Help for a musically challenged future guitar player
December 6, 2009 5:25 PM   Subscribe

Want to learn to play the guitar. Recently discovered the guitar I have is classical, not western acoustic. Can I still learn how I want? And other questions from a non-musical dreamer.

I picked up a 1984 Garcia classical guitar. It was free so I can't complain, but I was somewhat disappointed when I realized it wasn't what I envisioned (steel string Western). I'd rather stick with what I have than investing money into another hobby I'm not fully committed to, but if I have to, I have to.

Here are my basic questions, which I haven't been able to find a solid answer on.

-Eventually I want to buy a steel string acoustic, but for now can I learn on this guitar then easily transfer my knowledge over to a Western style if I enjoy it as much as I expect?

-Should I use a pick? I know I COULD but is it proper?

-Do you strum on a classical or just finger pick one string or something?

-Will the beginners course located here work for learning how to play? The lessons seem oriented towards a steel string, and I'm not musical enough to know if it matters. What particular things should I look out for that I'll have to do differently with a classical?

-I plan to buy a kapo. Are there different kinds for steel strings vs. classical?

Any other advice/lesson sources, thoughts, explanations are welcome. I know nothing about music but am pretty motivated to learn the guitar.
posted by nokry56 to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

- yes, learning on nylon will not affect your ability to play on steel strings. the notes are all the same. nylon strings are easier to fret than steel, so when you switch over to steel strings, you may need a bit to adjust.

- yes, use a pick as you start learning. getting proficient with the pick will require some skill and practice, too. worry about finger picking later.

- generally playing classical style doesn't involve much strumming and using a pick. but yit seems you're not playing classical style, so strum away.

- capos can be different for classical guitars vs. steel strings, because classical guitars have bigger necks. a capo for a classical guitar will probably work on a steel string guitar, but not vice versa. ask the folks at the music store to point you in the right direction.
posted by gnutron at 5:38 PM on December 6, 2009

To me, the differences between classical and steelstring guitars come down to this: classicals have a wider neck (which makes it harder to play with a non-classical technique) and nylon strings (easier on the fingers). You can absolutely learn the basics of guitar on a classical - I've known people who have. You will, however, have a period of transition when you switch over, due mainly to the factors I described above. The neck will seem cramped for space, and the strings will seem harsh. As for strumming, you can certainly strum a classical guitar, but it doesn't sound the same at all.

Don't worry about what is "proper." My vote is to go for it - once you pick up the basics, it won't be hard to make the switch if/when you buy a steelstring. I have both kinds and I switch back and forth all the time, and I for sure don't play my classical guitar the proper way.
posted by ORthey at 5:39 PM on December 6, 2009

I actually think learning on a classical guitar is a great idea - the strings are much easier to fret and you won't have to deal with as much dead string sound that inevitably comes with getting your first guitar callouses. Plus, I love the sound of nylon strings!
posted by Lutoslawski at 5:52 PM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is a gut string guitar right? I'd never advocate learning how to play guitar with gut strings.

I'd recommend learning on an electric. Cheap stratocaster derivative. Thin neck and steel strings are the best way to toughen up your fingers, move quickly around the neck, and quickly build a strong grip when chording.

You can strum a classical guitar but they are incredibly infuriating instruments unless you're picking on them. Clunky and clumsy if your aim is to play steel string acoustic type songs, and the sound is all wrong. You're throwing yourself in at the deep end so you will find it easier when you switch to a western acoustic, but bear in mind there will be a transition period. In short it isn't the end of the world, but if you can acquire an electric or a steel string acoustic then that is by far the best option.
posted by fire&wings at 6:09 PM on December 6, 2009

Willie Nelson rocks out on a classical guitar.

'Nuff said.
posted by chillmost at 6:09 PM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Weel, I suppose you could. There's an obscure country singer from Texas who plays nylon acoustic with a flat pick.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:13 PM on December 6, 2009

...aww crap! Preview,.. preview,.. preview
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:14 PM on December 6, 2009

I think it might actually be easier to start out on a nylon-stringed classical. As others have said, the strings are easier to fret (you don't have to push down as hard to get a "clean" note. Additionally, because the neck is wider, you may find that it's easier to chord since your fingers aren't yet used to making chord shapes. This'll be especially true if you have big hands or fingers. Once you've memorized the 1st position major and minor chords, upgrade to a steel-string acoustic and start developing your calluses. Have fun!
posted by maniactown at 6:31 PM on December 6, 2009

You are thinking about your guitar too much. First try to think about the songs you would like to play.

You can play songs on nylon-string, steel-string, electric, uke, banjo, bass, etc.
posted by ovvl at 7:23 PM on December 6, 2009

Yes, the guitar should be fine to learn how to play and I was going to recommend the very guitar site (justinguitar) that you linked to.
posted by gfrobe at 7:33 PM on December 6, 2009

Response by poster: @ovvi I have thought about the songs I'd like to play. They are very strumming centric -- songs that were originally recorded with a steel string. That's why I was wondering if I could still learn on a classical even though ultimately it isn't the style I plan to play...
posted by nokry56 at 7:37 PM on December 6, 2009

With respect to ovvi, you are thinking about it just the right amount. Learning to play guitar can be a truly wonderful thing - it's probably the best decision I have ever made - and you want to do it right.
posted by ORthey at 7:41 PM on December 6, 2009

With the high action of a classical guitar, I think it's a good instrument to begin with. If and when you get a Western style or electric guitar you'll find it easier to fret and play.
posted by bardic at 8:06 PM on December 6, 2009

Willie Nelson plays a classical guitar. Jerry Reed played a classical guitar. You're in good company. My current lead player does too. He's awesone, so it won't be a problem.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:10 PM on December 6, 2009

I'd look to see if they've got a classical guitar capo from Shubb.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:13 PM on December 6, 2009

Guess my experience is different than the norm... I find fretting on classicals to be an RSI-inducing chore. The strings are so far off the fretboard you have to really push down to avoid twanging, which is that much harder because the neck is twice as thick. And picking on a classical is, well, it's not ideal. The pick doesn't hit the strings right because nylon has less resistance than a wound wire and is a ton thicker. Can you learn on a classical? Sure. Would I personally want to, especially if it wasn't the style I ultimately wanted to play? Not a chance.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:35 PM on December 6, 2009

Another vote for you'll be fine. Many people start out on a classical guitar before switching to steel-string or electric. I learned on my dad's classical guitar for about 6 months before getting my steel string. I think it's great that you've got a free guitar to get started with; once you've spent money on a new instrument there can be a feeling of being obliged to play to justify the investment but when you haven't paid anything you'll know that you're just playing because you want to.

I suggest you try a few different plectrum thicknesses to see which you like best. Also look up the way to hold a classical guitar although I'm not sure it's necessary to get too fussy about it if you're not starting out with the aim of becoming a classical guitarist. The wider neck of a classical guitar will make it difficult to play chords with your thumb fretting notes on the low E as you'll see some guitarists do but there's no need to use that technique, especially not as as a beginner.

I also recommend that you learn some nice fingerpicking tunes as well, they sound lovely on a classical guitar and it's relatively easy to play something that you'll enjoy hearing.
posted by tomcooke at 12:13 AM on December 7, 2009

Best answer: -Eventually I want to buy a steel string acoustic, but for now can I learn on this guitar then easily transfer my knowledge over to a Western style if I enjoy it as much as I expect?
Yes you can - the only things that will be different (and take a little while to get used to) are the amount of pressure you will need to hold down steel strings (a lot more - your hand will get tired for a while) and the radiused fingerboard (easier to play than the classical's flat fingerboard). Everything else you learn - chords, fingering, picking - is exactly the same.

-Should I use a pick? I know I COULD but is it proper?
Yes. There are no rules.

-Do you strum on a classical or just finger pick one string or something?
Classical guitar is a five fingered technique which you won't need for Western - even Chet Atkins only used three. Pick away and don't worry about it.

-Will the beginners course located here work for learning how to play? The lessons seem oriented towards a steel string, and I'm not musical enough to know if it matters. What particular things should I look out for that I'll have to do differently with a classical?
It doesn't matter - the guitar is strung and tuned the same.

-I plan to buy a kapo. Are there different kinds for steel strings vs. classical?
Yes, but it's easy to tell the difference - just read the packet.\

I started out learning to play the guitar with my mother's classical guitar - I didn't learn any classical guitar technique. After a year or so I got an electric. Playing a classical first neither helped nor hindered my playing. Once you change over the adjustment period is pretty small and everything you learn is transferable.

Go for it.
posted by awfurby at 4:28 AM on December 7, 2009

Best answer: Classical guitar playing technique has nothing to do with your situation, since you don't want to learn classical guitar. In other words, it doesn't matter that classical guitar players don't use a pick; the important thing is that you want to play with a pick, so that's what you should do.

That said, it's ideal to learn on the instrument you actually want to play. As mentioned above, the guitar strings may be particularly high above the neck (high "action"), which could make it harder than the average steel-string. Some of the comments in this thread are a bit overstated in making it sound like you should do whatever you feel like because there are no rules, man!! Yes, it does matter whether you learn on a guitar or a banjo or a ukelele; no, "learning the songs" isn't the only important thing. All other things being equal, you'll learn better if you're playing on the idiomatically appropriate instrument for your preferred genres, which you've already realized is steel-string, not classical. But if you want to hold off on buying a steel-string for a while to save money, that would be fine. Not ideal, and not totally unimportant -- but fine.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:22 AM on December 7, 2009

when I learned to play it was on a classical - I got a steel-string about 6 months in and the classical was my second guitar for many years. The caveats that people have mentioned above (wider neck, less pressure to exert but often over a larger distance) all apply. Nylon string has a different temper of sound that is pleasing in it's own right, too.

The one thing I'd mention, from experience, is that since many classical guitars are designed for fingers and not picks, yours may not have a finish that can handle getting hit repeatedly with a pick. Mine is horribly scarred from my formative years of thrashing away.
posted by dirtdirt at 7:35 AM on December 7, 2009

Yup. I've been playing guitar for about a decade now, and my first ax was a crappy no-name classical.

Strumming might sound a bit muddy; the sound of a classical is a bit richer. It's not like you're playing Madison Square Garden with the thing, though. Get a pick and have fun.

Also: do NOT try to put steel strings on your classical. The higher tension will wreck the instrument.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 8:35 AM on December 7, 2009

Just because it's a "classical" guitar doesnt mean you have to play classical music. It's quite often used in folk. For example, here's Pete Seeger playing a nylon string.
posted by canoehead at 10:16 AM on December 7, 2009

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