Classical or Acoustic Guitar?

What’s the difference?

Classical and acoustic guitars are often similar in shape and both have a hollow body with a soundhole. However, there are some subtle differences which make them sound and play differently. Here we explore the main features of each of them.

Classical Guitar

A classical guitar made by luthier James Lister
Created with GIMP

Classical guitars, sometimes called Spanish guitars,  have nylon strings, a slotted headstock, and a mellow rounded sound perfect for playing classical style pieces.

If this is the type of music you’d like to focus on then a Classical guitar is the way to go.

There’s absolutely no reason, though, why you can’t play other styles on nylon strings.  A classical guitar may not be ideal for shredding or heavy metal,  but can sound beautiful when used for folk, latin,  flamenco, and many acoustic fingerstyle and pop music styles.

The nylon strings have a much lower tension than steel strings, and are gentler on the fingertips. The fretboard is wider which gives more space for intricate  finger picking . The down side is that you may need to stretch a bit further to reach some chords.

You should never change the nylon strings for steel strings on a classical guitar as the higher tension may damage the it.

Acoustic Guitar

steel string small parlour guitar made by Larrivée
A Larrivée Parlour Guitar

Acoustic guitars have steel strings, a solid headstock  and a very different tone to classical guitars. They have a much brighter sound with a greater sustain.

They also come in a range of shapes and sizes, from a small parlour up to a jumbo or dreadnought. The larger bodied guitars tend to be used for strumming as they have a deep base response, whereas the smaller ones are better suited  for fingerpicking styles.

Steel String Acoustic or Classical Guitar for a Beginner?

Classical guitars with their nylon strings are often considered to be easier on the fingers than the “cheese-wire” steel strings on an acoustic guitar. If you’re keen and play frequently, (especially if it’s a little and often) the fingertips toughen up quite quickly and sore fingers  are only a temporary phase.

The neck on an acoustic guitar is generally narrower and there may also be a slight convex curve across the width of the fretboard, whereas the classical guitar has a flat fretboard. This means a little less stretching of the fingers to reach the notes, particularly for bar (or barré) chords. The steel strings aren’t so gentle on the fingertips though, so the choice between an acoustic or a classical guitar is purely down to personal preference.

Young children may find the steel strings a little too harsh. A Ukelele is a good instrument to get their fingers used to pressing down on strings and they’re very portable!

Even if you start with a nylon stringed instrument any transition to a steel string guitar will feel different and cause some soreness initially. It’s definitely worth persevering with though!

If you’re not sure which type of guitar to buy then have a look at the “Buying a Guitar” page.