This article is a brief introduction into how to play Spanish guitar. It introduces the playing techniques that are used and also highlights differences between playing the Spanish guitar and other kinds of guitar.
Note that most of the time, the terms ‘Spanish guitar’ and ‘classical guitar’ are interchangeable. Both refer to a nylon-strung – rather than a steel-strung – guitar.
To find out the differences between the various types of guitar, refer to our Guitar Basics article.
How To Play Spanish Guitar – Playing Technique
Spanish guitar playing technique is more defined than that of other kinds of guitar, with a generally accepted ‘correct’ way of playing.
This method has evolved along with the instrument, and is worth adhering to.
As always it’s best to get some lessons. It’s harder to teach yourself Spanish guitar than other guitar styles.
The following instructions refer to a standard, right-handed instrument. Left handed classical guitars do exist, but it is recommended that beginners learn how to play Spanish guitar with a standard instrument, even if they are left-handed. (Note: the author of this article is a qualified classical guitar teacher who is left-handed but plays ‘right-handedly’)
The performer is seated when playing Spanish guitar. An armless chair or stool of average height is usually sufficient.
The guitar rests on top of the performer’s left thigh, and is held close to the body. A footstool is used to raise the left leg so that the instrument is positioned at a comfortable height for playing.
The twelfth fret of the guitar should be roughly central to the body. The performer’s back should be straight, and there should be no undue strain in the neck, back or arms.
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Spanish Guitar Right Hand Technique
Spanish guitarists use the thumb and fingers of the right hand to produce the notes, and do not use a pick. The little finger, or pinkie, is generally not used.
The right hand is used to play chords, arpeggios and single note lines. Acoustic guitarists who are used to playing fingerstyle should have little difficulty adapting to the Spanish guitar.
However, there are some right hand techniques used in Spanish guitar that are not used in standard acoustic guitar playing. In classical guitar, most notes are sounded using one of two styles: ‘tirando‘ or ‘apoyando‘.
Tirando means ‘free stroke’. This is where the finger strikes the string as part of a continuous motion, and is how notes are normally played in acoustic guitar.
Apoyando means ‘rest stroke’. Here the finger strikes the string, but rather than continuing past the string, comes to rest on the adjacent string. This produces a stronger sound, and can be used to emphasise notes or melodies.
Tirando is the default technique, but both methods should be practised.
Other Spanish guitar right hand techniques include tremolo, rasgueado and golpe.
Tremolo is when each note of a melody is sounded by three right hand fingers in quick succession, giving the impression of one continuously sustained note. The thumb is used to play notes between the tremolo part.
Rasguado is a strumming motion, most often performed with the second finger.
Golpe is a percussive tap on the guitar body, most often used in flamenco playing.
Left Hand Technique
The left hand technique for Spanish guitar is similar to that of electric and acoustic styles. The thumb should remain behind the neck, not too near the sides.
Barres and half barres are both utilised. Many Spanish guitar pieces have bass, mid and treble parts, and care is needed in the left hand to allow all of the parts to sound clearly.
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Do You Need To Grow Nails To Play Spanish Guitar?
Most Spanish guitarists grow the nails of their right hand. Nails allow for a stronger, clearer sound to be produced. While not absolutely necessary, playing with nails is highly beneficial and should be tried.
However, the debate over whether or not nails are needed to play Spanish guitar has been raging since the eighteen hundreds!
Spanish Guitar Technique
Most Spanish guitarists read music, and are able to play from scores. Music is often memorised for performance. This enables a better performance, and also ensures that the sound of the instrument is not obstructed by the music on a stand.
If you are coming to Spanish guitar from an electric or acoustic guitar background then you will need to learn to read music if you do not already do so. Although some Spanish guitar music is available in TAB, your playing will be restricted if you do not read.
If you are making the effort to learn how to play Spanish guitar, you may as well learn how to read the music too.
Spanish Guitar Exams
In the UK and in many other countries, examinations can be taken in classical guitar playing. Although it is not essential to take exams, it is a good way of tracking your progress as you learn how to play Spanish guitar.
Exams range from grade 1 to grade 8. There are also some pre-grade 1 exams which are useful for building up confidence.
After grade 8 you can go on to do performance or teaching diplomas – and get letters after your name!
How To Play Spanish Guitar – Conclusion
Of course, you can’t learn how to play Spanish guitar from reading an article, but I hope that this has given you some tips and useful advice to get you started. With a bit of practice, you could be the next Segovia!
For inspiration, check out our ‘Learning Classical Guitar‘ article, which features videos of several great Spanish guitarists.