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The Biggest Classical Guitar Stereotypes 

 December 4, 2023

By  Kale Good

Every instrument has its stereotypes, whether it's that singers don't know music theory or that violists are just failed violinists. Classical guitar is no different, so here I present you with the biggest classical guitar stereotypes. Some of them are silly and fun, and some of them are painfully accurate.

They're always ready to give a for a manicure

Classical guitarists are obsessed with their nails... but only on their right hand. They constantly carry a nail file or sandpaper to immediately file down the smallest nicks in their nails. They have a bevy of nail-care products and supplements at home. They reach for most things with their left hand to avoid damaging their nails. They carry their keys and other items that might gouge their nails in the left-hand pocket of their pants (to avoid damaging a nail).

And, if a nail breaks, they'll ask you if you have any superglue before hurrying to the bathroom.

They can't sight-read

As the old joke goes, "How do you get a guitarist to stop playing?" "Put some sheet music in front of him." Unlike most electric and acoustic guitarists, every classical guitarist learns to read music. But not very well. Why is this? Well, reading music on the violin is difficult because you can play the same exact note in different places on different strings. But, hey, at least you're only playing a simple melody. Reading music on the piano is difficult because it's polyphonic - you need to be able to read two or more voices simultaneously. But, hey, at least there is only 1 place to play every note. Reading music on guitar combines both of these problems.

The truth is, reading music on guitar is hard. But, hey, at least it's not organ music!
(sample of organ music)

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They have terrible rhythm. 

Is a tricky section coming up? Expect a classical guitarist to slow down. It's one thing if you know you're doing it, but most classical guitarists aren't even aware they're changing the beat. If it's a slightly tricky subdivision, a big shift, or a big stretch, we'll stretch the beat to make it easy. If it's a simple long tone (especially a single note unaccompanied by harmonies), expect us to cut it short.

We're not alone in this. In his excellent book Sound in Motion (which I can not praise enough), David McGill talks about how most musicians play even some common rhythms wrong (and certainly get the feeling of almost all rhythms wrong).

But the truth is, we're way worse than others.

Why is this? Part of it is that the guitar is just plain hard. But that excuse isn't enough to explain it all away. Perhaps the largest problem is that we're a solo instrument. Almost every other classical instrument spends far, far more time in ensembles and orchestras from the very early years of playing. And if there's anything that'll force you to sort out your rhythm problems, it's playing in large groups.

The good news is there's plenty you can do to improve your timing! 

They Don't play well with others.  

Really accurate tuning, how to cue, how to breathe, what it really means to know your music. All these are things that are incredibly important for ensemble or orchestral playing, and all of them improve your solo playing.

The problem is that guitarists rarely get any ensemble experience until way too late. Another curse of being a solo instrument and the stepchild of the classical music world.

They can't play legato. 

Legato is one of THE MOST IMPORTANT skills for all musicians to learn to sound competent. But, let's be honest; Classical Guitarists can't play a true legato (side note: why do some people call slurs "legato playing"... it's just... not). It's impossible. After all, we're a percussion instrument!

Legato means a constant sound without any interruption. This is relatively easy for a violin; keep the bow moving and put down a finger.

But, no matter what a classical guitarist does, we must touch the string to change notes. And when we touch the string, the sound stops. And, if there is even the slightest lack of coordination between your hands, you'll stop the sound dead. If your RH finger touches the string too soon - There is no legato. If your LH finger lifts too soon -- No legato. If your LH finger goes down too soon -- you guessed it, no legato.

The truth is, the best we can do is create the illusion of legato. Doing that is very challenging, leaving some teachers to put it off until later... but later never comes. 

Related Content:

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They only play for other classical guitarists. 

Classical guitar isn't nearly as popular as other classical instruments. Here in Philadelphia, the Chamber Music Society has one or two classical guitarists per season and is flooded with pianists, violinists, and even trumpet players. Concertos with major orchestras rarely happen; it probably doesn't help that there's only one really popular guitar concerto.

In fact, Classical Guitar is such a stepchild of the Classical Music World that we have to create Classical Guitar Societies just to give the biggest names in the classical guitar world an opportunity to perform! You don't see a Classical Violin society anywhere, do you?

Whether that is for better or worse, I do not know.

Side note: Philadelphia's classical radio station, 90.1 WRTI, plays plenty of classical guitar, especially in the morning. Maybe we just need to schedule our concerts earlier?

There are no stereotypes of classical guitarists. 

Because other classical musicians don't even think about us. 🙁

They start late 

Unlike violin or piano, most classical guitarists start their training by learning popular tunes instead of the fundamentals that best serve them in the long run. Typically, it takes many years for a guitarist to "find" classical guitar. By then, much time has been lost to strumming chords around a campfire.

While a violinist or pianist may end up playing popular songs, the techniques needed to do so are similar enough that they all start doing the same thing.

8. There's no good pedagogy
This just stems from how young the guitar is in so many ways. The modern Classical guitar didn't appear until the 1840s. Sure, violin construction changed drastically in the 1700s. Still, it was relatively easy to retrofit old violins with the new developments in construction. Compare that to the classical guitar; there's no way an Early Romantic guitar could be retrofitted to play modern repertoire. They're almost entirely different instruments.

Next, the classical guitar wasn't taken seriously as a classical instrument until Segovia increased its popularity in the early 20th century. Compare that to the violin, which has been taken seriously since... forever. And Segovia wasn't exactly known as a really good teacher (except by maybe Christopher Parkening). 

Conclusion

What stereotypes of classical guitarists have I missed? What have you done to help avoid becoming a stereotypical classical guitarist? Let me know in the comments section!

Kale Good


Educator and Founder of Good Music Academy.

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