Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Selecting and Acquiring the Classical Guitar, Part One

Perhaps you're coming to the conclusion that you would like to have a better guitar. No doubt this hasn't been a sudden urge as we all carry that little message in the back of our brain that continues to whisper encouraging acquisitive thoughts. These are ideas such as "I need a guitar that inspires me" or "This thing is much harder to play than a good guitar would be" and the deadly "I've always wanted a fine instrument and by now I deserve not to wait any longer".

If you're like me, these little messages would often arrive when I was least able to afford these whims. So let's start there…….you want a better guitar but right now you're going to have to settle for putting on a new set of retreads on the old family bus and finding a way to restore your interest in your existing guitar.

Let us pause for a moment and consider the words of Bobby Jones, golf's greatest legend, advising us on "Choosing a Putter"……I think you'll find some parallels:

"Nine times out of ten, a change from one type of putter to another will effect no lasting good. The new one may work better at first or on occasions, but consistency would be better served by sticking to the old one and making friends with it.

It is, of course, up to the individual to choose the kind of putter that he wants. The design makes little difference so long as the balance is good, the club is easily handled, and the face is true. Whether the head be aluminum, wood or iron is a matter of little consequence, generally speaking, although it has been the experience of most good putters that that certain types of clubs are more reliable under certain conditions"

From "Bobby Jones On Golf " published by Broadway Books used without permission but with all respect possible.

So with the words of the Maestro ringing in our ears let's start by taking off the old strings and refreshing the fingerboard with a good cleaning with some Lemon oil and 0000 steel wool. This can really make the fretboard sparkle and cause you to look further and critically at the shape of your instrument. Next use some guitar cleaner such as that from Gibson Guitar and clean the finish thoroughly inspecting for cracks or finish checks. Clean the tuners with a bit of Naphtha or Mineral Spirits applied with an old toothbrush and then re-oil the gears.

Now let's consider the strings. Often a guitar can change its voice character substantially with a change of string brand, type or tension. The composite strings can sometimes energize an older guitar and clean up muddy sounds you may have grown used to. These strings are often a bit more expensive but worth it if they renew your interest in the instrument. I would recommend Hannabach 728 basses and Carbon trebles as a good place to start. Hannabach also offers "Goldins" that will indeed energize the tone of your guitar in ways you might enjoy. Savarez Alliance trebles and Corum basses are also highly thought in the composite choices, as are the D'Addario offerings. Finally, try varying the tension a bit to see if you like the differences. I would recommend high-tension basses and medium tension trebles as a place to start while some experienced players like just the opposite.

Finally, look at the action. If it seems high then that can have a negative impact on playability. The standard is 4mm between the top of the fret and the bottom on the string on the bass side and 3mm on the treble side. Most players like the action a bit lower than this. Also check the action at the nut. Fret each string between the second and third fret and then touch the string exactly at the first fret. There should be only a slight distance of about .006" between the top of first fret and the bottom of the string. 006" is the equivalent of a two pieces of index card stock. If this action is too high it will make barre chording more difficult and when coupled with a higher overall action will reduce your enjoyment in playing.

Now, what to do about high action? Some players are comfortable in grinding away at nut and saddles to adjust action. But this is not recommended for the average person as one can greatly affect sound and intonation with a poor job. Best to take your guitar to a competent repair person to verify your opinions regarding action. If possible, locate a classical guitar luthier who will be familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the nylon string guitar. While you're at it inquire as to anything that might be done to improve the sound or playability of the instrument. Surprisingly, both can be helped with some tinkering of the fit of both nut and saddle perhaps even replacing one or both with better, intonated versions. Expect to pay $50-100 for such refinements.

Assuming you've done all or part of the above you should find some improvement in your relationship with your existing instrument. Hopefully you'll be able to stave off your Guitar Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) until another time. At the least you'll really know your instrument is truly the best that it can be and if nothing else can make a good back-up or travel guitar in your future.

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