rather than just a riff or chorus.
Finally, whilst there are awesome classical duets, most classical pieces are solo, so it is a more individual style of playing.
So, is classical guitar for you?
Ask yourself these 5 questions:
- Do you enjoy playing with your fingers?
- Are you willing to learn to read standard notation?
- Do you enjoy playing on your own (as opposed to in a band)?
- Do you prefer to play things pretty much "as intended" (as opposed to improvising or making parts up)?
- Do you like listening to classical guitar pieces?
If you answered yes to most of the above, definitely give it a go.
For me, classical was a great break from metal. It was something I could do on my own, with really clear goals (eg. learn this piece) and it fit my love of keeping my practice super-organised.
However, I prefer playing with others. I prefer an element of spontaneity and improvisation in my performances, and to be honest, I prefer listening to classical piano than classical guitar pieces, so classical is definitely not the only style I play.
And that's ok. To come back to my original point, you don't have to be a 'classical player' or a 'contemporary' plater - just be a guitarist and learn the styles that interest you most.
It's often the combination of your skills and interests, not your proficiency in one area, that define you as a player.
The Classical Fundamentals Book 1 will be available in our teaching studio for all current students and online as a PDF download for our online readers in April.