Classical Guitar Instruction

Kevin Ott
Guitar player

The classical guitar method is an elegant technique, filled with all the refinement and poise of ballet or fine art. It is also a practical skill that provides a powerful foundation for other styles. It differs from other guitar genres in that it uses nylon-stringed guitars exclusively. In most other styles, especially popular music, the guitars use steel strings.

Steps to Playing Classical Guitar

The nuanced precision of classical guitar requires a great deal of patience and practice. Take your time with each step before moving on to the next one. If you find yourself getting frustrated, take a break and listen to some soothing classical music that will inspire you for your next practice session.

Step 1. Sitting and Holding Your Guitar Properly

Like the fine arts, every form of beautiful expression requires a strict set of rules that provide form and function. These rules for your posture and positioning will help you produce a better sound:

  • Sit with a straight posture in your chair and elevate your left foot on a guitar footstool, which is an adjustable platform designed specifically for classical guitarists.
  • Rest the guitar on your left thigh so that the neck extends to your left.
  • Adjust your footstool and the guitar as necessary until the neck is at a 45 degree angle. This position gives your fingers better access to the fretboard.

Step 2. Fingerpicking with the Right Hand

It is never permissible to use a guitar pick. Classical compositions can only be played on the guitar by using the following technique:

  • The thumb always plays the three low strings: low E, A, and D.
  • The fingers, excluding the pinky, always play the three high strings: G, B, and high E.
  • Classical guitar sheet music includes guides that remind you which finger should play which note. The letter "p" is for thumb (from the Spanish word pulgar), "i" is for index, "m" is for middle, and "a" is for ring finger (from the Spanish word anular).
  • When playing multiple notes rapidly on a single string, it is permissible to alternate fingers so that you can play with speed. In other words, even though each finger is assigned to G, B, or high E, you can use multiple fingers on one string to help you play efficiently.
Right Hand Position for Classical Guitar

Step 3. Positioning the Left Hand Over the Fretboard

In popular music, the guitarist strums the chords with a pick. In classical music, she fingerpicks each note of the chord individually, and the music often changes from chord to chord at a rapid rate. This technique is called arpeggiation, and it is the cornerstone of classical guitar music. To ensure that your left hand is able to execute arpeggiated chords, adhere to the following rules:

  • Keep your fingers slightly curved so that the tips of your fingers are pressing each note on the fretboard.
  • Position your thumb on the center of the back of the neck. Do not let your thumb wrap completely around the neck of the guitar.
  • Do not tense up. The more relaxed your fingers are, the smoother they will move when changing chords.
Left Hand Position for Classical Guitar

Step 4. Reading Classical Guitar Music

Although professional musicians will memorize their written parts, playing classical guitar never involves improvising music or soloing. You will always be reading standard music notation or guitar tablature. The following picture shows an example of standard music notation and tablature. It also provides an example of the fingerpicking guides -- p (thumb), m (middle), i (index), and a (ring). Practice fingerpicking the notes according to the rhythm notated. Begin very slowly and, over time, gradually increase your speed.

screenshot of arpeggiated E Major chord taken by Kevin Ott

When learning a new classical guitar piece, only work on a few measures at a time. Analyze the notes of that section to see if they form a common chord. In this case, the eight notes above form the E major chord. Write a comment on your sheet music at that spot reminding you to form the shape of an E major chord. Not every section of classical guitar music has an obvious chord like this, but look for them and mark them when you can. This will make the music much easier to learn.

Fret Position for E Major Chord

Finding Local Lessons

The most reliable places to find quality classical guitar lessons include:

  • A local shop that sells classical guitars
  • The national guitar chain Guitar Center, assuming there is one near your location
  • A community college
  • An adult education class at your local community center
  • Private instructors in your area

For the last point, the website TakeLessons is an excellent way to locate private instructors. It asks for your zip code then produces a list of teachers in your area.

Finding Online Lessons

An abundance of online courses can be found online. The following sites are among the most popular and reputable:

You can also find some excellent YouTube videos that cover many of the basics.

Worth the Effort

There's no arguing that learning to play the classical guitar is much more difficult than learning to strum a few chords and play folk songs. The payoff, however, is well worth it. The first two months might be an arduous uphill climb, but eventually you will look down at your fingers in wonder as they glide over the strings and float through elegant Mozart sonatas with ease. One of the greatest thrills in life is having the most beautiful music in history quite literally at the tips of your fingers.

Classical Guitar Instruction