When the term classical guitar is mentioned, sometimes a certain involuntary response may occur in one’s own mind, or in a conversation with another guitar player. This response can take many forms such as- That’s too hard, or I don’t read music; or perhaps, I don’t listen to that kind of music, etc.
Most likely this is a result of coupling together two things unnecessarily; that is: the classical music style and the technique used to play this style, i.e. fingerstyle technique. The purpose of this article is to “decouple” these two separate constructs and understand them so that we may use the information to further develop our guitar playing skills.
Should I Learn Classical Guitar? Learning classical guitar will help to develop solid guitar technique and musicianship skills as well as provide a basis for understanding music theory, composition and stylistic interpretation of music.
Let’s now jump in deeper to see what classical guitar is all about.
Background: What Is Classical Guitar?
When the term classical guitar is used, we need to make some distinctions. On one hand, this can refer to the style of music being played, i.e. Western European music c. 1600-1900; but, on the other hand, it can also refer to the way the guitar is played, i.e. a specific technique. Sometimes, the technical aspects of playing classical guitar are simply referred to as “fingerstyle” playing, as opposed to playing with a pick.
A Means To An End
Acquiring the technical portion of classical guitar, or to put it in the vernacular, fingerstyle playing, can be learned in a systematic way by using classical music to build skills. Classical music has very little syncopation, i.e. playing in between beats. Whereas, contemporary music is full of syncopation, as a result of the blending of Western and African musical elements. This means that Classical music, comparatively speaking, is less rhythmically complex than contemporary music; and therefore, easier to play and more conducive to learning the techniques of fingerstyle in a systematic way. In other words, Classical music can be used to build a strong fingerstyle technique.
An End Unto Itself
What may start out as a journey into developing guitar technique also may become a new journey unto itself. Practically speaking, as we have mentioned above, because of the musical nature of Classical music, it is a good “tool” for developing technique; however, experiencing this music first hand, so to speak, opens up new worlds of music. Classical music, as a term, includes music composed between c. 1600 and 1900. This covers a vast amount of time in terms of human creativity. In a sense, when playing this music, we are able to musically “time travel” to distant musical lands. If we think about the changes and wide variety of stylistic differences of rock music, i.e. c. 1950 to the present, which comprises a seventy year span, the amount of music and stylistic variations awaiting to be discovered over a three hundred year period of musical development are vast. And so, what may begin as a desire to improve our technique to play current styles more effectively, can lead to the appreciation and enjoyment of completely new areas of music making.
Sometimes the idea of learning classical guitar includes bias, either consciously or unconsciously. Many times this style of music (and remember we are talking about a three hundred year span of music, hardly just “one” style), is associated with reading music. Because many guitar players are self-taught and have not had formal training in reading music, there exists a perception that this music is remote and unattainable. However, this should not be the case. In fact, some of the earliest manuscripts of guitar music are written in tablature form. A case can be made that tablature was the original form of notating guitar music which at some point gave way to using standard notation. (As an aside, the main difference between standard notation and tablature is that standard notation uses more symbols to represent sound than tablature, and therefore takes longer to learn and master. The advantage being- more information can be included in each symbol and therefore reducing the need for space on the written score.) However, most classical music can be accessed either by standard notation or tablature; and so, the idea of only being able to play Classical music if one reads music is not true; however, it does seem to be a real issue in terms of perception for many self-taught guitarists.
Practical Benefits of Learning To Play Classical Guitar
Fingerstyle technique allows for each string to be played separately or in conjunction with other strings. This type of playing enables the guitar to play multiple melodic lines at the same time. In order to accomplish this task, the fingers must operate independently of each other. This ability takes some time to develop, but once finger independence is achieved, this skill can be applied to any style of music. In addition, since the fingers produce and alter the majority of the tone production, a heightened sensitivity to the nuances of tone production are developed and can also be applied to other styles of playing.
Because much of Classical guitar music is in written form, it presents an opportunity for learning to read music in either standard notation or tablature form. The ability to slow music down by reading music is an advantage when learning to play more complex pieces. In this respect, recordings and looping software (for learning parts by slowing the recordings down) become unnecessary.
Music Theory and Composition
The interesting thing about Classical music is that, just like all music, it follows predictable patterns. However, the patterns of Classical music are not exactly the same as patterns of contemporary music, e.g. verse/chorus, typical chord progressions, etc. By learning music from other time periods, the patterns of the music are discovered. This is not only interesting by itself, it can also be an inspiration for improvising and composing your own music. When these forms are played and internalized, they become vehicles for your own creative expression.
Classical Music Periods
Most scholars divide the music from 1400 A.D. to 1900 A.D. into four periods: Renaissance (c.1400-1600), Baroque (c.1600-1700), Classical (c. 1700-1800), and Romantic (c. 1800-1900). These are general dates to help mark the changes in style over those years. Each period has its own unique sound and compositional style.
Where To Begin
If you have not played fingerstyle before, work on some basic fingerstyle exercises before starting a complete piece. See 5 Easy Steps To Play Fingerstyle Guitar for a “how to get started” tutorial. If you have some experience already with fingerstyle playing, select a beginner piece from each of the Classical music periods mentioned above. This will give you a sense of the wide variety of styles that exist within the Classical music repertoire.Also, listen to recordings of the pieces as you learn them yourself. (Note: Classical and Romantic beginner pieces are generally easier than Renaissance and Baroque beginner pieces due to their polyphonic nature. Begin with Classical and Romantic period pieces and then move on to the other periods.)
The great thing about the guitar is that it “lives” in many worlds. And, as a guitar player, you can travel to those worlds, so to speak. In our contemporary timeline, we have styles such as country, rock, blues, hard rock, jazz, fusion, etc. But, there also exists another treasure trove of music in the world of classical guitar music. Not only is it another world to explore, but the technique required to play it will elevate your guitar playing skills, which can then be “reapplied” to all other styles of music you are playing. It is a “win-win” situation all around!