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 professionally.
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, at http://www.frets.com/FRETSPages/Musician/Guitar/Setup/Classical/ClassicStr/classicstr1.html. 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 ME”.
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 directly hit.
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 the sound.
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 http://www.faqs.org/faqs/music/classical/guitar/faq/.
Petersen Designs makes a very nice collapsible music stand
See http://www.petersendesigns.com 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.