Why Would Anyone Learn to Play Classical Guitar?

Over the years, I have taught many students to play classical guitar. Some have asked why they would study classical guitar if it’s not what they usually listen to.

Because classical guitar is awesome, of course! But also because there are benefits of classical study, even for students who mainly want to play modern popular styles.

When I start working with a new student, I ask what they want to learn. They may want to strum chords and play rhythm guitar. Or improvise and play lead guitar. Or play bass guitar. These are important skills. And I am happy to help students achieve these goals. But I think it’s also important to learn skills that are emphasized in the classical approach to the guitar. These include the following:

Music Literacy: When you read staff notation, you understand music more thoroughly than when playing from tablature or chord charts. Reading staff notation also makes it easier for a guitarist to communicate with musicians who play other instruments.

Fingerstyle Technique: Plucking with right-hand thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers gives the guitarist more options than a single pick. Playing fingerstyle allows you to play lead, rhythm, and bass all at the same time on the same guitar. This gives you a technical reserve that is useful in playing lead, rhythm, or bass individually.

Left-Hand Precision: The classical approach encourages precision of left-hand technique. This is useful in any style of guitar playing.

Diversity of Repertoire: It is beneficial to study diverse musical styles from the present. It is also beneficial to study diverse musical styles from the past. Many guitarists who explore music of the past find masterpieces that they passionately enjoy. If not, at least they have developed an understanding of the roots of modern styles. This also provides a broader palette from which to draw in improvising and composing.

It is possible to explore one of these areas without the others. In fact, if the student has a negative opinion of the term “classical guitar”, you don’t even need to mention that term. Some teachers may emphasize music reading without using fingerstyle technique. Others may ask students to learn fingerstyle technique without covering music from the past.

But if you provide students with training in all four of the above areas, they are well equipped to move forward in any direction they wish. This gives them a firm foundation for a lifetime of musical enjoyment.

Question: In your opinion, why would someone want to play classical guitar? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • John Washington

    I started because my gut feeling told me that it would help in my desire to play fingerpicked acoustic singer songwriter material – think Paul Simon, James Taylor et al. – and is certainly did the trick.

    I also wanted to learn how to read music and, as you have mentioned, gain a better understanding of music theory in general and to be honest it has been one of the best things (musically) that I have ever done. I also enjoy knowing the full fretboard, an aspect of guitar playing that can often be neglected.

    But is has also been frustrating at times. I have found that classical guitar demands real precision and attention to detail – so much so that I often feel very insecure when I compare what, and how I can play, compared to others. There is no doubt that technique is extremely important and I practice aspects of technique every day.

  • bruciekins

    I was advised by a jazz musician to study classical guitar, although I’d never heard it (I’d been playing pop for years). I must say, even though I don’t perform on cg, no regrets, it helped me in other areas of my playing.

    • Glad to hear that classical guitar study helped you.

  • John Barnicle

    Classical guitar for me has been at times the most frustrating and rewarding genre of guitar. It really seem that the harder the work, the more you get out of it – that has certainly been the case with me. Once you master the techniques of classical guitar, you can easily translate it to so many other genres – Jazz / Brazilian / Ragtime / Flamenco. However your musical tastes may change over the years, you will have the tools to adapt to that style once you have mastered classical guitar.

  • Seretse Small

    This is an issue in my school in Jamaica. We would like to encourage the study and appreciation of classical guitar technique and repertoire because of all of the benefits you have mentioned in the article. It is challenging as most reject the word “Classical” at first mention. To this end we hope to be able to form a Classical Guitar society in the near future.

    I am a guitarist and I have truly benefited from learning classical guitar. Though I have been a musician for 35 years I have decided to return to my classical guitar teacher and go back over the basics using the Trinity Guitar syllabus and I am finding it truly rewarding.

    • It is unfortunate that the word “Classical” has an image problem.

  • Publius.Polis

    Classical = the entire range of the instrument’s possibilities. Pop, Rock & Roll, Blues = simple, easy to acquire chord progressions. Guess which one a student would learn more by studying?

  • Michael McBroom

    Hey Sean, I had been playing guitar for about 7 years – mostly blues and rock – before I “discovered” classical guitar. I had managed to pick up a lot of bad habits, which had to be unlearned once I began studying classical. It was quite frustrating in the early goings because of this. I felt as if I were a beginner again, having to start all over. But I persevered mostly for two reasons: I really liked this new guitar music I was exposed to and I really wanted to be able to play a piece of music and handle all of the musical duties on a single instrument: melody, harmony, and bass.

    When I began working at classical guitar, I dedicated myself to it. I sold all my electric stuff and kept one nice classical. I studied nothing but classical for five years and made good progress. After this, I began to play electric again and I was astounded at how much better my electric technique had become. This is a point that I believe should be emphasized with a new student. Diligent practice of classical technique (which includes lots of scales and arpeggios) will have a direct and quantifiable benefit in one’s electric technique.

    I really think it’s a good idea if the student acquires classical technique early on, because then s/he has fewer bad habits to unlearn. Plus, learning how to sight-read is a skill that will serve the student well for the rest of their musical life.

    I think one reason why classical gets a bad rap is because it is perceived as being difficult. This is unfortunate because the truth is just the opposite. By their very nature, classical strings are easier on uncalloused fingers. A well set up guitar is also easy to play — easier than a steel-string acoustic. Also, I avoid extremes of contortion the way some classical players hold their instruments (footstools jacked up too high, guitar canted toward the vertical, etc.). One should rest the guitar across the left knee (if right handed) in a relaxed manner, rest the right arm atop the lower bout and allow the left arm to hang straight down, relaxed. An advantage to the latter is it automatically brings the left hand into the proper position on the fingerboard. Relaxation should be a continual goal as one acquires classical technique. Not only will the guitarist play better, but the audience senses this and will be more relaxed as they listen. Conversely, a tense player communicates this tension to the audience, who feel tense as a result.

    I’ve been working on my own musical compositions for the past 15 years or so and I prefer using software that lets me input my musical thoughts via musical notation. I don’t read tab unless I’m forced to and to me the piano roll you see in a lot of music software is no compositional aid at all. Knowing how to read music opens up the world of musical compositions to the composer. Even charts that are often found in jazz, while rudimentary, are usually enough to get the point across. But if one is interested in music theory, there is no substitute for being able to read music.

  • Andre C Setyon

    Best possible foundation for ANY style you want to play. From folk to heavy metal and everything in between. You will know theory, problem left and right hand technique. Finger style playing, etc. plus, like most of the finer things in life, you might develop a taste for classical music. Like fine caviar, you need to develop a taste for it. Not so with hot dogs.

    • I think that classical playing provides the most developed technical foundation and jazz playing provides the most developed improvisation framework. It is great for a player to learn both. I like your point about developing a taste for classical music like developing a taste for fine cuisine.