At some point during the past five years I fell in love with a version of guitar often falls under the radar. Like every other high school kid in the USA, I started with electric guitar. When it came time to go to college, I decided that instead of going to school for something "legit" I would just play my guitar. I had a problem, though. I was supposed to play "classical" guitar. The school where I auditioned wanted a piece by Carcassi, Sor, Giuliani or Aguado, and I couldn't even pronounce their names. Despite my awful rendition of a Giuliani piece, I managed to get into a school.
Learning a bit of classical guitar can have a powerful influence on your playing, but it can also open up opportunities (gigs) otherwise unavailable to the typical electric guitarist. And like learning any new technique, classical is another tool in the box. I'm here to talk about what the classical guitar is, and how you can get started playing it.
What the @#$% is a Classical Guitar?
Well, it's not a foreign instrument, but it's certainly different. The classical or classic guitar is sometimes referred to as a Spanish guitar and is tuned the same as any other guitar. The first real difference is that the strings are nylon (plastic) vs. the typical steel strings. The classical guitar is like a standard acoustic in that the construction is similar. Without getting into to much detail, the top of a classical guitar is a lot thinner and braced a lot lighter than a steel string acoustic.
The neck on a classical guitar is different as well. It's wider--my guitar measures 2" at the nut and almost 2.5" at the 12th fret--and the fretboard is flat. Electric and acoustic guitars have a curved fretboard. Because of the wider nut, the strings on a classical are spaced further apart. Volume-wise the classical guitar is quite a bit quieter than it's steel string acoustic counterpart.
So, How do I play it?
The left hand technique in playing classical music is pretty much the same as with any guitar. With harder repertoire, it sometimes requires a bit more idealized left position. If you've got a good LH technique from electric or acoustic guitar, you'll only have to get used to the wider neck.
The right hand on the classical is the real money-maker. Classical guitar is played finger-style. "Proper" classical guitar technique requires a bit higher right wrist position than a typical finger-style player. Really, you can get by with just about anything as long it gets the job done. For some comparison, check out this video of a classical guitarist and compare their right hand technique to a finger style guitarist like Andy McKee. Obviously both styles work (really well!) so it's about finding the thing that works best for you in the right hand. Most classical guitarist will use right hand fingernails to get a louder sound.
About the money...
Using classical guitar repertoire is a great way to play solo guitar gigs of background music or do something like a wedding. The best part of these gigs is that (with the exception of when the brides walking down the isle) no one really notices your playing.
While I'm not suggesting you slack off, I am suggesting that the pieces of music you play at solo guitar gigs like these don’t have to be high-brow art music. It just has to be ...music, with minimal silence. Whenever I have to do a background music gig, I try to play extremely simple music that's way below the level of my recital pieces. To give you an idea of the profitability of playing wedding gigs, most guitarists or pianists would charge $300+ for a wedding gig--being there for the rehearsal and the ceremony, about 4-5 hours of "work." If a significant amount of travel is required, many musicians will require a travel stipend to offset the costs.
What do I need to know to get started?
I strongly suggest spending a few months with a teacher who specializes in classical guitar to get you started. It's been my experience that students with a firm background in electric guitar pick up the classical side of things very quickly. Second, you'll need to be okay at reading music as most classical guitar music is in standard notation not TAB. Learning to read music for the first time sucks, but gets easier after the first few weeks. Last you need some solid repertoire to play. Fortunately for you, classical guitarists seem to have far too much time on their hands, and there are loads of free sheet music sites on the net that have tons of public domain music. Guitar School Iceland is one of my favorites.
No style of guitar is really better than another. My own teacher is a monster classical guitar player, but plays in a rockabilly band for fun. It's certainly worth it to expand your toolbox to include the classical side of things. The benefits range from learning a solid finger-style technique to getting gigs unavailable to strictly electric or acoustic players. From a professional standpoint, a guitarist hoping to make a living with performing music should be good at nearly everything. Or at least be able to fake it.