Which guitar to buy? Part One

I did an inordinate amount of research in order to find a guitar that met my needs. Maybe you can benefit from my experience.

Four or five years ago I got an inexpensive Alvarez classical guitar, a very traditional model except for having a cutaway. It was set up correctly with the usual action, and it played okay for a classical. It had the traditional wide, totally flat fingerboard and fat neck profile. I just could not get used to playing it. My fingers couldn’t easily or properly reach the low strings, even though my hands are normal-sized and I was very careful about my hand position on the neck.

My experience was in playing a Gibson-style archtop jazz acoustic-electric guitar, with a thinner neck and a narrow fingerboard width and a radiused (curved) fingerboard profile. What’s more, playing this standard classical guitar was actually painful to my left hand due to all the extra stretching. I sold the guitar and gave up on playing classical.

So when I decided to go classical earlier this year, I determined to find a crossover guitar, which is a nylon-string classical guitar designed with a neck that is a compromise between the large classical neck and the small, more comfortable neck found on a typical steel-string acoustic guitar or electric guitar.

The crossover guitar is a relatively new product category, and they are gaining popularity. There are many new models arriving on the market from many manufacturers and luthiers.

The crossover classical guitar makes no sense at all to players who have only ever played classical guitar. They see the crossover design as undesireable and inadequate for the classical guitar repertoire and playing style. But that’s not the point! Crossover guitars are specifically for experienced adult, full-grown steel-string and electric guitarists who want to play classical but just can’t deal with those enormous, wide, flat fingerboards and chunky, fat necks.

Most crossover guitars fall into the acoustic-electric category; they are designed to be played plugged in and they don’t put out much volume or a good tone acoustically. But increasingly, there are new models of crossover guitars that sound about as good unplugged as a traditional acoustic classical guitar. After deciding that I needed an acoustic-electric, I changed my mind when I found a well-designed crossover guitar that had a crossover neck on a traditional, full-sized body with good acoustic volume and tone.

So what are the parameters that you should consider in selecting a guitar and its neck?


Look at any guitar. If you look at the fingerboard, start at the nut, and follow the strings down to the bridge, you’ll see that they describe a long, narrow trapezoid. The string nut has a certain width, and there is a certain width from the center of the lowest string to the center of the highest string; this is called “string spread”. The strings at the bridge have a certain string spread which is wider than the string spread at the nut. And the fingerboard widens in width from the nut down to the end of the fingerboard. Its width at any given point is a function of the string spread at the bridge.

Then there’s radius. A typical classical guitar has a completely flat fingerboard. But most other guitars’ fingerboards have a curved profile, which is much more comfortable to the hand and fingers if you are playing chords. However, the next question is “how much of a radius”?

The conventional design principles follow this sort of logic:

Acoustic guitars like a dreadnought are designed for strumming chords. So they have a narrow fingerboard width, the strings are placed closely together, and the fingerboard is radiused. This is comfortable and easy to play.

However, if you play more complicated music that involves counterpoint, scale patterns, intricate close-position jazz chords, or string bending (on steel-string instruments), or if you fingerpick with several fingers independently rather than strumming with a plectrum, you need something slightly wider in a fingerboard, and you need more space between the strings. Otherwise your fingers on your fretting hand will frequently find themselves too bunched together to play your intricate music correctly. You also want less of a fingerboard radius because a small radius (meaning a pronounced curve in the profile of the fingerboard) interferes with intricate fingering and string bending.

Thus, different kinds of steel-string acoustic guitars and electric guitars are available in a range of nut widths, fingerboard widths, radiuses, and to some degree, string spacing at the bridge.

At the other extreme is the classical guitar, which has the widest fingerboard of all six-string guitars, and has a fingerboard with an infinite radius, which is another way of saying that it has zero curvature or that it is completely flat. The music that you play on a classical guitar requires the most dexterity and independent finger-movement, and the highest degree of counterpoint, of any other style of guitar music; this is the usual rationale given for why a classical guitar has this design.

Modern classical guitars generally follow standardized designs developed by master luthiers in the 1800s and the early 1900s. A few modern guitar designs incorporate radical innovations in materials used in the top and bracing, but it seems to me that almost all guitar builders and luthiers feel duty-bound to use the same neck and fingerboard dimensions, scale length, and body shape (plantilla) as the traditional designs from the 1800s. In other words all the classical guitars you are likely to see today will look virtually the same from the audience’s perspective, but more importantly they all feel the same in the hands of the players. This won’t do for me.

I think this is a mistake. We need guitars that accommodate different players’ personal preferences, and we need innovative designs. Fortunately these are beginning to appear on the market and gain popularity.

I don’t want or need a totally flat fingerboard radius. It’s just uncomfortable, particularly in those times when you make a barre. I don’t need the widest possible fingerboard width, because my left hand is accustomed to fingering music on strings that are more closely spaced. I also don’t want a fat, thick neck. So since there are a range of parameters, how would I decide on the ideal neck for me?

First let’s look at popular guitar designs and their typical measurements (individual models may vary slightly). I have ranked them from the narrowest designs to the widest designs. American measurements are usually expressed as inches with fractions, but to maintain sanity, I’ll convert everything into millimeters.



Nut width

String spread

at nut

String spread

at bridge saddle

Fingerboard radius
Fender Strat (traditional) 647 41 35 54 180    (greatest curvature)
Fender Stratocaster (modern) 647 41 35 54 240
Gibson Les Paul 629 43 36 52 305
Martin dreadnought 647 43 35 58.7 380
Martin fingerstyle 647 45 38 54 380
Parlor Varies



Varies (wide)


Traditional classical 650 52 44 57.5 to 60 Flat (no curvature)
“String spread” means the width between the lowest string and the highest string. This is narrower than the fingerboard width, since there needs to be extra wood on either side so that a string won’t pop off the edge of the fretboard if it’s fingered carelessly or used for the ever-popular pull-off maneuver on the high E string.

String spread at bridge saddle can be narrow if you’re playing with a pick. But if you play fingerstyle, and especially if you are playing an acoustic guitar and you have to dig in with your fingers to get a loud sound, you need wider spacing.

Some classical guitar manufacturers and luthiers permit the customer to order a traditional classical guitar with a wider nut width of 54mm, or a narrower one of 50mm.

Here are some American measurements: a Les Paul has a nut width of 1-11/16”, a Martin fingerstyle has a nut width of 1-3/4”, a parlor is 1-7/8”, and a classical guitar is 2-1/16”.

As a final note, 12-string electric and acoustic guitars usually have a nut width of 45 to 48mm, or 1-3/4” to 1-7/8”. More space is needed for the extra strings to be manipulated by your fingers. Rickenbacker 12-strings are a noteable exception; theirs are very narrow, more like a 6-string Strat.

Play a range of these guitars and you’ll realize that a difference of a couple of millimeters in any width makes a readily discernible difference in how the fingerboard feels, and how easy it is to play intricate fingerings. The question is, what can your hand adapt to? Will you adapt your fingers and technique to fit the guitar, or will you go the extra step of finding a guitar that fits the technique you have already developed? What if you have smaller-than-usual hands? As long as it doesn’t notably interfere with playing the music, it makes sense to me to find a compromise and get the narrowest, most comfortable fingerboard with the most curved radius that works for me.

Here’s the deal: Most models of crossover guitar have a nut width of 48mm, a string spread at the bridge saddle of 60mm, and a fingerboard radius of 380mm to 510mm. Thus they fall neatly between the measurements of a traditional classical guitar and a “fingerstyle” acoustic steel-string guitar. This is wide enough to play classical guitar music, but narrow enough for your average steel-string player to be able to adapt to a classical guitar.

When I went to a classical guitar store and told the proprietor that I wanted a guitar with a narrower fingerboard width and string spacing than standard, she frowned and said, “But you need all of that width to play classical guitar music”. Well, maybe you do, but I can’t get used to it. So for now, I need something that fits my fingers. Maybe in the future I could graduate to a full-width fingerboard, but for now, I need a crossover guitar.

A nice visit from a pro

Earlier this month I invited Christopher Davis, who writes “The Classical Guitar Blog” at http://classicalguitarblog.net, to have a look at my new blog.

He wrote me a nice private email, with some general suggestions on having a succesful blog. He also made some points where he took issue with statements that I made, so I thought I’d address a couple of them.

No, I don’t dislike classical guitarists! I do find them a bit stuffy and overly formal at times, though. It’s not as bad as it used to be, because most classical guitarists my age or younger came up playing rock (which can’t be stuffy) and then decided to cross over into classical because rock was no longer challenging to them, or they had blown out their ears from all the loud amplification, or other reasons. Now when I was a singer in music college, twenty years ago, I was a classical elitist snob in a school where most of the voice majors were studying jazz, country and pop, so I know what it’s like to be a snob. It took me a long while to come down from that.

You may not know me, but all my life I’ve been the kind of guy who wants to figure out different ways to do things from the standard method. Kinda funny since I’m a pretty conservative, conventional guy otherwise. Since 1987, I’ve set my computer keyboards to type according to the Dvorak keyboard layout, for instance. After mastering the traditional QWERTY keyboard layout and using it for ten years, I decided to start over from scratch and learn a totally different system for typing. And I became a much faster and more accurate typist as a result. Still, all these years later, I find myself constantly having to justify to people what the heck Dvorak is and why I insist on using it.

Sometimes I obsess about how to be unconventional, and spend more time thinking up different ways to do things than I spend on actually getting anything done. Call it attention deficit disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, if you will.

But that’s why I decided to write this blog. You can get authoritative, conventional advice on playing guitar from a lot of places. I want to offer something different, from my own unique, skewed perspective. I plan on not boring you.

Christopher Davis challenged me by writing “a majority of the classical guitar repertoire is not, ‘music that was written for other instruments and ensembles, ‘transcribed’ to fit onto a guitar.”‘ So obviously I disagree with you on many points,…”

Well, he’s right in one sense. There is of course a considerable repertoire of wonderful music composed expressly for the guitar. But that’s not the kind of music that I’m going to be working on, so I won’t be writing much about it.

I’m working with a group that wants to play weddings and casuals, so we are going to be working on the classic Protestant wedding music (iTunes link provided), moldy old stuff like Pachebel’s Canon in D, which was originally written for a string section and a keyboard continuo. We are going to be working on instrumental arrangements of a lot of music that was originally written for singers. Clearly, though, a lot of what classical guitarists, solo or ensemble, learn to play, is stuff that was not originally written for guitar. Think of Albeniz’ Iberia Suite. It was written for solo piano, but you never heard the original solo piano versions. You hear wonderful, challenging transcriptions for solo or duo classical guitar, like those of John Williams in his classic album Echoes of Spain. And the first classical guitar album I really listened to carefully, when I was only 13, was Christopher Parkening‘s In the Classic Style—Bach, which is all transcriptions, including stuff from Scarlatti, Handel and Couperin, pieces originally written for keyboard. Bach lute suites for guitar, anybody? Bach’s cello suites and violin partitas for classical guitar? Big sellers.

Historically, I believe (take issue with me if you like), the classical guitar was rejected by the larger group of classical musicians and listeners as being a mere folk instrument. Classical guitar gained legitimacy when artists made their own arrangements of well-known classical music written for other instruments. A good deal of the classic Segovia and Julian Bream repertoire is older classical music written for other instruments. This is not to discount the brilliant pioneering work of Sor, Tarrega and Giuliani. And we haven’t even addressed 20th and 21st century guitar music–which, again, is not the sort of repertoire I’ll be working on.

In this blog, I’ll try to write mostly about things that I have direct experience with.

Pumping Iron and Pumping Nylon

Learning classical guitar is only one part of what I’m referring to as my “complete life makeover”.

After a protracted mid-life crisis lasting about six years, in which I went through just about everything in a person’s life that could be considered a crisis (no need to bore you with the details), I recently declared that my mid-life crisis is over. The remainder of my life will be much better.

Last October I was sick, with multiple serious health problems, and weighed 190 lbs (86kg). By February of this year I had worked myself down to 150 lbs (68kg). I did this by making permanent changes to my lifestyle, what I eat, and other stuff, but mostly I did it by working out like mad–initially three hours a day. Hiking, running, deep water aerobics classes, aerobic exercise equipment, lots of stuff. Now I feel much better.

Since February, part of my routine has been doing the Cybex weight training circuit at my local YMCA.


I am now physically stronger than I’ve ever been at any time in my life. How many guys my age do you know that can do 14 chin-ups? That’s the “Pumping Iron” part.

Pumping Nylon, of course, refers to the 1995 modern classical guitar technique bible written by Scott Tennant, best known for his work with the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.

nylon 2

nylon 1

I just got this book a week ago, and I’m trying to devote some time each day to absorbing all its wisdom and working through its left- and right-hand dexterity exercises. So far it’s been great. It shows me what I can achieve.

Pumping Nylon is not a beginning guitar book. It’s for a guitarist who already reads music and knows his way around a guitar. Its purpose is to un-learn bad habits, hone technique and correct physical problems that may interfere with your playing your best.

I also got the companion volume, Pumping Nylon: Supplemental Repertoire, Easy to Early Intermediate, which contains etudes and pieces that appropriately illustrate the techniques in the first Pumping Iron volume.

So to anybody in my situation, I recommend both pumping iron and pumping nylon. It’s never too late for either.

Understanding and interpreting your music

Your performance and your learning experience will be better if you do some background research on the music you’ve selected. I’ll demonstrate by example.

The leader of our guitar trio purchased a new collection of guitar trio arrangements:

Trios for Guitars, score and parts, edited by Mosóczi Miklós, from Editio Musica Budapest.

It provides a number of graded pieces, meaning that the first ones are quite easy to play, and they get progressively more challenging with each subsequent piece.

The third piece in the collection is entitled “Lied” by Daniel Friderici (1584-1638).

I was given all the music from the collection written out as a single part for Guitar 3. Here is the first phrase.

Part 3Figure One: Guitar Part 3

As a choral singer, I’m not used to this, and to me it conveys much less information than I need to perform the piece. I want to see all three parts, not just my part. I’ll go into this in detail.

With this kind of notation, I have no idea what the chords are, so I have no idea how my part functions in the harmony. Is any given note a chord tone or a passing tone? Is any given note the root of the chord, or is the chord in inversion, and I’m playing a 3rd, 5th, or 7th? So which notes should I emphasize? Which should I not? Since this is Renaissance/Baroque music, I’m expected to improvise a little. That would be hard to do if I had no idea how any given measure or phrase functions next to the other parts in the ensemble.

Even in Friderici’s day, a bass part would come with chord symbols. They used a different kind of notation back then, called figured bass, part of basso continuo, but it’s essentially the same as what we use today on lead sheets and fake books. You are given each note along with symbols that clue you in to what chord goes with that bass note.

Even more important than this is the big question: What the heck kind of music is this? Where did it come from? Obviously, it was not originally written for three guitars. Was it a song? Did it have lyrics? What sort of mood should our trio try to create when we play this piece? How can I tell what an appropriate tempo and phrasing would be? I’m the kind of guy who needs to have answers to all of these questions before I can play something that’s new to me.

Notation issues

Now, I’m used to reading choral music. In choral music, every singer is presented with a piece of music that shows every staff of music for every part: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, and below that a piano part that might be intended to be played in performance. It might also be a reduction of the various parts involved in the orchestral arrangement, if any. There is also a third kind of piano accompaniment. If the piece is designed to be sung a capella (“without the band”), meaning the singers perform with no instruments accompanying them, then the piano part is a reduction, which shows all four vocal parts written out in such a way that a pianist could more easily play all four vocal parts simultaneously on the piano. This kind of piano part is labeled for rehearsal only. And it is just that. It is for use in rehearsals to help the choir learn their parts.

The point is that in a choir, on the sheet music, a person can see not only the notes for her part, but also all the other musical lines going on around her. If she has some musical knowledge, she can understand not only a note she’s singing at a given moment, but also the chord into which that note will fit. She can see the harmonic progression and the counterpoint, which better enables her to decide how to tailor her expression to blend in with the other parts.

Another benefit is that if there are several measures where her part is silent, while the other parts are singing and playing, she can look at the other parts on the sheet music to alert her as to her next entrance. And if she can’t find a pitch, she can figure it out by the interval of her note from notes in other parts that she can hear. This is important for singers, whose voices do not have frets.

Modern symphony orchestra and concert band musicians are used to getting just what I have displayed above: one part, with minimal or nonexistent information about any aspect of the music other than the notes that one person needs to play.

The main reason for this, I think, is that in performance it’s necessary to enable the musician to play the piece with as few page turns as possible. If the violin player had the full conductor’s score in front of him, there would be a page turn every four measures, and the score would take a great deal of pages. But with just his part, all of the notes he needs to play can be displayed on one or two pages.

When I look at the piece of music we are considering, I notice that there are two voices that are homophonic, meaning I’m playing two-note chords and not much in the way of counterpoint. But I’m already concerned, because those two voices are spaced very far apart. Intervals of a 12th (an octave and a fifth) are in there, and there’s a good deal of contrary motion. This piece of music would be awkward to play. So if I can learn more about the piece, can I modify things to make it more musical?

Learning where the music came from

So the answers to my puzzling questions about the whole piece needed some research.

Research is almost effortless these days, now that we have the World Wide Web, and lots of musicians have put up Web sites with a plethora of information about music. A lot of sheet music is available on the Web for free, and a lot of music is available as MIDI files. We can also listen to recordings of pieces on iTunes, YouTube, and the like. A little Googling, and you can find out all sorts of information about many pieces of classical music. Any time somebody gives you a piece of music, you are obligated to learn more about its background on the Web. Adopt that policy and your musical performances and recordings will improve.

First, the piece is labeled “Lied”. That’s German for “Song”. Now, the part I was sent contains not only a bass line but also a second part, and this makes me curious as to what sort of song it is.

I got the table of contents page from Trios For Guitar and learned that the title of the song is “Wir lieben sehr im Herzen”. Now even if you don’t understand German, all you have to do is to type

“wir lieben sehr im herzen” friderici

into a Google search.

Immediately I found a MIDI file of the whole arrangement at classicalarchives.com.

Then I found a live ensemble performance of the piece on YouTube.

Jackpot. It was a lousy recording (aren’t they all) but a good performance. Immediately lightbulbs went off. This piece is not a song, per se. It’s a chorale. It has parts for soprano, alto, bass and tenor singers, and it has an accompaniment, in this case provided by string and wind instruments. Watch the video and you’ll realize that this is an authentic early music group, playing the piece on instruments that would have been in use in 1600, and trying to perform the piece the way that the composer would have wanted it performed in his day. This is how the piece should feel. It’s a boisterous, celebratory song, with a moderately fast tempo. It may be a tavern or drinking song.

Even though we have three guitars and no singing or lyrics, we should try to do what we can to make our performance feel like the one in this video.

Going even further in Google, I discovered a Web site that is an absolute gold mine for any musicians who want to learn about classical music. It’s called the Choral Public Domain Library.

A link from Google took me straight to the heart of the matter.

Sheet music of the original arrangement, a capella! It’s even in the same key, G major.

Original Score

Figure Two: Original Score

Not only that, but the page has the full lyrics in German. More on that later.

It would also be useful to learn something about the composer; who he was, where he lived, and what sort of other pieces he wrote. Then there’s always the context of the times in which he lived. In this case, I came up empty on Daniel Friderici. Apparently he was not a well-known composer. I’m sure I could find out more in a library that carries the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, but I’ll leave that exercise for another day.

With many of the pieces in the Choral Public Domain Library, the original lyrics in the original language are accompanied by a good English translation. But not in this case.

When I studied singing in music school in college, we were expected to learn to sing in English, Italian, French and German, and there were usually some pieces in Latin that needed learning too. We took classes in the languages and in the pronunciation. Moreover, for any given piece you had to sing as a solo, you were expected to make a complete translation of the lyrics so that you knew the meaning of the sentences and phrases you were singing.

This was in the 1980s, before the World Wide Web, when most students didn’t even use a computer in the first place. We had to go to the library and get musical scores and poetry books to study, and we spent hours and hours picking through the Italian, French and German using translation dictionaries, and writing down what we thought the words meant.

With the Web, most of this is unneccesary for a guitarist trying to learn about a particular piece of music with lyrics. Translations of ancient poems and lyrics abound, and web sites like Google offer automated machine translation tools (which are somewhat better than nothing) for dozens of languages. There are also discussion forums that you can join where you can post questions about music and get advice from other musicians.

Now, it just so happens that I used to speak good German. (I never got very far with Italian or French.) So in this case I was able to write my own translation, with the help of an online dictionary. I tried to retain the German word order, which is strange to English speakers, in order that you can discern the meaning of individual words more easily.

Rough, non-rhyming translation (by Wheat)

We love much in our hearts, three beautiful things so fine
They overcome sorrow and pain when they together are.
Beloved music, a friendly sight, a good, fresh, cool wine
These are three fine things, with which I refresh myself!

In the first place, let us play the instrument well
which on these matters, Art is acting.
The other offers a soft, fine young girl.
These three (things) our host (innkeeper) can provide us with.

Be cheerful about this time!
Drive away sadness and sorrow, drive away sadness and sorrow.

I think you could call this the 1600’s equivalent of a college glee club drinking song. Pretty cool, huh?

Now back to the notation, and how that can directly help my trio play the piece.

It’s clear, then, that the guitar part I was given to play consists of the tenor and bass vocal parts. I guessed, and later confirmed, that Miklós’ arrangement gives the soprano line to Guitar 1 and the alto line to Guitar 2. In order to find this out, I had to contact our trio leader and ask him for the “conductor’s score” which shows all three parts together.

Full ScoreFigure Three: Full Score

Now it’s time to make some changes to that Guitar 3 part.

Looking at the reduction above, you can get an idea about how the four melodic lines weave together. This is a typical chorale. The soprano line is the melody. The alto and tenor lines follow the melody, more or less, providing chord tones below the melody line in close voicing (mostly 3rds and 4ths). But the bass line, as you can see, moves independently and often in contrary motion to the top three voices, and there are wide intervals between the bass notes an the upper three voices.

To see this more clearly, I wrote it out again with the soprano, alto and tenor parts on one staff and the bass part on a second staff. While I was at it, I figured out the chords and wrote in their names.

Picture 8Figure Four: Clarifying the relationship between the voices

Hey, guess what! The alto and tenor parts are very close together and move in similar motion.

I think it would be easier to move the tenor line out of Guitar 3’s part and merge it into Guitar 2’s part. Guitar 2 will play alto and tenor together, and Guitar 3 will play just the bass line, like this:


Figure Five: My new arrangement

I went to visit the other guy in our trio who was assigned to play the Guitar 2 part, and he immediately agreed with me: my arrangement made more sense and would be easier to learn.

So I re-engraved the whole piece in Sibelius with my edits, and printed it out and handed it to the two other guys in my trio.

Here’s the point. If the sheet music doesn’t suit you, re-arrange it! Using modern computer software, it’s very easy.

Finally, if you are in a guitar trio or other ensemble of instruments with the same ranges, consider learning to play all three parts, up to tempo; not just the part you are assigned. You’ll understand the piece much better and your performance will be more informed–that’s the point of this whole exercise.

A Solution to the Posture Problem: the Camp Time Roll-A-Chair

Guitarists who like to play sitting down often see their performance suffer due to bad posture. One important component of that is the chair you choose to sit on.

I may go into this in more detail later, but I have found a solution that, to the best of my knowledge, nobody else has written about.

Camp Time Roll-A-Chair
Camp Time Roll-A-Chair

It’s the Camp Time Roll-A-Chair, and it’s designed as a portable chair for camping or hiking (the “roll” refers to the fact that you can roll it up into a small, lightweight bundle for carrying–it doesn’t have casters or wheels). And it’s only US $40 from the manufacturer.

It’s light and highly portable, yet really sturdy, with four legs. It puts your legs where you need them, doesn’t impede blood circulation, and as a bonus, it provides great lower back support, which most chairs don’t.

It makes you sit upright, not slouching down like the folding chairs you get for sitting around and drinking beer while watching a sporting event.

And the great thing is that the chair has just been made available in three different heights (and multiple colors), so you can get the one that fits your physiology. I use the standard model with a 19-inch seat height. The new models are here.

You may be able to find the Camp Time Roll-A-Chair at sporting goods and camping stores; REI carries it. But it’s cheapest if you order it straight from the distributor.

Give it a try. Hours of good posture and relief of tension means hours of unstressful guitar playing and performance.

Postscript: I bought my Roll-A-Chair four or five years ago to sit on at summer camp for a week–not for playing guitar. I needed something to promote good posture in general because of a nagging injury and bulging disk in my neck that caused pinched nerves. I only rediscovered the Roll-A-Chair this year when I started thinking about the importance of posture to the traditional seated position for playing classical guitar. I found the Roll-A-Chair on a shelf in my garage, gave it a try, and realized that it has an entirely new use for me.