When To Upgrade Your Classical Guitar
We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with advertising. Someone is always trying to sell us something, whether we actually need it or not. The marketers and businesses behind the ads may not know you personally. They therefore don’t know about your specific needs. This means that instead of focusing their efforts on showing how their product can meet your needs, they often use their advertising to make you want their products instead.
So how do you assess whether or not you actually need to upgrade your classical guitar? Perhaps your current instrument is perfectly ample. Or maybe you’re missing out on something crucial which would help you develop into the best musician you can be?
As a guitar teacher, I often see students struggling with sub-par instruments that are actually quite difficult to play, particularly beginners. When a guitar is difficult to play it can result in a number of issues for the owner. These difficulties have to be compensated for with unfavourable adjustments to technique, such as pressing harder on the string to produce a clean note. The knock on effect of these technical adjustments means that the owner of the guitar learns to press hard and assimilates this into their standard technique. As any guitar teacher worth their salt will tell you, you shouldn’t need to press hard to produce a clean note. There are ways of playing which require minimal energy to produce the desired result. Pressing harder ultimately slows down the fingers and can also have negative effects on transferring from one note to another smoothly… That’s before we even get to the bruised fingertips…
A sub-par classical guitar can also be severely limited with regard to it’s maximum volume and tonal palette. A lack of overall volume can force the guitarist into playing with more energy than would otherwise be required with a decent instrument. When playing tirando (free stroke) this often results in overplaying the note, putting too much energy into the movement and creating a ‘snappy’ sound (as the string snaps against the frets). This technique is ‘normalised’ and becomes difficult to change further down the line.
When to Upgrade Your Guitar
Buying a guitar that allows you to play comfortably without overexerting your fingers and has ample projection is an absolute necessity as a starting point. If your classical guitar doesn’t fit these basic criteria, you really should consider an upgrade immediately!
Playability and Dynamic Range
The ease of playability can make a huge difference. Not only does this make playing the guitar a pleasure, it also allows you to play more musically because your focus is not on producing clean notes, but on producing musical phrases. A guitar which has been set up well and does not hinder the vibration of the string is essential no matter what level you’ve reached.
We all eventually reach a point where we outgrow our guitar. The guitar you purchased when you first began playing may have been ample for your technique at the time, but as you progress you learn how to push the instrument further. Eventually, you’re able to push the guitar beyond it’s limits. If you find that your guitar rattles or buzzes when you play strongly and is just not loud enough for your needs, it may well be time for a new guitar.
Generally speaking, when you upgrade to a more expensive classical guitar, it will be able to withstand more forceful playing without bottoming out. This effectively expands your dynamic range and gives you more space for dynamic changes.
If you feel you may have technically outgrown your guitar, I would recommend trying out some new instruments at a guitar shop. If you can push a better guitar and expand your dynamic range, you will benefit musically and discover more musical possibilities in your playing.
When to Upgrade Your Guitar
How do you know if you’re ready to upgrade?
Try playing a loud apoyando scale on your current classical guitar. What does it sound like? Did you hear any fret buzzes? Is the sound as loud as you musically require? Apoyando, by nature, makes it easier to control the movement of the string compared to tirando for a lot of players.
If you notice any issues when using this technique then I would certainly consider an upgrade.
Now try playing the same scale with tirando technique. Play as loudly as you can, but be sure to play with the best possible technique. Quick tip, try starting with your knuckles above the string you wish to play and finish each stroke with the finger touching the palm of the hand (touching as close to the wrist as possible). This should produce a decent tirando stroke, assuming your general posture, nails etc are in good shape. Be sure to ‘stroke’ through the string rather than ‘pluck’. A good classical guitar teacher should be able to show you exactly how to get the best sound while playing tirando, so if in doubt, seek one out.
How did it sound? Did you notice any ‘snappiness’? Was the sound as ‘full’ as you would like, or was it ‘thin’ and ‘brittle’? If you’re unhappy with the sound, it may be time to upgrade your classical guitar to something which can handle your level of technique.
Musical Characteristics (‘Tone’)
Improvement in tone is usually one of the biggest winner when upgrading a guitar. Beginner classical guitars tend to focus on producing a clear sound that is representative of the instrument. Mid-range guitars (i.e. those suitable for grades 2-5) are generally able to produce a pleasing natural sound as well as offer tonal differences by moving into the ponticello and tasto areas of the guitar. While beginner guitars will do this to some extent, the sound is more pleasing and ‘musical’ across all areas on a mid-range instrument. In the mid-range of the market, the ‘tonal palette’ of the guitar is usually wider than a beginner guitar, offering more musical possibilities. When you move into the higher range of the market, you’ll start to hear the tone change more dramatically. The ‘character’ of each guitar starts to become more apparent and the sound becomes more ‘focused’. High end guitars are generally made from solid wood all round and matched with high quality tuners. The materials and workmanship of high end classical guitars tend to produce what could be described as a ‘high definition’ sound compared to lower end options. It’s not unusual for the sound of top end guitars to excite you to the point of scrambling for your wallet… you’ve been warned!
When to Upgrade Your Guitar
But how do you know when you’re ready to upgrade based on your tonal requirements? The answer to this question depends on how good your ears are and your overall goal with regards to your musical development.
Pick up your current guitar. Try playing a simple 3 note chord. Can you sing or hum the highest note? What about the lowest note? Now how about that middle note? How clear in your mind is the pitch of each note?
Now admittedly, this is also an exercise in aural skills; can your musical mind hear the pitch of each note as opposed to your ears physically hearing the chord as a whole sound? Unfortunately, this is one of those pesky chicken/egg scenarios for most people. If your guitar produces a muddy sound, it makes the pitch of each note harder to pick out, therefore your aural perception may develop more slowly. This may lead you to think that you don’t need to upgrade yet because you’re unable to pick out the individual sounds.
On the other hand, if the sound of your current guitar is crystal clear, each note is easier to pick out and therefore your aural skills may develop more quickly. Of course, if you’ve only ever had a muddy sounding guitar, this exercise is likely to be quite difficult until you have upgraded your instrument.
So what does this mean with regards to determining whether or not you’re ready to upgrade to a better classical guitar?
If you can’t yet hear the differences, but would like help in developing your aural skills to the point where each note is clearly defined, go ahead and upgrade.
If you can already hear each note clearly, your decision may rest on some of the other points mentioned in this article. In other words, does your current guitar have enough dynamic range, enough tonal colour etc?
If you can’t hear each note clearly and don’t have any interest in doing so, then your current guitar is probably ample (assuming it meets the basic criteria mentioned above). But don’t expect your musicianship to develop much any time soon…
If you think you might be ready to upgrade to a new classical guitar, take the test. Go to a classical guitar retailer near you, or visit the Classical Guitar Academy’s guitar shop in Derby. Take your current guitar with you. Speak to the staff at the shop/studio and explain that you’re looking to upgrade. They’ll be able to check out your current guitar and make some recommendations.
Then comes the fun part…
Play each guitar they recommend. Make notes on it’s playability, tonal characteristics, dynamic range and balance (can you pick out those 3 notes?).
Be sure to demo each guitar side by side with your own. Do you notice any differences? Do you prefer the sound of one of the new guitars or your own? It’s often a good idea to do a blind test. Have someone else play each guitar (including your own) and see if you can pick a winner.
Remember, choosing a guitar is very personal. Quite often it will mean playing the guitar yourself, or at least trusting the person you are buying from to recommend the best guitar for your needs.
Here at Classical Guitar Academy, we are musicians first. We get excited about matching guitarists with their dream guitar because we know how great it feels when you find it. We don’t have a warehouse filled with thousands of instruments ready to ship. What we do have is a carefully curated range of classical guitars, each chosen based on quality rather than profit margin. If you’d like any advice concerning any of the guitars we have in stock or would like advice on upgrading, please do get in touch. We’ll be happy to help in any way we can.
Better yet, pay us a visit. We love getting to know other classical guitarists and would be happy to assist you in purchasing your next guitar or purchasing a new guitar for a loved one.