classical guitar

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Title: Villa-Lobos and Ginastera—5 Preludes, No.2 in E Major, by Heitor Villa-Lobos; Eduardo Fernandez, guitar. Label: London. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 414616-2. Track: 2.

Title: La Perla de Cadiz--Te Fuiste De Mi Vera; Manuel Morao, guitar. Label: Le Chant du Monde. Format: CD. Catalogue#: LDX 274934 CM 211. Track: 2.

Title: Folk Song America v.1--So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You; Woody Guthrie, voice and guitar. Label: Smithsonian Collection of Recordings. Format: CD. Catalogue#: RD 046-1. Track: 14.

Title: The Blues v.1--That Black Snake Moan; Bling Lemon Jefferson, voice and guitar. Label: Smithsonian Collection of Recordings. Format: CD. Catalogue#: RD 101-1. Track: 1.

Title: Koo Nimo “Osabarima”--Owusu Se M’amma; Koo Nimo, guitar, and group. Label: Adasa Records. Format: CD. Catalogue#: ADCD 102. Track: 2.

Contextual Associations

The modern classical guitar is a plucked box-lute chordophone of Europe strongly associated with Spain. It has been more-or-less standardized in size and design since the second half of the 19th century, but close relatives go back centuries. Calling this instrument the 'classical' guitar is somewhat misleading, for although it holds a place in the European classical or art music world it also has been adopted into a variety of vernacular and popular musical practices throughout Europe and the Americas, and indeed worldwide. The contemporary classical guitarist most likely has been trained in a tertiary educational institution, which typically includes on its faculty a professor of guitar and offers degrees in guitar performance at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Professional guitarists find employment as university or private studio instructors, freelance musicians, and in the commercial music industry (performing and recording). A few professional guitarists in any generation attain international recognition and perform recitals and concerto engagements with symphony orchestras throughout the cosmopolitan world. In recent years, some literature has been composed or arranged for newly formed guitar ensembles (often quartets). Whether in the teaching studio or on the concert stage, classical guitarists have a large repertoire of composed solo music to draw upon (listen to first audio example), some of which dates as far back as the Renaissance (although much of the older literature cannot easily be rendered on the modern guitar without first being edited to compensate for differences in tuning, the number of strings, and notational practices). The guitar has, for centuries, been considered an ideal instrument for the accompaniment of songs, and so there also exists a considerable repertoire for this combination. Outside of the classical music guitar world there exists a far greater number of amateur and professional guitarists who are active in the performance of myriad musical genres many of which are learned and performed by ear or with minimally-detailed notation. In Europe it has become a regular member of Celtic music groups, and a slightly modified version of the classical guitar is played for Gitano flamenco music (second audio example). The classical guitar has been the preferred instrument for generations of singer-songwriters (third audio example) as well as being central to the sound of early delta blues (fourth audio example), bluegrass, country, and other vernacular musical practices of North America. The modern and earlier forms of the guitar were also spread widely throughout the world during the European ages of exploration and empire building, largely in the hands of sailors and missionaries. As a result, a fascinating array of vernacular guitar traditions are found throughout Latin America, Africa (fifth audio example), Asia, and Oceania. It is truly an instrument of the world.


The figure-eight-shaped resonator of the classical guitar is constructed from thinly-shaven boards of wood--Brazilian rosewood for the sides and back, and spruce for the soundboard are preferred. On the interior sides of the back and soundboard a number of wooden struts are glued before the boards themselves are glued to the side. These strengthen the boards structurally and enhance their resonance. The flat soundboard has a circular soundhole cut in it near the center of its top half, and a wooden tension bridge is glued to the soundboard approximately in the middle of its lower half. The neck and peg block are fabricated from a single block of cedar wood. The heel of the neck is securely joined to the side of the resonator at its top end, most likely with a dovetail joint to a block inside the resonator. The flat topside of the neck is laminated with a flat fingerboard of maple wood that has nineteen metal frets inserted into grooves cut across it. The fingerboard overlaps the soundboard at the twelfth fret and continues up to the edge of the soundhole. The top end of the fingerboard terminates at a nut (a raised ridge) made of ivory. The pegblock is slotted and has two sets of three lateral-mounted metal machine heads with back-facing knobs. Six single course nylon strings, the lowest three wrapped with fine wire to add to their mass, run form slits in the backside of the bridge and over its ivory saddle, then over and slightly above the soundboard and the fretted fingerboard before passing over the nut and being wound around the tuning pegs. The strings all have the same vibrating length of 25.6 inches as measured from the bridge saddle to the nut.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The guitar can be played either by a seated or standing performer (in the latter manner with the aid of a shoulder strap) and held horizontally or with its pegbox end raised up to about a 45-degree angle, the soundboard facing outwards. The player can either pluck the strings with the thumb and index and middle fingers of the right hand or strum the strings with or without the aid of a pick, the former technique used for playing polyphonic music, the latter for homophonic music. For both techniques the strings are stopped against the fretted fingerboard with the fingertips of the left hand. Trills and other ornaments, articulations, figurations, and vibrato are a part of the music created for and performed on this instrument. Harmonics can be produced on the strings by lightly touching them with the left hand fingers (but not pressing them against the frets) at acoustically appropriate places. The standard tuning for the classical guitar is: E2 - A2 - D3 - G3 - B3 - E4 (interval pattern of P4 - P4 - P4 - M3 - P4). The basic range of the guitar (without taking into consideration harmonics) is about three-and-one-half octaves, from E2 - B5, and the instrument is fully chromatic over this span. Notation for the modern classical guitar is written in the treble clef an octave higher than pitch. The instrument has a modest dynamic range.


While the modern classical guitar became more-or-less standardized by the influential Spanish guitar maker Antonio de Torres Juardo in the second half of the 19th century, six-string single course precursors first began to be made in Italy in the 1780s. They evolved from a number of other Spanish and Italian plucked lutes dating back to the Renaissance (see Then and Now: Guitar, and separate entries for Renaissance guitar and Baroque guitar).

Bibliographic Citations

Choelho, Victor Anand, ed. 2003. The Cambridge Companion to the Guitar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Danner, Peter K. 1986. “Guitar,” in The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, Don Randel, ed. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, pp,357-359.

Turnbull, Harvey, and James Taylor. 1984. "Guitar, 1-4" NGDMI v.2: 87-99.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Southern Europe

Nation: Spain

Formation: Spanish

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.322 chordophone--necked box lute or necked guitar: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: lute - joined

Resonator design, chordophone: box with wood soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: tension bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: machine head

Method of sounding: plucking (direct) and strumming

Pitches per string course: multiple (by pressure stopping against fretted fingerboard)


38.6 in. length 14.6 in. greatest width 3.9 in. height of ribs

Primary Materials

string - wire-wound synthetic
string - synthetic
metal machine heads


La Patrie


Etude Classical

Entry Author

Roger Vetter