One question that often arises and that classical guitarists like to debate is this. Why is the classical guitar referred to as ‘classical’ and what makes it so special or different from other forms of guitar playing?
To most classical guitarists the answer to the second half of the question (what makes it so special or different) seems completely obvious. The term ‘classical guitar’ refers to several things. Firstly it’s the type of guitar and how it is made. That is a long story in itself and there are variations on how the classical guitar is built, but most makers have a common aim, to help the player produce the most perfect and beautiful classical guitar sound.
The type of strings used are specific to classical guitar and again there are many different string types with varying materials, thicknesses and tensions. Generally the top 3 strings are smooth nylon (much like fishing line) and the 3 bass strings have a nylon core covered with steel windings. There are also other materials in use to make strings that are louder and brighter than the more traditional nylon strings.
Last but not least, the playing technique used (which involves plucking the strings using a combination of fingernail and fingertip flesh) is most important in producing what we recognise as the classical guitar sound. As with the instrument and the strings, there are different playing styles and techniques that have been developed to suit different players.
The question that doesn’t seem to have an easy answer is why the classical guitar is called ’classical’? Some people are put off the name because they think it means the instrument is restricted to classical or old fashioned music. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The classical guitar is capable of a wide range of music styles from folk, pop, jazz, rock, new age, renaissance, baroque, classical, romantic to avant guard or experimental music.
Some people today might consider old music to be boring. However, most classical guitarists would argue that the old music is one of the main things that makes classical guitar so exciting and interesting. By playing or listening to a piece of 14th century lute music on the classical guitar, you are able to experience sounds and music almost exactly as they were heard by people living many centuries ago. Other classical guitarists might be excited about playing arrangements of famous popular melodies from the 20th century or aiming to play like the masters of the instrument such as Andres Segovia, Ida Presti, David Russell and other similarly outstanding classical guitarists.
It is commonly understood that the classical guitar in its modern form originated in Spain and has strong similarities to the flamenco guitar. Some players ask, then why don’t we just call it the Spanish Guitar instead of the Classical Guitar? The reasoning is fine but does not solve the problem because when people think of Spain and Spanish guitar music, more often than not, they are thinking flamenco. As already mentioned, there is much more to classical guitar than flamenco music. The irony is that it can be made to sound quite like a flamenco guitar!
There is much, much more to classical guitar than most people realise. It deserves its own unique name and classical (or classic as is sometimes used) seems to do the job nicely - even if some people do get a little confused from time to time!