Classical Guitar & Songwriting
The term ‘classical guitar’ stands for three things:
- it’s an instrument (nylon strings, body type)
- a style of playing the instrument (special fingerstyle techniques)
- a repertoire (a collection of music by classical guitar composers).
I love songwriting on the classical guitar, using the classical fingerstyle techniques to create contemporary melodies and arrangements. Traditionally, western songwriters favor the steel string acoustic guitar. It’s usually strummed or finger-picked in a folky/country kinda way. I do use the acoustic steel-string sometimes, but it’s the softer warmer timbre of the nylon strings that I find most soothing and interesting to work with.
For a non-musician the difference between a steel-string and a classical guitar is not immediately obvious. The two guitars, classical and acoustic, have different personalities. In a similar comparison — one could be like an electric guitar and the other like a blues guitar. The different guitar types look alike, but to a guitarist they sound different and can represent different playing styles and techniques. The tricky thing about the acoustic and the classical guitars is that they look VERY much alike, which can confuse non-musicians into thinking that they’re the same instrument!
Acoustic Steel String Guitar
The modern acoustic steel string guitar has a slightly bigger body than the traditional classical guitar. Sometimes the classical and acoustic guitar bodies are identical. What then sets the instruments apart are the strings, the width of the fretboard, the placement of the tuning keys, but most importantly the timbre and the way the instrument is played. The acoustic guitar is usually strummed or played with a pick. Some songwriters play the acoustic guitar using their fingers, with a mixture of modern picking techniques. The modern playing techniques and the steel strings give the acoustic guitar a bigger and brighter sound that most people are familiar with. We hear the acoustic guitar on most folk, country, and pop recordings.
Classical Nylon String Guitar
The classical or nylon string guitar is used in Bossa Nova, Latin, Flamenco, and of course classical music. It’s also a national accompaniment instrument in Russia, Europe, and Latin America, much like the steel string acoustic guitar is a typical songwriter’s accompaniment instrument in the USA. The classical guitar is not heard frequently in pop music. It’s sometimes featured in ballads and slower romantic songs. Sting’s Fragile is an example of how the classical guitar is used in popular music. Most people love that soothing delicate guitar sound on Fragile, but don’t realise that’s it’s the quieter classical guitar that gives that soft warm character.
The classical guitar has a rich timbre, the basses are deep and warm. In the higher registers it starts to sound like a harp. Its tone is gentle and surprisingly expressive when played using the classical fingerstyle techniques. The classical way of playing the guitar has a notoriously steep learning curve, which is probably why so few songwriters venture to explore it. Strumming a guitar is much easier than playing it with the fingers. However, when strummed with a pick, the classical guitar sounds dull and expressionless. Strummed accompaniments sound better on the steel string acoustic guitar, and that’s another reason why most songwriters default to the brighter and easier instrument.
Classical Guitar for Songwriting
Like most songwriters I used to write my early songs by strumming the steel string guitar. At the same time I’ve always felt drawn to the classical repertoire. At first by myself and eventually with mentors, I began discovering the wealth of fingerstyle techniques and wanted to use more of them in my own songs. The more I played the nylon strings the more I identified with the instrument and its timbre. It seemed natural and complementary to my voice. I don’t remember when or how we became inseparable, it was a sure but slow growing friendship. And now it’s a fact that the majority of my songs are born as a seamless duet between the nylon strings and I.