Why Classical Guitar?

“The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” – Albert Einstein

ttp://twilightguitar.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/guitaromanie.jpg”> Guitaromanie


Mention “classical guitar” to many beginning guitarists and you will get a whole host of reactions, from “what’s that?” to “do you mean classic rock?” to “why would you want to play that on guitar?”.

Despite a brief resurgence in the 1960’s and 70’s, classical guitar remains obscure to most young guitar players. The primary reason for this obscurity is that in today’s pop and rock music, classical guitar is nearly non-existent. There are acoustic guitars galore of course, and plenty of fingerstyle guitar tracks, but the vast majority of these are performed on steel string guitars and are usually based in country or folk styles and rely on Travis picking patterns. Why is the instrument not used more widely? What’s not to love in the rich, warm tone of a well played classical guitar? You could easily replace every fancy piano ballad or intro with a classical guitar and not lose a bit of the warmth, excitement or emotional impact. Nothing against the piano of course…

From Under The Rock

It was a little different for those of us starting to learn guitar in the 1970’s. In those days there were a handful of progressive rock bands that embraced the instrument. Guitarists like Alex Lifeson (Rush), Steve Howe (Yes), and Steve Hackett (Genesis) recorded entire songs, intros, or instrumental passages with classical guitars. Hearing some of their records, I fell in love with the sound and set out to learn many of those pieces. In doing so, I accidentally opened myself up to an entire world of classical music, and I am forever grateful to these artists for their inspiration.

“All life’s pleasure consists of getting a little closer to perfection and expressing life’s mysterious thrill a little better.” Maurice Ravel

iles.wordpress.com/2013/02/451px-andrc3a9s_segovia_by_hilda_wiener_1877-1940.jpg”> Andrés_Segovia by Hilda Wiener (1877-1940)


I soon discovered where these rock guitarists were getting their inspiration from. In the early 1960’s, there was a growing audience for exciting new guitarists who were expanding on Andre Segovia’s groundbreaking work years earlier. Players such as Christopher Parkening, Julian Bream, and John Williams were releasing great albums and packing concert halls. Digging into these records was a eureka experience and made me realize I was barely scratching the surface when it came to the potential of the instrument.

A short sampling of songs that featured the classical guitar in rock music would include the following:

Alex Lifeson, Rush, “The Trees”, “Broon’s Bane”, ” A Farewell to Kings”, “Rivendell”.

Steve Howe, Yes, “Mood for a Day”, “The Ancient.”

Steve Hacket, Genesis, “Horizons”, “Blood on the Rooftops.”

Mason Williams, “Classical Gas”.

Kerry Livgren, Kansas, “Dust in the Wind”.

Paul McCartney, The Beatles, “Blackbird”.

Eddie Van Halen, “Spanish Fly”.

These pieces opened up a whole new world for guitar players who wanted to move beyond the rock and blues roots that were inherent in the rock music phenomenon. If you are a fan of progressive rock, you could argue that by moving even further back into time, these artists pushed us even further into the future.

/steve-hackett_classical2.jpeg”> Steve Hackett


“When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.” – Alexis de Tocqueville

Beyond “Classical”

Another reason for the lack of interest in classical guitar is the term itself: “classical”. The word turns off many students because it is full of connotations like “old, stuffy, difficult, strict, snobby and boring.” This is a larger problem for classical music in general, but when it comes to modern guitar players, the problem is compounded by the fact that the the word guitar usually conjures up ideas like “loud, proud, cool, and exciting.”

Just as classical music would benefit from being called something else, so too would the classical guitar. The term just doesn’t do justice to the vast amount of material and the wide range of styles that we refer to when we call something “classical.” To those who embrace it, the word means much more, ideas like: instrumental, artistic, refined, melodic, introspective, and precise come to mind. I suppose some would consider these words to be snobbish too. Oh well, what can you say, except “to each their own. ”

I once wrote a blog post called “Why Music Needs a Blast from the Past” where I argued that we need new descriptors and that today’s pop and rock music could benefit by taking a look back to a time well before the birth of blues and jazz. Guitarists, and musicians in general can gain so much by exploring these more ancient roots, even if they think they don’t like classical music.

Christopher Parkening
> Christopher Parkening

The Treasures that Await

The fact is that th

[/caption]The Treasures that Await

The fact is that there is so much to gain from learning even the simplest classical guitar pieces.

1. You will learn to read music (the tradition is not with tablature here)
2. Explore fingerstyle techniques
3. Add standalone solo pieces to your repertoire
4. Experience the thrill of playing the rhythm, harmony and melody on a single instrument, much like a piano player.
5. Open yourself up new gigging possibilities

You will also begin to understand the rich terminology that is used to describe so many musical forms, tempos, moods and performance concepts (words like “andante, rondo, minuet, allegro, rubato, crescendo, decrecendo” etc…) Beyond the exotic sound of the words themselves, each of these words reveals a little bit more about what music meant to the composers.

2. You will know what it feels like to perform a piece of music in its entirety, not just the guitar part.

3. You will master parts of the fretboard, chords, scales and keys that you are not often exposed to in rock and pop.

4. You will obtain a new sense of discipline. Classical parts, by definition, are written down exactly and explicitly, unlike much of todays guitar tablature, everything you need to know about playing the part is written into the score, most notably the intricacies of rhythm notation.

5. You will begin looking at your guitar in a whole new way and open up limitless possibilities by combining what you already know with this new/old approach to the guitar.

5. Instead a potential repertoire from the 1950’s to the present, You will expand it to include music as far back as the 1500’s! Thanks to the pioneers in transcribing classical music for guitar, transcriptions are available for a great deal of the traditional music for instruments like the lute, piano, violin, and cello.

“Study the past, if you would divine the future.” – Confucius

diaz Alrio Diaz

Tuning In

Many great artists have dedicated their lives to the classical guitar and have believed it to be the most beautiful and expressive instrument ever invented. Some are composers, some are players. There are names like the aforementioned Segovia, Tarregga, Sor, Gulianni, Pujol, Barrios, Williams, Bream, Boyd, Parkening. All these artists in one way or another greatly expanded the reach and enhanced the reputation of the guitar. A good first step of course would be to listen to a few of these artists, tune into what they have done, and see what happens to your concept of what the guitar is capable of.

Then of course, there are the millions of amateur and lesser known professional players like you and I who do it for the sheer joy of learning and playing the instrument. It is there, in those quiet nights of diligent practice and occasional exhilarating moments of accomplishment that the real value of their dedication to the instrument is known. If you play the instrument, you know what I mean. It wont even matter if there is an audience. If you don’t play the instrument yet, I hope that you will take it up soon and discover the feeling for yourself.

I was lucky enough to have studied with Ricardo Iznaola, who was fortunate enough to have studied with Alrio Diaz, who was in turn lucky enough to have studied with Andres Segovia. I don’t hold a candle to any of these great players of course, but one thing is for certain: they were able to pass down to me a sincere appreciation and respect for the instrument. This blog post is one small way I can attempt to pass on some of that enthusiasm and respect.

Here are some pieces I recommend exploring you if you are interested in getting started. They are not all beginner pieces by any means, but one of the things I discovered is that if you love a piece of music enough, just dig right in, you will find a way to get it done. It is the love for a piece that drives you forward and inspires you to keep going, at least it did for me. The other reason I recommend these particular pieces is that I have learned them so, trust me, I know you can too.

A short list of some great, somewhat easy, classical guitar pieces

Fransisco Tarrega- Caprichio Arabe
Fransisco Tarrega- Recuerdos De La Alhambra

J.S Bach – Minuet in G
J.S Bach – Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring
J.S. Bach – Bouree in E Minor
J.S Bach – Prelude to Lute Suite in D Major

Fernando Sor – Estudio 5 in B Minor
Fernando Sor – Estudio 6 in D Major

Anonymous – Romanze De Espana
Anonymous – Greensleeves

Fernando Carulli – Andante in A Minor

Ludwig Van Beethoven – Fur Elise

Scott Joplin – The Entertainer

Francisco Tarregga Francisco Tarregga

Whatever you choose as a repertoire, some you will learn fairly well, others you will learn and forget, and still others you will work on for the rest of your life. That is the thing about this type of music: it challenges you to constantly refine and improve it and to always look for new ways of expressing it.

Of all the reasons to study classical guitar, the best reason is that you will be opening your heart and mind to centuries of amazing music. You will be reaching across time and space and into the mind of musicians who may have lived in a completely different world, but had the same passions, hopes, dreams, desires and fears as we do today.

It is one thing to listen to the music of our ancestors interpreted by other modern musicians on records, and another thing to accept the challenge of reinterpreting it for yourself, physically, on your instrument. The gift of our attention in the interpretation or in deep listening defines the essence of music. Studying music of another time and place completes a circuit of communication across the ages, and obliterates the illusion of time and space between a composer, performer and a listener.

“Music demands… from a listener…some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place… It demands as much effort on the listeners part as the other two corners of the triangle, this holy triangle of composer, performer and listener.” – Benjamin Britten


13 thoughts on “Why Classical Guitar?

  1. Hello M.J.
    I wanted to write and say how much you have helped me. I have all your e-books. I read your blog. I am inspired. Your way of explaining facts and emotions concerning music really helps me to focus and to continue on even when I think I can`t. I think the ability to inspire is probably the most important one you can have as a teacher. Encouraging people to believe in themselves. Not everyone can do it, and few can do it as well as you do!
    Thanks for writing your blog.
    Hayes Dabney

    1. Hi Hayes. Thanks for the kind words! It means a lot to me that you took the time to post them. Blogging is a lot like guitar playing. A little feedback goes a long way. I appreciate it!

  2. Great, great post. I learned Alex Lifeson’s ‘Broon’s Bane’ when I was about 14, then parts of the trees and proceeded on with some Steve Howe before taking some classical lessons myself. While I’m a rock, pop and reggae player today, I have incorporated some classical elements into my performances and albums over time. You couldn’t be more right about these players being a great point of entry into classical. Also, I got to see Segovia live before he died, and even toward the end of his life, he was amazing. Great post. Thanks!

    1. Hi Moverdrive,

      Thanks for the comments. It sounds like you were influenced in much the same way I was by hearing those rock icons dipping into the classical world. Must have been great to have seen Segovia!

      Thanks again for reading 🙂

  3. Excellent write-up. True learning classical guitar opens up a whole new world. But many times a solo classical guitarist cannot get a stage due to the limited sound it produces, but who cares as long as the player enjoy an eternal bliss whenever plays the instrument…

    1. Thanks Toby 🙂 Luckily there are good amplification options today too. You’re right, the gigging opportunities aren’t quite as numerous as for other styles. But that’s okay when the music is its own reward!

  4. I am an old punk of 60 who know nothing much about music. But 2 years ago I bought a simple classical guitar and DIY with tabs from the internet. I have no aspiration but I must say, I really enjoy the pleasurable sound emanating from my guitar. I am still in kindergarten & exploration stage on the following …..Minuet G major (Bach) Romanza, Solamente Una Vez, e-minor Study Tarrega, Autumn Leaves and of late…Adelita.

  5. ‘Broon’s Bane’? how cool is that? i even forgot i once knew how to play it (sort of). That’s a rare piece too – the only place to find it is on the intro to ‘Tree’s’ from Rush’ live double-album ‘Exit Stage Left’.
    Love the podcasts dude – all very inspiring.

    1. Thanks teggenberger. Broon’s Bane is pretty obscure isn’t it? Great piece though. Kind of eery. Glad you like the podcast. I’m way overdue for a new one 😦

  6. This is an amazing article. You really drive the point home at the end! I always seem to try to explain to people the magic of the the guitar and sound like a fool because I’m getting ahead of myself or I literally can’t even articulate properly the transcending experience of bridging a gap across the centuries. It was perfectly worded here though!!! I do appreciate your contribution, and I certainly hope more people read this. 🙂

    1. Thanks Jared. Transcendent experiences can be tough to articulate in casual conversation, that’s for sure! Thankfully writing, like music gives us that chance. I’ve tried many times to sum the concept for my students who think anything before 2010 is ancient! The best we can do is to keep learning, playing, and passing on great music, no matter where or when it was created and let it continue to speak for itself. Thanks again for the reply and the kind comments!

  7. I was studying the 24th caprice by Paganini and I have experienced a whole new level of appreciation music. Just like any other classical pieces it wasn’t easy to learn but I think I’m slowly getting the hang of it little by little and yeah it’s the most expressive type of music and it really makes me wanna pick up my guitar any chance I get that’s the beauty of it.

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