There are two basic types of acoustic guitars: The classical guitar, which has nylon strings, and the steel-string guitar, which, interestingly enough, has steel strings. There is also a separate category that is the electric guitar, but I won’t discuss it here because it is always best to start your education on an acoustic guitar. This post is meant to help you decide on which of the two types of acoustic guitar it is best for you to start with.
The Classical Guitar
The classical guitar has a wide neck, a relatively small body, nylon strings, and a head with holes. The sound it makes is soft, deep, and well-balanced, with a good bass register. It is the universal instrument, and the styles of music that can be played on it include classical, jazz, flamenco, and pop.
This guitar has a long history, and it is the ancestor of all modern types of guitars. This is the guitar on which the classical school and technique is based on, and it also works well as an accompanying instrument for vocals. However, due to the lack of transparency of its sound, it is rarely used for chord accompaniment, even though a pickup system and an equalizer can easily fix this. This guitar is used by all classical and Spanish flamenco guitarists. I also use the classical guitar to play a very wide variety of music.
Steel String Guitar
This is the guitar that most people imagine when they hear “acoustic” guitar, even though the classical guitar is also in the acoustic category.
This guitar has a narrow neck, a larger body than that of a classical guitar, steel strings, and a head WITHOUT holes. It sounds loud and ringy. Its bass register is not as clear as a classical guitar’s. Because of its ringing sound, it sounds great in a group as a chord accompaniment. With a pick, it produces a very powerful, full, and characterized sound. Originally, it was used only as an accompanying instrument, but later on it was used a solo instrument, with musicians such as Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel, and Andy McKee using a technique called “fingerstyle.”
So which one should I use?
Any professionally trained teacher would advise you to start learning on a classical guitar, and he will be right. This type of guitar will help you master the basics of classical technique, which is the basis of all other styles of guitar technique. This “fingerstyle” technique, for example, is really just an extension of classical technique. In the long run, you will be able to play any type of guitar, but it is best and most proper to start on the classical.
Nylon strings are much softer and pleasing to the touch than metal ones, so it’s a lot easier to master all the basic technical skills. Because the strings are farther apart from each other, it is easier to practice arpeggios (finger-picking patterns) in the right hand. The classical guitar also has a much wider variety of timbre possibilities, so you will be able to polish you skills in differentiating between different qualities of sound and its dependence of the angle at which you pluck the string.
Another advantage is a financial one. A fairly good-sounding student classical guitar is relatively cheap. For example, a Hohner HC-06 or a Valencia is pretty cheap and sound rather pleasant.
However, if you try to take a steel-string guitar from that price range, it is most often a very bad quality instrument with unstable tuning that dries out fast. I don’t deny the possibility that there might be cheap and good-quality steel-string guitars, but I haven’t found them. As a rule, they cost much more than classical guitars.
Whatever you do, don’t buy a guitar without consulting your teacher. Very often do people show up to their first lessons with recently bought guitars on which it’s simply impossible to play.
Finally, many people think that a classical guitar is good only for classical music. That is absolutely not true. It’s a universal instrument, and its technique will allow you to play in any style, because it is the basis of ALL guitar technique.
Notes: I often get asked if it’s possible to string a steel-string guitar with nylon strings. You can, but it will sound very bad, quiet, and weak, because steel-string guitars, as the name suggests, are built specifically for steel strings. Nylon strings sound good ONLY on classical guitars. However, never string a classical guitar with steel strings. The wood on these guitars is not strong enough to support steel strings, so it is very likely that the neck and bridge may start cracking under the tension of the strings.
Classical guitar brands: Hohner HC-06 (Or some other model, but only with nylon strings!), Valencia, Yamaha, Admira, Sanchez, Almansa.