Return to where it all began: Delving into classical guitar history reveals the genesis of our beloved six-string ax.
The nylon string classical guitar receives little attention in the heady world of modern guitars. Sober by nature, it struggles to compete with the brilliance of its steel-string counterparts. But the classical guitar was the very first guitar (at least as we know it today), and its long history holds fascinating information about the origins of the modern six-string.
Examining the classical guitar provides a better understanding of the whole guitar family and how it came about. And although it cannot reach the same volume as steel string guitars, the classical guitar has its own unique forms of expression to offer, in a multitude of styles.
A guitar emerges
The classical guitar belongs to a line of other stringed instruments originating in Europe. It is the fusion of several Renaissance stringed instruments, such as the vihuela, kithara and lyre. These instruments shared qualities such as a hollow body for amplification and a neck leading to a headboard. They had strings called courses which included two strings closely spaced together and played at a time, in the same way that contemporary 12-string guitars are structured.
The first guitars resembling those we know today emerged from Spain around the 15th century. Spain is steeped in the tradition of the guitar and continues to be the epicenter of classical guitar. In the middle of the 19th century, the Spaniard Antonio De Torres produced the first modern classical guitar. Today, classical guitars are still inspired by the De Torres design.
His invention marked a significant change from previous stringed instruments in several respects. A system of wooden spacers has been placed on the back of the soundboard, a technique called fan bracing. This revolutionized the guitar by increasing the possible volume and sustain levels. De Torres’ design had a taller body and a slimmer soundboard which also contributed to his overall amplification.
Classical guitar strings were originally made from a material called catgut which was made from the intestinal lining of sheep and cattle (rather than real cat stomachs). The catgut was replaced by nylon ropes in the aftermath of World War II when there were massive shortages of livestock.
Considering that catgut strings were prone to breaking and often went out of tune, this development benefited players and farm animals. However, there is still a small minority of purist players who continue to use gut-based strings.
The age of steel
The steel string guitar emerged around the turn of the 20th century and would soon become the dominant guitar. The development of steel electric guitars around the 1930s saw the popularity of the classical guitar decline even further. Since the introduction of steel strings, the nylon string guitar has steadily fallen in fashion.
It was adopted by folk singers in the 1950s and 1960s when they recognized the soft, delicate sounds that classic nylon could produce. Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan both used classical guitars, which gave it a brief resurgence. It’s also a constant feature of country music, most notably from legendary singer-songwriter Willie Nelson whose music took on a dramatic stylistic turn once he took to classical guitar.
Despite these fluctuations, the nylon string guitar has remained consistently used by traditional classical and flamenco guitarists as it is ingrained in these playing styles. Nylon string guitars are also preferred by beginners due to the smoothness of their strings. , wider frets and neck size, so much so that it is a rite of passage for many players.
His own voice
The distinct physical attributes of classical nylon guitars mean that they are suited to their own set of playing techniques. Due to the smoothness of the strings, it tends to be plucked and strummed without a pick. This means that more emphasis is placed on the picking hand, opening up new areas of play. It is not uncommon for a classical guitarist to be able to sustain three or four harmonies simultaneously.
It is mainly played in a seated position with the guitar sitting on the non-dominant leg, which means the player is in close proximity to the instrument. The soft sound of nylon strings informs the environments in which they are played.
Although in rock’n’roll, classical nylon now plays the role of second violin behind steel string, it has played a central role in the evolution of the guitar. By placing it in a larger context, classical guitar allows us to see how the guitar has steadily changed, while existing on a continuum.