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?

Fingerboards

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.

Scale

length

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

48

40.5

Varies (wide)

380

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.

Roadmap, sort of. An ambitious outlay of plans.

Being new to this blogging thing, it occurs to me that I’ve got a book brewing here. The subtitle might be “An Outsider’s Guide to All Things Guitar.”

All I can do is post stuff as I think of it and as time permits. What will probably happen is a bunch of installments presented out of order, and later on I’ll have to re-organize it into chapters and sections.

I already have tons of written material that I created in the form of emails to friends, and one or two long essays that I wrote just for myself. Then there are sections that I have been mulling over for months but not committed to the word processor or paper. I’m not going to publish this all at once, because I want you, the reader, to keep coming back for more.

[A whole ‘nother thing that I can write about is my method for playing jazz guitar with the instrument tuned in all fourths, low-to-high Eb-Ab-Db-Gb-B-E.

I don’t use this method for classical guitar; I play classical in standard tuning, at least for now.

I did not invent the 4ths-tuning method, but I came up with all of my principles myself; I “re-invented the wheel” to suit my own needs. I call this “Stanley” tuning, after Stanley Jordan, but I’m talking about using it for traditional right and left hand technique, not tapping a la Jordan or playing a Chapman Stick. I have been receiving some consulting on this from guitar educator and guitar designer and manufacturer Matt Raines, who has made it his specialty to play seven-string guitar in 4ths with the traditional technique. He doesn’t endorse my work, yet, but I think I’m on to something.]

Anyway, Becoming a Guitarist will include, but will not be limited to, the following (in no particular order). I will present my insights and opinions on:

1. How classical guitar notation is too hard to read; here’s how to change it for the better. Lots of music notation examples. This is not about “tab” or tablature. It’s about traditional music notation.

2. Using computer tools for notation and arranging for guitar, and for studying scores. Do it yourself.

3. How to use extended-range bass guitar in the classical ensemble context; available instruments and strategies. 7-string, 8-string, 10 and 11-string classical guitars, regular scale, long scale, “fanned fret”, and a section on using the five-string acoustic bass guitar in the ensemble. There are several renowned ensembles using one or more of these instruments today.

4. How to cross-over from electric and acoustic guitar to classical guitar; specific modifications to the classical guitar design that are commercially available, and how to obtain them. I did a lot of research before I bought my unusual yet quite affordable Alhambra “crossover” guitar. This will contain an extensive section on fingerboard and nut width, radiused versus flat fingerboards, fret dressing, string spacing at the nut and bridge, action, intonation, and cutaway design. Then, once you have decided to play classical, can you continue to play your old electric and steel-string acoustic guitars? Should you?

5. How to make your classical guitar sing. Most classical repertoire consists of music that was written for other instruments and ensembles, “transcribed” to fit onto a guitar or ensemble of guitars. In many cases we are talking about vocal music with lyrics (think madrigals, Bach chorales, and Schubert lieder). Now, I’m a singer and chorister who has worked with all kinds of vocal music. So I think I’m entitled to give the guitarist (any kind of guitarist) some tips on how to make your guitar playing sound more like singing. I personally interviewed Paul O’Dette, the world’s greatest lute player, and got some insights on this subject. I also draw on a published interview with Sharon Isbin that I need to dig up and quote.

6. Related to (5), how to really learn and understand the music you are going to play, before you pick up the guitar. It has to do with taking the trouble to find the sheet music and a good recording of the original arrangement as the composer intended, even if it’s a symphony with a full orchestra, before you plunge into the guitar transcription or arrangement with which you’ve been provided. This goes doubly for lyrics. You shouldn’t play an instrumental arrangement of a song unless you know the lyrics and what they mean in English (if that is your language). This goes doubly for jazz guitarists playing out of the fake book. More advice from Paul O’Dette.

7. Posture, relieving stress in your body in practicing and performing. Footstools are archaic and obsolete, and in my case, needlessly stressful and painful. Putting both feet flat on the ground and propping up your guitar into the proper playing position using a special cushion or a support bracket that attaches to the guitar are better ways to play.

8. Keys, how to approach selecting a key, and the important but usually overlooked issue of guitarists being needlessly inflexible about keys. Important side-note on how guitars and writing songs based on playing licks built around open strings in rock and pop music have ruined life for singers everywhere, and how this could be corrected. The bottom line is that if you are working with a singer, you and your ensemble should let the singer select the key of each piece he or she is singing. The singer should select the key that works best for his or her particular voice according to the melody of the piece being considered. Everybody in the band should be prepared to play the song in any key requested at any time. This is the way it has always been done in classical music, folk music, and especially jazz. Many hit rock songs make this task impossible, due to the way in which they were written, which I will explain.

I’ll think of other stuff. Well, I’ve got my work cut out for me.

If you have some comments on these points, and I hope you do, you might want to wait until I publish the section in question and explain myself fully, rather than comment on my little outline above. On the other hand, if you have specific ideas on other topics about classical guitar and musicianship that you think I ought to address, please post comments here. I’m looking mostly for conventional, traditional things that everybody does that you think should be done differently.