I often have conversations about what is involved in making the transition from playing a steel string guitar to playing a classical guitar. So I thought I would summarise some of the issues here.
Why is the action so high on a classical guitar? Basically because the nylon string needs to vibrate more to get a reasonable volume. The string needs “room” to vibrate and if the action were low then the string would slap against the upper frets when plucked hard. The fact is that if you pluck harder and harder you will reach a point at which the strings will slap against the frets, however high the action. Everything is a compromise and the compromise on the classical guitar between volume and ease of action is to set the strings higher than they need be for a corresponding volume on a steel string guitar.
Is the guitar with lower action better than that with higher? Many people say that a guitar with low action is a desirable guitar and one with higher action less diesirable. Now this may hold true to some extent when choosing a steel string guitar but it is not necessarily true on the classical guitar. The instrument is an instrinsically quiet one and you need to play it quite hard to get a reasonable volume – particularly if playing with other instruments or in anything but a small room. Moreover, most instruments have a range of tones which only appear when played at higher volume and to get the optimum tonal range from the isntrument you need to have as much dynamic range – that is range of volumes – as is feasible. If string action is set too high then not only does it become difficult to fret but there can also be intonation problems. However, the classical compromise is to set the action significantly higher than on the steel string instrument.
It may be prejudice on my part, but I think the classical guitar has a greater dynamic range than the steel string guitar. This isn’t to say that it is a louder instument – it rarely if ever is. No, it is to say that there is a greater differential between the quietest and the loudest note. Perhaps this is an illusion. Perhaps the fact is that ther classical guitar has a greater tonal range and because tonal range is closely associated with dynamic range – there are different qualities of tone at different volumes – then the dynamic range appears subjectively to be greater on the classical guitar. Leaving aside the theorising, the fact is that a good classical guitar offers the player a great pallette of volumes and tones than the steel string variant.
This is a fairly obvious one. The classical neck is typically 52mm wide at the nut and 62mm wide at the 12th fret. By contrast, the steel string neck is typically 8mm narrower at both points. Why is this? The narrower neck surely makes it easier on the left (the fretting) hand? However, the classical guitar with its wider spacing between the strings, give greater scope for the legato – “pull-off” (“left-hand pizzicato”)- stroke in the left (fretting) hand..
Here I think the steel string player has the advantage. The typical steel string guitar neck profile, acoustic or electric, is curved or radiussed. This makes the barre chord so much easier than when playing on the flat neck of the classical guitar. I have heard it argued that the flat profile of the strings on a flat neck makes it easier to do certain (vary rarely perfomed) right hand techniques but in my opinion classical guitar players and makers are wrong in following the convention and opting for a flat neck. However, for the moment, we all have to accept that almost all classical guitars are built with a flat neck and put up with it!!!
String Tonal Qualities
The lower strings on a steel string guitar – even a good one – run out of tone as you move up the fretboard. The same is not true on a classical guitar. In fact you can look to the upper registers on the lower strings to provide you with a whole fresh pallette of tones to exploit. If the classical guitar loses out to its steel string cousin when it comes to volume, it clearly wins hands down in terms of tonal nuance and this in particular in the upper register on the lower strings.
You cannot get the best out of a classical guitar unless you play with your nails. The plucking nails need to be longer than usual and also carefully manicured. It is not enough to throw away the plectrum and play fingerstyle. The nails allow a much greater dynamic range (volume) and even more importantly a much greater range of tones – by playing with varying angles of attack, etc.
Much but not all of what was said above applies to flamenenco guitars too.
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