There is no shortage of questions to consider when purchasing a classical guitar… Which builder or brand should I buy? What is the right type of guitar for me? How much money should I spend? Will I still like playing this guitar 6 months from now?

As with most big decisions, the answer to all of these questions is “it depends.” It depends on your skill level, budget, musical goals, style of playing, and a myriad of other things. However, there are some guidelines that everyone should follow, especially if this is your very first guitar. Here are a few!

The most important thing to do before making a purchase is to try A LOT of classical guitars!

Especially when you’re just starting, it can be tempting to go out and buy the first guitar you play. However, spending that extra week to ensure it’s the right instrument will go a long way towards maintaining long-term motivation and making the entire process of learning enjoyable.

One way to try a lot of instruments is by asking your guitar buddies to play theirs. I ask to try my friends’ guitars all the time — probably a little too often… This will give you a good idea of what other players at your level are using and learn what they like and dislike about their current instrument.

If you don’t know anyone who plays classical guitar, then it might be worth (a) finding some new friends 😉, and (b) visiting a few local guitar shops.

Shops are great because you can just walk in and try as many guitars as you want. There will even be a “nice” salesperson who will demonstrate the sonic qualities you should be on the lookout for (we’ll talk about these in a second).

One store we highly recommend checking out is Guitar Salon International. They have an incredible selection of instruments — from extremely old, historic relics to more affordable brands that provide a beginner enough bang for their buck! Go check out their site below:

www.guitarsalon.com

Finally, a third way to “try” different guitars is by going on YouTube and watching videos — like the one below — where they do side-by-side comparisons. This will give you a good idea of the general brand and sound you want to go with.

However, one thing I should point out now is that if you are a beginner, you should not buy a guitar online. You really need to try the instrument before you buy it to make sure it feels right and has the correct tonal characteristics.

But what exactly are those characteristics? Let’s take a look at four that you should be aware of:

1. Volume

Generally, the most obvious characteristic that separates one guitar from another is volume.

The classical guitar by nature is a soft, intimate instrument, especially when compared to the violin or piano. However, when trying different guitars, you may find that some guitars sound way louder than others.

Being louder doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a better instrument — rather that it was crafted to be that way, sometimes at the expensive of other important tonal aspects.

If you are planning on playing with other instruments like piano or violin, it may be worth finding an instrument that helps bridge the discrepancy. Otherwise, volume should not be a deciding factor for you.

2. Sound Quality

Sound quality refers to the overall tone of notes produced on the guitar.

Some of the words that describe good sound quality include warm, full, sweet, and defined. Bad sound quality, on the other hand, can be described as harsh, sharp, abrasive, and twangy.

The fact is, a good guitarist can achieve all of the good sound quality adjectives, even on a cheap instrument. This is usually a combination of the angle of attack, string pressure, and nail quality. (P.S. Take a second to learn about filing your nails for great tone below!)

While there are many contributing factors to creating a great sound, the guitar still plays a large role in the overall sound you are able to produce. To check for sound quality, do the following:

Take the guitar and try playing notes at different volumes. At what point does the sound “break” and begin to exhibit the list of “bad” adjectives above? The louder you can play while maintaining a good sound, the better the guitar.

3. Tuning

With cheap guitars, tuning is always a problem. You can use your handy iPhone tuning app to make sure the open strings are all in tune, but as soon as you fret a note, it will sound bad. This is due to issues related to a complex word called intonation, and it is a common characteristic of cheap guitars.

Luckily, there is an easy way to quickly test a guitar’s tuning so you can make sure the instrument you purchase doesn’t have intonation issues:

Start by opening up your tuning app and making sure the open strings are in tune. Then, play a note on the 12th fret (where the guitar meets the neck) and then that string by itself. Compare the two notes. Are they perfectly in tune or does the tuner indicate they’re different? If they are different, then the guitar has intonation problems and is definitely a cheap instrument.

4. Balance

The final tonal characteristic that is important to be aware of is balance. This refers to the volume of the lowest strings compared to the highest.

Some guitars have beautiful, round basses (the lower notes), but then the high notes sound too soft and thin. A guitar must achieve a balance between the two.

When you are comparing guitars, be aware of each instrument’s balance and make sure to test out notes on every string, both high and low.

Learn more about Balance by watching Scott Tennant’s lesson on tonebase!

To end, I want to briefly address the dreaded topic of budget. Of course, budget varies for everyone. However, as a super general rule of thumb, the more you spend, the better instrument you will likely get.

Now, if you are planning on dropping a couple grand or more on an instrument, I would highly recommend having a seasoned guitarist — perhaps your teacher or that new friend you have by now — take a look and make sure you aren’t getting scammed and the instrument will maintain it’s value.

Apart from those suggestions, your budget is really up to you. At the end of the day, it should be decided based on how much you are willing to commit to this new, exciting musical journey you are set to embark on!

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Guitarist

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