Classical guitars are their own category in the world of stringed instruments. As the name implies, these guitars are generally purposed for classical music. Although, there are plenty of players who challenge this notion. For instance, Justin Mraz is a heavy classical guitar player who uses one for many pop songs.

The goal of this article is to familiarize you with what makes a classical guitar unique from other types of guitars, as well as outline a selection of what I consider to be worthy of your radar. And in order to better help you, use the table below to compare some of the best classical guitars under $500 available on the market.

PhotoModelTypePriceFeatures
Fender CN-60SAcoustic$Concert body style
Yamaha Cg182cAcoustic$Ebony Fingerboard

A Bit About Classical Guitars

The history of the classical guitar can be dated more than 4000 years. It’s relatively unknown that guitars began as a fretless lute. We saw this model evolve into the 6-stringed guitar in the 17th century, as well as the introduction of frets. Strings were commonly made of pig intestines.

Acoustic guitars are separated into two categories – Steel String or Classical. As the name implies, steel is used in the manufacturing of steel stringed guitar strings. Classical guitar strings are now made of nylon. Therefore, classical guitars/flamenco guitars are commonly referred to as “nylon stringed guitars.”

It’s sometimes difficult to pick a classical guitar out of a lineup of acoustic guitars. A few identifying factors include:

  • Rear-facing tuners installed in a slotted headpiece
  • Smaller body (sometimes)
  • Larger-looking strings (particularly in the trebles, or top three strings)
  • Entirely different bracing system “inside the box” (see below)
  • Pin-less bridge (although some higher-end steel string acoustics feature this, but take ball-end strings)

The difference in string material is the key element in a classical guitar’s unique sound. However, the builder/manufacturer has a lot of considerations when bracing the top. The term “bracing” refers to the thin strips of wood that are glued to the underside of the top of an acoustic instrument.

This includes violins, basses, acoustic guitars, mandolins, ukuleles, and many arch top guitars. Bracing systems can be proprietary or customized to alter the overall tone of a guitar.

Classical guitar bracing looks like a sort of fan, which transfers the energy in a string’s vibration to the edges of a top – generally either cedar or spruce for their lightweight and stiff properties. Combined with the nylon strings, you can generally expect a classical guitar to sound more mellow and dark than a steel string. It’s nearly useless to compare the two; a classical guitar can be dynamically brilliant and varied.

Classical guitars can be easier to fret than steel strings due to lower string tension. This is also why there is no truss rod in a classical guitar; there’s simply no need to adjust a well-built classical guitar’s neck relief. However, you will find the neck of a classical guitar to be a little wider than that of a steel string.

Don’t let that fact deter you if you have small hands; I’m sure the shorter scale length will more than make up for this very subtle statistic. Classical guitars tend to have a shorter nut – to – saddle distance, or “scale length,” compared to electric or steel stringed guitars. 

What am I Looking For?

Whenever I set out to buy any type of guitar, I have a few things I keep in mind.

Sound – Do the strings respond to both the slightest touch all the way to a flamenco-style rasqaedo? A classical guitar should be responsive, particularly if you grow out the fingers of your strumming/picking hand. Furthermore, the guitar should sound all-around pleasant to you.

Looks – Classical guitars are very, well, classic looking as far as guitars are concerned. They may have the same basic shape, but some builders choose to add their own “zest” into the mix. As long as you like the way it looks, you should be happy in this department. Nobody wants to bring an ugly axe to a gig!

Feel – Classical guitar bodies are generally quite uniform in shape. The largest differences players will notice will be in the neck itself. It may take awhile to get used to if you are an experienced player of steel stringed or electric guitars, but the guitar should feel at least comfortable when fretting and playing.

Setup and Action – Get this right the first time, because classical guitars are incredibly hard to adjust yourself. Or, very expensive to have adjusted. Either way, you should have an easy time fretting a classical guitar at your local music shop. If it’s difficult to do so, stay away! Classical guitars should always be easy to fret.

Overall Value – Are you happy with your guitar? Do you feel that this classical guitar will provide the unique tone you have been looking for? Does it sound, look, feel and play like a dream? Chances are, you’ve made the right choice, and have purchased a guitar you will find to be valuable for many years to come.

The Lineup

Let’s begin with the Yamaha CG182C.

Yamaha CG182C

This is a very pleasant sounding guitar for those who find that they enjoy the sound of a neutral-response nylon-stringed instrument. I found that it responds well to finger style, and was able to provoke it to chime out those trebles with relative ease. Keep in mind that I began as a classical guitarist, so my strumming-hand nails are quite long. However, as someone who prefers a bit of tonal variation from treble to bass, I found this guitar to fit the purposes of a serious strummer rather than a pure finger stylist such as myself. Therefore, strict-classical guitarists need not apply.

If you are a player looking for a singer/songwriter heartthrob guitar, this is an instrument I believe should peak your interest. Furthermore, the cedar top and indian rosewood back and sides make for a very stellar looking instrument. It should be noted that Yamaha is buy-and-large an exceptional company.

While they are not strictly a guitar manufacture, I have played and owned several different saxophone models, guitars/basses and pianos by this monster of a company. Their high level of craftsmanship is apparent in this instrument. Plus, the rosette is a nice touch on an overall classic-looking instrument. Plus, it plays like a charm.

Yamaha NCX700

Look at the CG182C, and reverse everything I just said concerning the tone of it. Why? Because this guy has a solid sitka spruce top on it! Sitka spruce is widely known by builders to have an excellent weight to stiffness ratio across the grain. It was actually used in the manufacture of airplanes due to it’s strength relative to it’s density/weight. If cedar is meant to lullaby you to sleep, sitka was born to wake you up…but could also play you a sweet serenade as you make your morning cup of coffee.

As a luthier myself, I generally prefer the sound of sitka spruce for this reason: it is just simply the everyman’s tonewood, capable of playing soft or hard. It all depends on what the player wants, and it responds beautifully. Plus, this axe has has a pickup included. Now, you classical buffs out there roll your eyes, but I encourage you to realize the possibilities! Pickups have come a long way, and I found this pickup to work nicely in that it doesn’t distort the signal very much.

Thus, it still sounds like a classical guitar when playing plugged. Overall, I would spend the extra $50 and purchase the NCX700. As always, that’s just my opinion, but the pickup itself would be worth more than the difference in price on its own.

La Patrie Etude

Going into this piece, I knew almost nothing about classical guitar companies other than the “big names,” and then again nothing about their history. La Patrie stands out a bit in terms of innovation in that their neck construction is very unique. Unlike most classical instruments, this model features a truss rod. What does that mean for you as the player? Well, you get to enjoy a slim neck profile!

That’s right, even us steel-stringed fanatics can get a handle on this classical guitar. Generally speaking, the lack of truss rod in classical guitars necessitates the extra width and depth in the neck to make up for the lack of structural integrity.

That being said, I think this guitar plays absolutely wonderfully. Even having a background in classical guitar, I really appreciated the neck on this guitar. The playability all around was immensely desirable, and the sound was crisp and articulate as expected. The model I played was a cedar top, and I am curious as to how the spruce model would sound.

The only department I find this guitar to be lacking in is in terms of looks. The proprietary headstock looks really silly, and the rosette wasn’t that stunning. The finish was a bit lackluster, but for the price, I’d say this is an overall excellent value.

Fender CN-90

I’ve written at length about Fender’s extraordinary line of steel-string acoustic guitars. The company’s acoustic line has improved it’s quality and offerings over the past several years to a point where I consider them a serious contender in the acoustic arms race, offering budget-friendly options all the way up to stellar looking and playing options in and around the $1,000 range.

The CN-90 is an excellent option if one is so bold as to choose the classical guitar as their first foray into playing stringed fretted instruments. However, if one’s wallet allows, I would seriously consider a different option: while this guitar is cheap – and I stand by the fact that price is not a reflection on an instrument’s quality – I consider it to be of lesser quality than some other options discussed in this article.

Building a classical guitar is much different than building a steel string guitar, and I feel as though Fender has seriously missed the mark on this one. The neck feels much to large, nearly a block in the fretting hand. This may discourage newer players, or even seasoned players looking to hone-in on their finger-style technique. The sound is adequate, but certainly not as responsive as some other options.

On the other hand, I do recommend this guitar to anyone looking for a nylon guitar for use in a studio. It’s very tough-built and can last for centuries as long as Pete Townshend doesn’t get a hold of it. While the recording quality will be diminished for any finger style playing, backtracks of rhythm would benefit from this instrument’s relatively flat-response from treble to bass. Your audio engineer will thank you for your purchase.

Ovation 1124 Classical

Ovation guitars are in a league of their own when it comes to construction. These things are absolute tanks when it comes to construction, but beware; the back and sides are made entirely of plastic. Don’t fret, I think they actually look pretty cool! While the Ovation Legend Classical may turn away classical purists, I think this guitar has a lot to offer. I found the pickup system to be absolutely stellar, but it did impart a sort of “buzz” on the overall tone of the guitar.

This could be good or bad, all depending on the sound you as the player want out of your classical guitar. The neck felt absolutely perfect in my fretting hand, and the entire guitar was extremely comfortable to hold. These are all aspects I’ve come to expect out of any ovation guitar, but I found the classical model to be surprisingly fun to play. Unplugged, I think the guitar sounds a bit un-classical. It sure is loud, but the sustain doesn’t seem to be there without the active pickup system there to modify the sound.

Again, pick your poison. I think this is a killer choice for anyone who plays out regularly that doesn’t need a purely “classical” sound. This thing will stand up to any of the rigors of touring, hands down.

Conclusion

If you are in the market for a classical guitar, chances are you know exactly the type of sound you are going for. Perhaps you admire the unique appointments I’ve discussed that are normally only found in classical guitars. Either way, this is just a small sampling of what is out there. I always encourage readers to go out there and play, play play.

You may disagree with whatever you’ve heard about a particular model of guitar, and the player should always have the ultimate say in the quality of sound, feel and playability of a guitar. Have fun shopping.

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