For some reason, nylon string guitars aren’t nearly as popular as electric guitars, or even acoustic (steel-string) guitars.
Maybe it’s because the most popular music genres almost never use them, or maybe it’s because they don’t look as cool as the 2 others.
But the truth is, there comes a time in every guitarist’s career when they inevitably develop a crush for classical music, or flamenco music, for the following reasons:
- They are extremely technical genres – and once you master them, you’ll pretty much be able to play anything
- They’re actually ALL ABOUT the guitar – they’re one of few genres which put the guitar in the limelight. And finally…
- They’re acoustic – forget all the effects and EQ you spend hours on when playing electric guitar.
The thing is, when you’re shopping for Classical or Flamenco guitars, it’s easy to get lost in the sea of:
So in order to help you sort through the useful and the useless, I have for you in today’s post everything you need to know about Classical and Flamenco guitars…
So you can get started easily if you’re a beginner…
Or step your game up and choose your next guitar if you’re an advanced guitarist.
Sounds good? Then let’s begin.
For this article I decided to talk about both classical and flamenco guitars. Because they look so similar, they’re sometimes mixed and even mistaken as the same instruments…
And although they are similar on a lot of points, their differences are still significant enough that you should be sure you want one type and not the other before purchasing one.
A little bit of history
As all instruments from the lute family, the classical guitar’s origins are scattered around the world and ages.
However the guitar as we know it today is rather modern as it was re-invented during the 19th century by Spanish luthier Antonio de Torres.
The flamenco guitar is said to have been introduced in flamenco/gypsy music around the year 1850.
Prior to that, flamenco was performed by singing exclusively.
Now, let’s take a look at the differences between flamenco and classical guitars:
Differences between classical and flamenco guitars
Although they look pretty much the same at first glance, classical and flamenco guitars differ in several ways:
- Construction – they are built differently as we’ll see further down
- Sound – classical guitars produce a soft, mellow sound, whereas flamenco guitars produce a cut-through, louder sound.
- Purpose – classical and flamenco guitars are typically used in different music genres, as their name suggests.
So let’s now see these differences in more details.
The main differences in construction between both instruments are:
- The thickness – classical guitar are thicker (refering to the length of the space between the soundboard and the back)
- The action – It’s the distance between the strings and the fingerboard. It is lower on flamenco guitars, allowing for the strings to “buzz” on the frets as well as for the player to play faster.
- The type of wood – Classical guitars’ tops are made of cedar, whereas Flamenco guitars’ tops are made of spruce.
- The “golpeador“ – it’s a kind of plastic shield exclusively found on flamenco guitars which allows for the typical flamenco percussive playing, without damaging the guitar.
- The weight – Flamenco guitars are lighter than classical guitars.
- The Tuning Pegs – although it’s a minor detail, vintage flamenco guitars sometimes use a type of machine heads called friction pegs.
And that’s pretty much it.
Obviously the first thing to do is to choose the right size for you.
If you’re a “normaly sized” adult it’s a no brainer, just go with a 4/4 guitar which is the regular, full size.
But in case you’re shopping for a kid, guitar teachers usually recommend a 3/4 guitar, usually until the age of 12.
If the kid is under 8, 1/2 or 1/4 guitars might be more suited.
The type of wood shapes the sound of the guitar as much as the instrument itself…
Which is why some woods are only used on specific parts of the guitar.
And so here are the most common woods found on each part of the guitar:
For the top:
- Cedar – A light wood, the warmth of cedar is used on an overwhelming part of classical guitars’ tops because of its warm sound
- Spruce – A very ‘dynamic’ and projecting wood, spruce is used mainly on flamenco guitars’ tops
- Basswood – it’s the cheapest of all woods used in guitar construction and is exclusively found on budget and low-end guitars.
For the sides:
- Mahogany – its reddish colour is appreciated to contrast the usually brighter top. It emphasizes mids.
- Rosewood – unlike mahogany, rosewood has deep lows and bright treble, but the mids aren’t as punchy
For the fretboard and bridge:
- Maple – it is used on most guitars and is often painted black to mimic ebony
- Ebony – a very expensive wood, it is only used on handcrafted/luthiers guitars
For flamenco guitars the type of wood also determines the name of the guitar:
- The blanca (white) – which uses light colored cypress.
- The negra (black) – which uses rosewood and produces more sustain.
To get an idea of how different these 2 sound, check out this video:
You’ll notice that the difference is most visible on the sides of the guitar.
The bracing system is the name given to the wooden structure right under the soundboard which purpose is to reinforce it.
However there’s more to the bracing system than just structural support.
The bracing’s role is to control the vibrations produced by the strings. Without any type of bracing, the soundboard would vibrate freely…
Which would create a messy, non-controlable sound.
And by varying the bracing pattern, the soundboard will respond in different ways to these vibrations, therefore producing a different sound.
It is often said to be the single most sound defining characteristic of the whole guitar… So saying it’s important is an understatement, to say the least.
When looking at the bracing system, there are 2 factors to consider:
- The type of bracing pattern – which refers to the way the struts are arranged.
- Scalloped vs. straight brace – which indicates if some material has been planed off the struts, or not
Now let’s see these 2 categories in more details, shall we?
Types of Bracing Patterns
The first thing you should know is that there are a lot of different bracing patterns (probably as many as there are luthiers).
However, most of these patterns are all some kind of variation of these 3 most common ones:
- Ladder bracing – The oldest and simplest form of bracing. Nowadays it is mostly used on guitar backs, rather than on the soundboard.
- “Torres” Fan bracing – a game changer when first introduced in the 1800s, fan bracing remains to this day the most popular bracing design for classical and Spanish guitars
- Lattice Bracing – which many classical music players say to be the most sound-projecting bracing pattern
Let’s now see each one of these in more details, starting with…
Ladder bracing is as old as the guitar itself and is mostly used on low-end guitars nowadays.
So why would you purposely choose a ladder braced guitar? Well guitarists that do choose/prefer this type of bracing usually like an old school, blues sounding guitar, which is what you’ll get with ladder bracing.
Watch this video to have an idea of the sound difference between a lattice braced guitar and a ladder braced guitar:
As you can hear, the lattice bracing produces a very full and warm sound.
In the 19th century, a Spanish luthier named Antonio de Torres completely overhauled the guitar and basically made it the instrument we know today.
He is widely regarded as the most important luthier of the 19th century.
One of the changes he made to the guitar was a thinner and wider soundboard than what was used until there, in order to provide a greater dynamic range…
Which meant he needed a better structural support and therefore came up with the “fan” bracing design which has much more struts than ladder bracing
It remains to this day the standard, most used bracing pattern for classical and Spanish guitars.
Compared to ladder bracing, fan bracing produces a richer sound with more bass, and as you can see on the image on the right, this very bracing pattern has its own countless variations.
Considered as the next luthiers revolution right after the fan bracing…
Lattice bracing was created in the late 1970’s by Australian luthier Greg Smallman. Worth noting is that he is not a traditional Spanish luthier, so for him to have been so successful is pretty meaningful.
Personalities such as composer John Williams have adopted Smallman’s guitars, and many classical guitarists who have experimented playing on a lattice braced guitar say they were simply blown away by the sound.
Traditionally, classical guitars are quieter than flamenco guitars, and the idea behind lattice bracing was to create a structure strong enough to support extremely thin soundboards, so as to produce a more projecting sound.
For that reason this type of bracing is mainly used on classical guitars.
Now on to the next sound determining factor…
Scalloped vs. Straight Bracing
Another factor to take into consideration when checking bracing types out is whether the struts are scalloped, or straight.
Scalloped means that some material has been shaved out of the strut which allows the soundboard to resonate even more, essentially creating a louder sound.
So as you can imagine, scalloped struts are mostly found in flamenco guitars, who need to be as loud as possible without amplification, as we previously saw.
Anyway, to see these differences for yourself, watch this video:
So you probably noticed the guitars used in this video are acoustic guitars (steel strings), but the same technique is used for classical and flamenco guitars as well.
So it ultimately always comes down to one thing and one thing only:
The sound, right?
And so, in short:
- Classical guitars – produce a mellow, soft sound
- Flamenco guitars – produce a more aggressive, cut-through sound.
And these characteristics make sense: classical music is not centered around rhythm, but rather melody. So you’d want an instrument that can make harmonies and melodies sound crisp clear.
Also, guitar classical pieces are very often written for guitar only, meaning it’s the only instrument playing, therefore eliminating the need for an overly loud instrument.
Flamenco on the other hand is a very “lively” music, with several musicians and instruments, lots of technique, fast playing and often high volume.
On top of that, flamenco was originally played in venues with no amplification and loud singers, hence the need for a loud guitar.
Anyway, the best way to understand the differences between both instruments is to hear them for yourself, so check out this video:
Other Types of Classical/Flamenco Guitars
Recently, several new types of guitars have started to emerge, created by non traditional luthiers.
The 2 most noticeable nylon string guitars variants are:
- Yamaha’s SLG Series – which don’t have any type of body and are ideal for silent practice
- Godin’s Multiac – a unique model which feels like an electric guitar but sounds like a classical/flamenco guitar
But let’s see each of these in more details, shall we?
Yamaha SLG Series
Probably the biggest innovation of the last years in the field along with portable guitars, the SLG Series from Yamaha is the best alternative you can get for when you just can’t make any noise.
And the reason it is so successful is mainly due to its flawless sound restitution, thanks to saddle piezzo pickups as well as its great playability.
This guitars also packs a bunch of extra useful features such as:
- Built-in effects – chorus and reverb.
- AUX input – for playing with backing tracks, for example.
- Phone input – to plug your headphones in.
Check out this video to get a better idea of how it sounds:
One caveat though: if you’re planning on practicing flamenco on this guitar, move along…
Indeed, with no body whatsoever, there’s no way to play “golpes” on this guitar, which are the distinctive rhythms played by hitting the soundboard with your fingernails and hand.
So keep that in mind if you’re considering this guitar.
For flamenco, check this next guitar instead…
For over a decade now, Godin’s Multiac series have been praised by many guitarists as a major breakthrough in nylon string guitars.
The brand itself actually call their guitars “hybrid” because they are true nylon string guitars but also feature a preamp.
Now, these aren’t exactly intended for beginners, as shown by their pricetag…
And they’re note really intended to be used as “practice” instrument, but rather as “performance” instruments.
Check out what they’re capable of:
Anyway, if you’re interested, here are the available models:
- Multiac Encore – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Multiac Grand Concert – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Multiac SA – (Amazon)
- Multiac Gypsy Jazz – (Amazon/Thomann)
Sooner or later you’ll have to change the strings on your guitar. And if you already play acoustic or electric guitar you might think it’s no big deal…
Which—in fact, doesn’t have to be, as I explain in this article:
But the truth is that re-stringing a nylon string guitar is completely different than re-stringing an electric or acoustic guitar.
But rather than trying to explain how to proceed, why not just a video which is much more telling than trying to picture it on your mind. So here goes:
Just like for electric guitars, nylon strings are available in 3 different categories. But unlike electric guitars, it’s not the gauge that’s mesured here, it’s the tension. And so, to summarize:
- Low tension strings – have longer decay and sustain and don’t produce as much high frequencies as high tension strings nor are as loud.
- Medium/Normal strings – are a middle ground and are the go-to choice for beginners
- High tension strings – have shorter sustain, produce higher frequencies and are louder in general
But when it comes to technique and speed, most advanced and professional players choose high tension strings, because they have a quicker response.
Here are the string sets I recommend:
- D’Addario Pro Arté Nylon Core – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- D’Addario Pro Arté DynaCore – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- D’Addario Pro Arté Classic – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- Augustine Regal Blue (high tension) – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Godin Classical – (Amazon)
Got it? Next up…
So now that we’ve covered pretty much everything you need to know about classical and flamenco guitars, there’s only one thing to do: choose one.
Here are the models I recommend:
- Yamaha CG172SF – (Amazon/B&H)
- Cordoba F7 – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- Cordoba GK Studio Negra – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- Cordoba 55FCE Negra – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- Yamaha C40 – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- Cordoba C5 – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- Yanaha CGS104A – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- Cordoba C3M – (Amazon/B&H)
- Yamaha CG-TA – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- Cordoba C9 – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- Cordoba Mini R Travel – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
So there you have it, the Ultimate Guide to Flamenco and Classical Guitars.
Hopefully it answered all your questions.
‘Til next time.