The classical guitar is often recognized as the first real step into the music world, somewhere between the introduction of stringed instruments like the lute and the banjo and the arrival of the first electric guitar. The classical guitar, a member of the stringed-guitar family, is used in classical music as well as pop music. It is an acoustic, plain wooden guitar with single strings made of nylon or gut, which is a relatively late precursor to the more elaborate and expensive electric and acoustic guitars. Classical guitar players use a plectrumn strum, which is a stick with teeth that can be bent at will to create very complex musical patterns. Some guitarists use a fingerstyle strum.
Classical acoustic guitars are usually made from wood, but there are some made of steel as well. The sound that they produce is generally warm, mellow, and bright. Some people call it dark country music. In the United States, most acoustic guitars sold are of European design and are very affordable. Prices range from one hundred dollars to four hundred dollars.
The first major difference between the two styles of guitar is in the fretboard. Classical guitarists use fingerboard wood, while most acoustic guitarists use spade frets, which are flat surfaces on the top and sides of the neck. This difference in the fretboard also gives the acoustic guitar a smoother, less sharp sound. Acoustic guitarists tend to favor lighter gauges of wood, usually medium frets, and high action. Classical guitarists favor dark woods, like mahogany and rosewood, as well as a higher degree of frets.
One of the hallmarks of a good classical guitarist is his ability to play quickly and confidently yet still retain a melodic quality in his playing. Acoustic guitarists are very creative in their approach to the sound of their instruments. Many classical guitarists add various types of effects to their guitars in order to create new sounds. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Many times these techniques are necessary to make a song louder or clearer. Examples include tapping, whacking, and harmonics.
Another characteristic shared by both electric and classical guitars is the use of electronics. Classical acoustic guitars have onboard amplifiers, which allows the guitarist to enhance his instrument's sound. Electric guitars do not have onboard amps. Some electric guitars are even designed with pre-amp circuitry so that the guitarist can "attach" the electronic amplifier to the body of the guitar.
Classical guitarists prefer nylon strings over steel strings. The reason for this is because nylon strings produce a smoother tone. Classical acoustic guitars also use steel strings, but they are preferred over nylon strings because of their durability and ability to last for a longer period of time. If you want to play classical music, nylon strings are the way to go. The cost will be an additional expense for you to pay, however.
Finally, flamenco guitarists tend to use a flatwound string. A flatwound string produces a mellow sound. The strings are not cut close to the center, as with classical guitars, nor are they cut closer to the edges. In a sense, they allow the notes to ring out instead of being compressed like the flatwound strings.
So which category are you? Do you want a classical guitar with a lot of electronics? Or would you rather have a nylon-string acoustic guitar that lets you create a nice mellow sound?
Nylon strings have a nice rounded tone when the strings are plucked. The drawback is the tendency for the nylon to pop when the guitar player pushes down on the fretboard. This can be mitigated somewhat by holding the guitar slightly upward at all times. Classical guitarists who prefer a more mellow playing style may find this annoying, though. Most acoustic guitarists prefer to pluck the strings with their thumb and fingers, which avoids the popping effect.
Classical guitarists will also notice that steel strings are easier to handle and easier to break than nylon strings. Classical guitar players who prefer to play loud may even prefer the thinnest sound from the instrument. Some acoustic guitars made today are available in both steel strings and nylon strings. If you really want to get into the thick stuff, a classical guitar player can get a model that has double steel strings, so it's easy to change over to nylon if you feel like it.
Finger picking is one of the most common methods of playing acoustic guitars. While this style of music does not lend itself too well to using steel strings, many guitarists who like to play fast and heavy metal music will favor the thinnest sound from their instrument to achieve that sound. Many classical guitarist prefer to use finger picking because the nylon strings are harder to manage and harder to break than the steel strings, making finger picking an easy way to get through some difficult spots in the song. Classical guitar players who play popular music such as rock or heavy metal may also elect to use steel strings because the nylon strings tend to make the guitar sound too metallic.