Classical Guitar: Questions & Answers
The information below is the opinion of a CSGS member and not necessarily that of the CSGS.
- I'm interested; what do I need to do to start?
Contact a local guitar instructor. For youths 13 and up, and adults, I recommend
personalized instruction. Children as young as three can learn using the Suzuki
method, through Foothills Guitar (http://www.foothillsguitar.com)
or 660-2355. If you read many of the columns and articles on the
web, you'll see that many self-taught guitar players see a
significant increase in their abilities after they take guided
instruction. You could save yourself some frustration, time and
hassle by going straight to the instruction.
How do I select a guitar for a beginner / child?
A quality instructor or studio has available a specially selected
series of guitars sized especially for smaller people, in a variety
of sizes. Most music stores do not stock the 1/4-sized guitar the
younger children require. There are half-sized and sometimes 3/4
sized guitars at music stores. It would be best to discuss the
instrument with your instructor before buying. For a young student,
I recommend a laminate top guitar, as it is normally less expensive
and withstands changes in temperature and humidity much better. I
recommend beginning with a classical, nylon-string six-string
guitar. The following are only rough guidelines, since children grow
at slightly different rates. A young child (4-6 years) may need a
one-eighth or one-quarter sized guitar; please speak with your
instructor, as there may be other considerations. If the student is
a child 6-8 years of age, I recommend a half-sized guitar. If the
student is a child 8-11 years of age, I recommend considering a
three-quarter sized guitar. As the student grows, they will change
size, and should consider a larger instrument and perhaps a better
quality instrument. I recommend a hard guitar case, especially for
the better instruments. See the section below. An teenage or adult
student should consider a solid-top student grade guitar, available
in the US$250 to $800 range. A solid-top guitar has a single piece
of wood for the top soundboard, as opposed to a laminate (similar to
plywood), and is more sensitive to shock, humidity and temperature
changes. The best advice is to take someone along that already
plays, and listen to each guitar; select the one that "speaks
to you" and sounds the best to your ear.
What if the person is adult but somewhat petite or large?
For smaller people, consider a “parlor” guitar, which
has a somewhat smaller body and string length. You may need to
consult with a good shop which has a luthier on staff, rather than
the neighborhood “box store” that sells whatever is in
stock. You may wish to see a luthier for advice, or get with a
skilled instructor that is used to a variety of “sizes”
of people. The staff at Tejon Street Music (330 N Tejon, 634-2228) are
quite good at helping you with decisions, and usually have a
reasonable selection of instruments in stock. If you are
particularly large, as some 98th percentile males, you
may need a larger sized guitar for the higher frets to be sized
correctly. Again, consult with someone who is skilled in the area;
these are more guidelines than actual rules. Muriel Anderson stands
just over five feet tall, but plays full sized guitars
Should I get a case? What kind?
I recommend a case for the guitar to protect if from the nicks and
dings that come with unprotected use and handling. Most guitar shops
have a “didn't buy a case” exhibit of guitar fatalities
featuring broken headstocks and necks. For children, an inexpensive
“hard” case (usually a lightweight composite with a
cloth lining) is best. “Gig bags” or soft cases are much
less expensive, but provide very little protection. An adult student
or a student-grade guitar should have a hard case, such as the
Castle brand or a wood or fiberglass case. The case should fit the
instrument; if the instrument “rattles around” in the
case, it can be damaged. If the case is too tight, the instrument
could be crushed. If you plan on traveling with the instrument,
you'll need a much sturdier case, preferably of fiberglass. There
will be a separate paragraph on traveling or flying with a guitar.
Care & feeding of a guitar?
Children's guitars with laminate tops are fairly robust and will not
need special care beyond a periodic wiping-down using a soft cloth,
and changing the strings. Solid top guitars must have a
humidifier in the case; I recommend PlanetWave humidifiers that fit
in the strings. For smaller guitars, consider the smaller
humidifiers, such as those labeled as “for violins”. I
also recommend a hygrometer / thermometer (also PlanetWave), to
check the humidity. Use only distilled water; a 1 gallon jug will
last a very long time. Keep the guitar humidified, especially in the
winter, when indoor humidity is extremely low. Each time you change
the strings, wipe down the guitar body and fingerboard using a soft
cotton cloth, such as a well-washed diaper. (Buy a package, and toss
them in the laundry each time you do your “whites”.)
Once a year perhaps (no more frequently), and even less if the
tuning machines are high quality, lubricate the tuning machines with
a drop or two of TriFlow brand lubricant, available in a liquid form
with a special applicator from quality bicycle shops (do not
use the pressurized aerosol—it sprays all over the guitar
headstock). Store the guitar in its case, with its humidifier in
place. Change the strings when they will not stay in tune, or when
they sound or feel “dull” or “dead”. More
guitars are killed by heat than anything else; like babies and dogs,
please don't leave them locked up in a sunny car in summer. An
exposed car in the summer can get hot enough in a half hour to warp
guitar necks, melt joint glue, and crack the tops, even when it's
“shirtsleeve” weather outside. This is true for both
trunks (boots) and passenger compartments.
What strings should I use?
Different guitars sound differently using various strings, and some
people prefer one sound over another. I recommend D'Addario brand
strings. For smaller guitars, such as children's, the high tension,
such as the EJ-46, give a much better sound. The “tension”
of the string does not mean they are any harder or more difficult to
finger or fret. Try various brands, tensions, and types of strings
to find your preference. Do not string a classical,
nylon-string guitar body with metal acoustic guitar strings; the
added tension from the stronger strings will crush the guitar body
slowly, but surely. Trust me; I've seen it happen.
How long do strings last / how often should I change them?
How do I change them?
Different strings will have different lifetimes and will last
differently depending on how much you play. If you play about an
hour a day on weekdays, and two or more hours a day on weekends, a
set of normal-tension D'Addario strings will last about one to two
months. D'Addario composite strings such as EJ-45C or EJ-46C will
last one month to three months, depending on your playing and body
chemistry. Most strings take two days to a week to “stretch
in” after they're strung, for most players. Professional
players, of course, have very different requirements, demands,
preferences, and lifetimes to their strings. A very good tutorial on
changing strings is at http://www.frets.com,
I can recommend frets.com as a good site with lots of information.
One trick I learned (the hard way!) was to cut a piece of plastic
milk jug about three inches wide by two- or three-inches longer than
the bridge of the guitar. Using architect's masking tape (not
regular masking tape!), tape this plastic “guard” just
below the bridge, to protect the face in case the string breaks and
“lashes back” against the soundboard.
What books / music / method do you recommend to start?
For young children, I recommend there is the Suzuki method or the
ChildBloom method. For youth and adult students, try the Frederick
Noad Solo Guitar Playing Book 1, ISBN 0825694000. This book should
last you one to two years easily. Supplemental books and pieces will
depend on the student's preferences. A good supplemental book is
John Mills' Guitar Music From Student Repertoire, ISBN 0711929963.
Following these is of course Noad's Book 2. From there, you should
be able to make your own choices based on your music preferences.
I love this stuff, and I plan on flying / traveling
extensively with my guitar. What should I know?
Caveat: there's always preferences to consider. My preference is to
have a full-sized feeling guitar; the little “travel guitars”
(backpackers, whatever) just don't work for me; I can't put my right
arm where it belongs. And they don't really sound right to me. But
my ears are broken from too many primal screams during travel....
Flying with a guitar can be a real experience, some more pleasurable
than others. In today's flying environment, full sized guitars can
be an issue; most people are dragging roll-aboard water buffalo, and
will obliviously heave them on top of your guitar. Airlines may not
let the full-sized guitars aboard with you unless there's been some
arrangements made, perhaps requiring you to purchase a seat ticket
for the guitar. Then there's the baggage handlers, who are more
concerned with chucking bags than paying attention. If you must fly
with a full-sized guitar, you must have a
full-sized, fiberglass hardcase if you wish the guitar to arrive
(mostly) intact. You probably want an insulated case to reduce
thermal shock to the guitar, and a properly padded case to reduce
physical shock. The neck in particular needs support, so it isn't
broken free of the body by the shock of being dropped six feet onto
the concrete apron. Those who fly frequently with their guitars
usually purchase special cases with heavy fiberglass, extra
insulation and padding, and rubber seals to keep humidity up inside
the case. Some go to extra lengths, padding the headstock and neck
with (clean) spare underwear or cloth to provide more cushion; I've
seen some articles suggesting wrapping the neck and headstock in
bubble-wrap. You probably want a locking case, which you lock after
the baggage inspection but before checking the guitar. If possible,
gate-check the guitar at the door to the aircraft; there's less
baggage handling, no dropping it onto conveyor belts, and less
chance of damage or theft.
A word about traveling with a guitar in a gig bag: kindling.
Purchasing a nice, shiny aluminum hardcase for the guitar may result
in something strongly resembling a gun case, fairly screaming “STEAL
Consider a truly scruffy-looking, subdued, plain outside for the
case, and perhaps a case shape that is not screaming “valuable
guitar”. The less obviously it contains your precious guitar,
the less likely it is to attract unwanted attention from those with
“sticky fingers”. I use this approach on both my guitar
and my laptops / electronics, and have far fewer problems than some.
Then again, I could just be lucky so far. In one case, the musician
had two instruments in the car; one a custom instrument in its case,
carefully placed on top of other things; the other things were an
old coat and underneath all, a less valuable “beater”
guitar in an old case. A quick smash-and-grab while they stopped for
a show at the local mall, and a very expensive instrument was gone.
But the coat and other instrument, left in the dark recesses of the
back seat, were undisturbed. If they don't know it's there, they
don't know it can be stolen.
If you're traveling by automobile, treat the guitar like something
perishable. You won't need as heavy a case as when flying, but you
will have the added threat of thermal shock to the guitar and the
finish. As noted in the “Care and Feeding” section, hot
cars in the summer can kill a guitar quickly. What many people don't
know is that severe cold (near 0 deg F, about -17 deg C) can kill a
guitar finish, causing the natural finishes to check (crack into
squares) in as little as an hour. So, take the guitar into the hotel
with you overnight. If you're comfortable, the guitar will be
comfortable. And, if it can't be seen through the back window, it
won't be stolen.
As temperature drops, guitar strings contract, increasing tension on
the neck, bridge and soundboard of a standard guitar. Loosening the
strings may help compensate for this increase. Decreasing string
tension may help reduce the risk of damage should the case be
Consider one of the “silent guitars”. The Soloette, by
Wright Guitar, is a high-end model, but is wonderful for traveling.
It's solid wood, robust, fits in every overhead airline compartment
tried, sounds wonderful through the Graco headphones, and won't
bring complaints when you practice in your hotel room. A Y-jack and
a spare pair of headphones lets you share music with your
significant other, still without bothering the neighbors. If you
must share the sound more widely, you could use an amplifier or
“boom box” temporarily. Aria makes a “Sinsonido”
guitar under license from Wright, and is somewhat less expensive.
Similar guitars are made by the larger manufacturers as well.
Best of all, if you have a valuable guitar, is to leave it resting
nicely in a climate-controlled, humidity-controlled house, and take
that trusty “student model” or silent guitar with you to
suffer the slings, arrows, and misguided baggage handlers of travel.
If you're traveling overseas, take the instrument and all its
paraphenalia down to the local Customs office, and obtain from them
a Form 4455, proving the instrument “originated” in the
United States and was taken out for personal use. It'll save you
paying duty to “re-import” the guitar. Do this for any
other personal electronics you're carrying as well (e.g. cameras,
laptops, PDAs, cell phones, etc.).
Changes in altitude, changes in attitude...
Something many people may not think of, but turns out to be
interesting, is the effect of altitude on the strings and sound.
I've learned that strings are more subdued in their sound when at
lower altitudes (I live at 7 500 ft or about 2 300 m ASL). They tend
to sound a bit flat as well. Re-tuning about a half-turn seems to
solve the problem. After a couple of days, the Soloette guitar seems
to have “shrunk”, possibly due to compression of the
wood due to increased air pressure. Bringing the instrument back to
altitude results in very sharp sound, requires retuning roughly that
half-turn or so, and may be due to expansion from altitude. The
“brighter” sound of the strings seems due to reduced air
density. By contrast, at about
14 000 feet or 4 300 m ASL, the
volume of sound is reduced tremendously, but the pitch does not seem
to have changed much.
Nails (let the flamewars begin)
Since we're discussing classical guitar, picks are not (yet) part of
the discussion. Nails or no nails? For beginners, don't worry. The
concentration is on getting the basic strokes correct; finese the
nail shape and size over time. Different people have different nails
that grow in different ways. For the very beginning, a short, even,
rounded nail is probably best; concentrate on the basic stroke. Over
time, let the nail grow out a couple of millimeters, shaping it with
a nail buffer.
Applying and rubbing in a small dab of hand lotion daily seems to
work wonders for fingertips and overall nail health. I prefer to
apply hand lotion in the morning. I usually wash my hands before
playing, so I have a fairly clean and consistent surface on my
fingers, rather than any grease, lotion, or other stuff on the
strings. If you've played a guitar in the local store, you may have
discovered the strings have been “slimed” by whoever had
it last, making a sticky playing instrument.
I have found that nail files (metal or inexpensive sandpaper /
cardboard style) are far too coarse. I use a roughly 200 grit nail
buffer to file down my left (fretting) hand only. On my right
(plucking) hand, I use a 400 to 600 grit buffer to “shape”
the nails, then the 1200 and finally a 1800+ grit buffer to smooth
the nail. After fussing around with several brands, I've settled on
a brand called “Tropical Shine” available from Sally
Beauty Supply, that last about a week or so each. I prefer the
three-surface model with a decent sanding surface, a buffer, and a
fine buffer. There's a nice three-grade version from KISS available
from drugstores that would do well, except that I have hard nails
and wear out the important sides within three days. Try different
brands, grits, length and shape of nail until you are satisfied with
If people have "ridges" forming in their nails, altering
the tone, they may wish to consult with their physician. It seems
there's a tendency for some people to "change" their
uptake of vitamins. Supplements (esp. the B complex) help, in
particular, helping the nails. I happened onto this information
speaking with a lady who's always had nail problems, but in this
case, found a fix with B-complex supplements. "Vitamins each
day keep poor tone away?"
Torn nails: prevention beats repair any day. Wear gloves when
working outside and around the house. Use screwdrivers instead of
your nails. Let your fretting-hand thumbnail grow out and use it to
pry instead of your plucking thumbnail.
When you do get a torn nail (when, not if), there's a couple of
things you can do. I carry a LocTite brand cyanoacrylate
“superglue”. Be careful with this stuff; it can glue
things together you'd rather not have stuck. Get the type with the
red sides and top, which has a very small and precise applicator. If
the nail is torn along the quick, there's not much you can do but
cut and file it down and wait for it to grow out. If the nail is
torn toward the tip, but not completely across, there's good hope
for a short-term fix. I superglue the nail back in place with a very
small drop of adhesive. Then I cut off that left thumbnail, in one
big chunk across the whole nail. I glue that on the underside of the
torn nail, so it takes the plucking first, shielding the torn nail.
Shape the whole thing. Every couple of days or so, I end up
re-gluing things. The sound is a little off, but it lets you “play
through” until the torn nail grows out, and chances are you're
the only one that will notice.
You can also use nail repair kits available from beauty supply
stores, but I've found them bulky to carry and odd to use. And,
strangely, enough, they consist of silk bandages to support the torn
nail and cyanoacrylate adhesive (can you say “superglue”?).
Should you accidentally glue your fingertips together while working
on a torn nail, don't despair, and no need to head for the hospital.
Soak the fingertips in water until the superglue peels apart.
Just the FAQs....
See the classical guitar FAQ at
Petersen Designs makes a very nice collapsible music stand
or Musician's Friend
for cheaper. The stand comes in traditional black, light blue
translucent and clear (transparent); Musicians Friend has only the
black. The tote bag would be a nice touch and is about USD$3 cheaper
at Musician's Friend. Do order the replacement parts of the threaded
collar (750036 for black US$ 3; 750040 for blue US$3) and the
O-rings (750044) US$1. They also have replacement legs (750041 US$4
or 42 US$5), feet inserts (750043 US$1), center tubes (750047 black
US$25 or 750051 blue US$30) and shelf slides (740045 US$6). Music
Dispatch at 1-800-637-2852 fulfills their orders – Ask for
Derek; or you can try Hal Leonard at www.halleonard.com.