What is Classical Guitar?

When we hear someone say they play classical guitar, what do they mean?

What if we’re looking to take guitar lessons? There are teachers who specialize in acoustic guitar. And those that teach classical guitar. What’s the difference?

And if we learned to play classical guitar, what sort of music would we play? And would we have to know special technical tricks before we could play it?

In short, what do the words ‘classical guitar’ actually mean?

What is Classical Guitar?

The term classical guitar has several meanings.

  • It’s an instrument
  • It’s a style of learning
  • It can be a type of music

No wonder it’s confusing.

Classical Guitar: The Instrument

How does a classical guitar differ from an electric guitar or an acoustic guitar?

A classical guitar looks like an acoustic guitar, with a slightly smaller body. It’s wooden. And unlike many electric guitars, it’s hollow.

Strictly speaking, classical guitars are acoustic guitars because they have an empty box built in to resonate the sound. In most cases, they are not electrically amplified.

But the word ‘acoustic’ is now used as the common term for an un-amplified steel-string guitar. (That said, players often plug these into an amp.)

Usually, the neck meets the body at the 12th fret. This makes the fretboard shorter than many electric guitars. The higher frets are still reachable. But other types of guitar sometimes have part of the body cut away, to make them more accessible.

The tuning pegs look different too. They point back at right angles to the headstock. Acoustic guitar tuning pegs are usually positioned horizontally to the head.

Classical Guitar Strings

A classical guitar has six nylon strings.

The three thicker ones look like they are metal. But they consist of hundreds of individual strands of nylon. Silver or bronze-plated copper wire is then wound around them.

The higher-sounding three strings look like clear or black fishing line. They are made of nylon, though other materials are now being tested.

Nylon strings are softer on the fingers and easier for a beginner to play.

A classical guitar needs nylon strings because of its light build. Metal strings would put too much tension on the instrument.

The strings are also spaced further apart than other types of guitars. A wider neck allows fingers to target the strings accurately. And that’s important for both hands.

Which is where we get onto technique.

The Classical Guitar Technique

The classical guitar technique has developed over the last few centuries. And it is still developing.

There are hundreds of books on the subject, dating back to famous methods by Sor (c. 1815), Carcassi (1836), and Catherina Pratten (1859).

As time went on, luthiers (guitar-builders) began to make guitar bodies larger in response to the wish for a bigger sound. Players adapted their technique to play more efficiently. They also wanted to reduce the chance of injury.

So modern classical guitar technique is strategic and well-thought-out. It would benefit steel-string and electric players too.


One example is the footstool or ergonomic support that most classical guitarists use. These raise the height and increase the angle of the guitar neck.

This allows both wrists to keep a more moderate angle when playing. This increases leverage and facility. And it reduces strain, leading to fewer repetitive stress injuries.

There is now a healthy debate about neck angle amongst electric guitar players. Many of them are using similar devices to elevate the neck.

Right-hand Importance

Electric guitarists generally use plectrums or picks to create their sound.

Classical guitarists use their right-hand fingers. (Even left-handed players usually play in the standard position.) Many players will also use their fingernails.

Acoustic guitar players sometimes also use their fingers. They call it finger-picking or fingerstyle.

A classical guitarist will use the right hand to play both melody and bass at the same time. We can also play extra voices in the middle.

The use of the right hand is an important part of the classical guitar technique. It affects the tone and the volume. And it’s part of what gives the instrument its unique voice.

Playing Composed Music on Classical Guitar

Classical guitarists usually play music written by composers.

Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule.

Many classical guitarists play by ear, make arrangements, and are deft improvisers.

And some composers are classical guitarists. Those composers that don’t play, often collaborate with a guitarist on the composition.

But most classical guitar players will play pieces from the vast canon of ‘standards’. This is especially true for beginners and intermediate learners.

Reading music notation is a big part of playing classical guitar. It sets the style apart from electric and acoustic, which tend to lean more toward aural learning or TABs.

Classical Music vs. Classical Guitar

This is where some people get confused.

Mention the word ‘classical’, and it conjures up powdered wigs, opera, and gothic columns.

But classical guitar music is not necessarily music from the 1700s.

The term ‘classical music’ is generic. It incorporates instrumental or vocal music written before the 20th century. It doesn’t include folk music. And it’s spelled with a little C.

Before the 20th century, composers tended to follow the conventions of form and harmony of the day. So we group Western classical music into periods of history and label them.

The names of the periods can be confusing. But they all start with a capital letter. This helps differentiate Romantic (the period) from romantic (roses and chocolates). And classical music from Classical music (1750 to 1830).

Here are the classical music periods (roughly):

  • Early Music – to 1400
  • Renaissance – 1400 to 1600
  • Baroque – 1600 to 1750
  • Classical – 1750 to 1830
  • Romantic – 1830 to 1900
  • 20th Century – 1900 to 2000
  • Modern – 2000 to present

Classical Guitarists can Play Any Style

If our hands can quickly do anything we ask, we can play any style. And this includes music that wouldn’t be considered classical.

We can play current, modern-day music on a classical guitar.
We can play music from all over the world.
We can play music written for other instruments.
We can play arrangements of rock songs and film scores.
We can play jazz and blues, Ed Sheeran, and cowboy chords.

We can play anything on the classical guitar. From the very old to the very new.

So What is Classical Guitar?

So when we ask, ‘what is classical guitar’, it’s this. It’s all these things.

Classical guitar is an instrument.

It’s a technical style.

It’s the study of reading music and becoming a better musician.

It’s playing any style of music you like, with strong, agile hands and a well-rounded musical understanding.

If you would like to explore classical guitar and train your hands to play beautifully, consider The Woodshed® Classical Guitar Program. Click Here to learn more and see if it’s for you.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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