Classical guitar is one of the most distinctive styles of play you can learn, and it teaches numerous techniques which can be readily applied to other genres. Although there is a specific type of classical guitar (usually with nylon strings and a distinctive headstock), you can practice the style on any acoustic, or even with an electric if you don’t have another option.

The most immediately obvious element of style in classical guitar is the almost exclusive use of finger-picking rather than a plectrum. So if you’re serious about playing classical guitar, consider growing the fingernails of your picking hand to make it a more efficient tool.

Once you’ve mastered the classical guitar, you’ll be a skilled finger-picker and be able to carry a melody and a bass-line with just your guitar – essentially using it as a piano.

Holding the Guitar

If you’ve ever seen anybody hold a classical guitar, you’ll have noticed that it isn’t how people usually hold the instrument. Whilst in ordinary playing, you’ll rest the guitar on your favored leg – so right-handers rest the instrument on their right leg and vice-versa – but in classical you rest the guitar on your other leg, closest to your fretting hand.

Classical players often have a foot rest under this leg to raise it up and make it easier to hold the neck pointing upwards at around a 30 to 40 degree angle. You can accomplish this (if you don’t have a purpose-designed rest) using an improvised foot rest (a stack of books, for example) or by simply adjusting your position so you can hold the guitar in the right way. The forearm of your picking hand should rest on the body of the guitar so your hand comfortably hangs down over the sound hole.

Labeling Your Fingers

The biggest challenge when you first pick up classical guitar is the requirement for finger-picking. There are some basic established rules governing how you use your picking-hand fingers. Although it isn’t always true, generally speaking, you’ll only use your thumb, index, middle finger and ring finger. These are labeled “P,” “I,” “M” and “A,” respectively, and it’s best to assign one picking finger per string. Your thumb will ordinarily cover the bass notes (on the E, A or D strings), whereas the three fingers each take one of the higher strings (G, B or E). However, you can adapt this basic strategy to suit different compositions.

Here’s a basic exercise to get to grips with the PIMA system of labeling (notice the letters below the relevant notes on the tab):

   P  I  M  A  M  I  P  I  M  A  M  I

These notes aren’t always given, though, so it’s better to think in more general terms than to stick rigidly to any rules regarding which finger to use. For example, if the notes you’re playing are on the A, D, G and B strings, there’s no need to use your thumb for both the A and D strings, since you’d leave one finger with nothing to do!

Rest Strokes and Free Strokes

Since finger-picking is so essential for classical guitar, the simple finger-picking method you’d develop naturally isn’t always ideal. Most players will automatically finger-pick in the “free stroke” style, where your finger plucks the string and then moves upwards and outwards into the open air – “free” from the strings. The alternative technique is called a “rest stroke,” which is when you pluck the string but then allow your finger to rest on an adjacent string afterwards.

So if you were contracting your finger to pluck the high E string, after the stroke, your finger would be poised to pluck the B string. This creates a straight-line plucking motion which really helps your notes stand out of the mixture – making the technique especially useful for playing melody lines. However, free strokes are still the most common because they make it easier to keep in time with “busier” or faster compositions.

Learning Your First Classical Song

Now you’ve learned the basics of classical guitar, you’re ready to tackle an easy arrangement of a recognizable piece. This is Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” arranged with distinctive melody and bass lines. It’s more forgiving than some classical pieces, because some are “polyphonic,” meaning that there are two virtually individual parts to play at the same time. This arrangement is “homophonic,” so the bass fits naturally in with the melody. It might help you to focus on the melody first and then build the bass in later. Here’s the first section of the arrangement:




Start slowly if you have difficulty playing both the bass and melody notes together, and then gradually increase your speed as you get more comfortable.


Classical guitar not only breathes new life into well-worn compositions, it also teaches you numerous essential skills as a guitarist. As you develop new techniques and become more familiar with the style, you’ll be able to tackle complex compositions which are guaranteed to wow your audience. It takes a lot of dedication to master classical guitar, but it’s definitely worthwhile.

Head photo by mokaiwen / CC BY 2.0

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