Today I’m going to share some of my research into classical guitar models and how you or I might get a quality guitar when our local stores don’t have the selection we’re interested in. I still haven’t purchased a classical guitar but I’ve begun selling some of my guitars I no longer play so I can finally afford one — as soon as I’ve sold one more guitar I’ll be ready to buy.
I’m running into some of the same problems I faced when I was looking to buy a ukulele last year. It’s difficult to find classical guitars in local stores of the quality and in the price range I am interested in. Many stores (e.g., Guitar Center) do not include a free setup. I may be forced to buy online without actually trying/comparing models in person before I purchase them.
Classical guitars are not nearly as popular as electric or steel string acoustic guitars. The largest category of classical guitar available at most local and online stores are guitars for beginners including small scaled guitars for children. These guitars run from about $100 to $300. These are not what I’m interested in.
On the opposite end are professional level concert guitars. The best place to find these guitars are at specialty stores or you can order them directly from the luthier. You might find some classical concert quality guitars in the better music stores. The Boston area does not have a dedicated Classical Guitar store and I know of only one area store that has this quality of guitar. But, again, this is not what I’m interested in.
I am looking for a solid spruce top classical guitar with rosewood back and sides and an ebony fingerboard. I prefer classical features regarding nut width (52 mm), scale length (650 mm) and frets (12 to where the neck joins the body). I’ve decided against guitars with a cutaway or electronics. Those things increase the cost but not the quality. I’m not looking for a performance instrument and if I needed to be amplified I think mic’d guitars sound better (if done right).
Why do I want the above?
Top wood (Cedar or Spruce): There’s nothing wrong with Cedar topped guitars. They just have a different sound. Cedar has an advantage on a new guitar because you’ll know pretty much what you’re getting – presuming you could play the guitar before you purchased it. Cedar does not appreciably mature in sound. It sounds good from the start but doesn’t get much better. Spruce tops open up with time. The good news is if you like the sound of your spruce top guitar when it’s new, you’ll like it more as it ages. The bad news is you may have to guess what the guitar will sound like in a few years if you go for spruce. Some reviewers have said they believe spruce gives a richer, more complex sound. Cedar is a dark sound which sounds good but reviewers say the tone is lacking complexity. All my steel string acoustic guitars have spruce tops so for me, it’s the sound I’m used to.
Back and Sides (Rosewood, Mahogany, Maple …): Rosewood back and sides is also a preference. I’ve compared many guitars with a variety of woods for the back and sides (mahogany, maple, walnut, rosewood, etc.). I like rosewood best. It also seems to be the most popular choice for concert level guitars. It’s hard to describe tone but I’ll try. Rosewood has a deeper, richer tone with more sustain. But it’s just a preference. No wrong choices if you like it. If you plan on performing with the guitar remember the tone heard by the audience is different from what you hear while playing the guitar. Have someone play the guitar for you so you can also hear the audiences perspective.
Classical vs Steel String Features (neck thickness, nut width, fingerboard radius, fret where fingerboard joins body): A popular class of nylon string guitars are the cross-over styled classical guitars which appeal to electric guitar players. These often have a thinner, narrower neck with a nut width of 48 mm (about 1 7/8″) and a fingerboard with a radius. Some also join the neck at the 14th fret like modern steel string acoustic guitars. The transition from electric guitar to nylon strings may be easier with one of these. My own philosophy is all in or nothing.
Fingerboard (Rosewood or Ebony): Regarding my choice of ebony fingerboards over rosewood, I think the sound is different but I have trouble expressing it. My guess is there is more sustain (denser wood) and at the same time a bit more clarity.
Lower Priced Classical Guitars.
Guitars up about $350 (some up to $500) will likely have a solid spruce or cedar top but laminated back and sides made from Sapele (African mahogany) or Ovangkol (somewhat like rosewood). The neck may be Nato (another African wood like mahogany). Most models of better classical guitars are available with either cedar or spruce but cedar is more available for most. The fingerboard will be rosewood with few exceptions.
Guitars in the $500 to $750 price range will likely have rosewood (Indian) or mahogany back and sides but they will still be laminated. Laminated back and sides is often a reasonable compromise because the difference in tone between solid and laminated sides isn’t expected to be very large. These will also probably still have rosewood fingerboards.
All solid wood classical guitars start at about $700 and go up … and up and up.
I recently tried out the classical guitars at the local Guitar Center, starting with guitars in under $500 price range. The only spruce topped guitars in the store were Gypsy King models from Cordoba and thus were flamenco guitars and not true classical guitars. I was surprised to find that the all solid wood classical guitars sounded much better to my ears than those with laminated back and sides. But I cannot find spruce top guitars to try or compare.
Classical guitars under $1000 with all solid wood.
Estimated street price $999 includes case (old stock includes a polyfoam case but according to an email from Cordoba, new instruments since July 2013 include an arched humidified case). Cordoba represents the Humicase.
Spruce or Cedar top. Solid rosewood back and sides. Ebony fingerboard.
Kremona Orpheus Valley Fiesta FS or FC
Estimated street price is $899 but that does not include a case. The FS is the spruce top model and the FC the cedar top model. Solid Indian Rosewood back and sides and ebony fingerboard. The neck is Honduran Cedar.
Spruce or Cedar top. Estimated street price $999.99. Includes semi-hard case.
Other makers for classical guitars under $1000
Takmine makes some good guitars but most of their better models are acoustic electric and sell for over $1000.
Some of the following are available in scale lengths other than 650 mm. It is rare to find a choice of scale length for mass produced guitars. The popular scale lengths are 630 mm (or sometimes 628 mm) and 640 mm. You may find long stretches easier with a shorter scale length if you have small hands. A popular rule of thumb is that if the length between your thumb tip and the tip of your pinky is less than about 9 inches, you need a scale length shorter than 650 mm. However, some people with small hands don’t mind the standard scale length.
Kenny Hill makes some well reviewed classical guitars for under $1000. The back and sides in the under $1000 range are laminated, not solid.
Esteve makes an all solid wood classical guitar for under $1000. It has a rosewood fingerboard and Ovangkol back and sides. Solid rosewood back and sides and an Ebony fingerboard (model 7SR) is just a bit over $1000.
Francisco Navarro has a student classical guitar (as all of these are considered to be) for under $1000. The top is Cedar and the back and sides Palo Escrito, a rosewood from Mexico.
Alhambra has classical guitars for under $1000 (e.g. the 4P model). Cedar or spruce top and Ebony fingerboard. The back and sides are rosewood laminate.
How to buy online!
You’re lucky if you can find a selection of guitars you are interested in at local stores where you try them. That is the best way to buy. It is the old way to buy. Ideally, the shop will include a free setup to make sure the frets are level and the action is correct. It’s a way to buy that though ideal is becoming more difficult for many of us. So here’s my recommendations (easier to make than to follow, even for me).
Research the guitars you’re interested in as best you can and then order the one you want online. The online merchant you get the guitar from should have a liberal return policy. I’ve seen small merchants with a website who only give you 48 hours to evaluate and return a guitar if you don’t like it. That may be fine if they also include a free setup. Most of the large online stores give you 30 days to 45 days to return the guitar. Amazon and Guitar Center website give 30 days. Musicians Friend gives you 45 days. No setup but plenty of time to evaluate the guitar and return it if it isn’t right for you.
I like the idea of buying the guitar from the Guitar Center website or ordering at your local Guitar Center. Most online purchases require you pay shipping if you return the guitar. But if you have a Guitar Center near you, you can bring the guitar into the store to be returned, even if you bought it online.
Once you receive the guitar you should do the following:
- Physically inspect all external surfaces and parts of your new guitar. Make sure there are no blemishes, damage or construction mistakes. One of the guitars I recently tried at my local Guitar Center had a spot where the binding was poorly installed. You could see and feel the mistake. The employee who was helping me noticed the problem but put the guitar back on display for the going price – someone else might not notice and get a less than perfect guitar.
- Check the tuning machines and make sure all turn easily, are firmly installed and don’t have excess play when tuning.
- Play notes chromatically up and down each string several times to make sure there is no buzzing. Buzzing might be due high spots on the frets and indicate the frets need leveling.
- Also notice if all the fret ends are finished smoothly. You don’t want the frets cutting your fingers.
- Play notes and chords loudly and softly. Listen for buzzing or rattling – loose parts or unglued braces.
- Does the action feel right? Recommendations are generally 2.5 to 3.5 mm between the 1st string and the 12th fret and 3.2 to 4.5 mm between the 6th string and the 12th fret. In inches, anything much more than about 1/8th of an inch is probably too high. Still, some classical guitarists prefer high action. But if you’re a beginner I would recommend staying with typical specifications for action.
- Of course the subjective evaluation is important too. Does the guitar sound good? Do you like the look? Does it feel right when you hold it?
The hard part is this. If it’s not right you have to return it. If something’s really wrong, that should be easy. But what if the action is just a bit off or there is buzz but only when you play loudly above the 8th fret? If it’s something small it would be tempting to keep the guitar. I think it would be better to return it but I don’t know if I could do that myself.
My reasoning regarding returning the guitar for any problem is that eliminating free on-site setups from the buying equation while increasing the no hassle return period is essentially implying these merchants expect the guitar to be perfect when you get it. If it isn’t, instead of an easy setup to fix the problem, they will replace the guitar with one that is perfect. Hold them to that. I hope I can follow my own advice when the time comes.