Frequently Asked Questions
What are the differences between steel-string acoustic and classical/flamenco (a.k.a. "nylon-string") guitars?
The most prevalent differences are in the neck joints, the bridge designs, the bracing systems, and the nut widths.
Neck joint: The neck joins the classical/flamenco guitar at the 12th fret whereas it joins the steel-string guitars body at the 14th fret. The neck joint on classical/flamenco guitars are unified and built into the body. On a steel-string guitar, the neck is attached to the finished body with a dovetail joint, and usually has a truss-rod (running through the neck and into the body) for added reinforcement and intonation control.
Bridge design: On classical/flamenco guitars, the strings are strung through horizontal holes then tied. With steel-string guitars, the strings are usually secured by pegs wedged into vertical holes.
Bracing: The bracing on classical/flamenco guitars is usually of a radial fan system. Since the string tension of steel-strings is about three times greater than that of nylon strings, steel-string guitars usually employ a stronger, less efficient 'X' bracing system.
Nut Width: The nut width on classical/flamenco guitars is much wider than on steel-string guitars, usually by about 4 to 5 millimeters.
What are the differences between classical and flamenco guitars?
The differences between classical and flamenco guitars lie in their materials, construction and sound.
Materials: Classical guitars are generally made with spruce or cedar tops and rosewood or mahogany backs and sides to enhance sustain. Flamenco guitars are generally made with spruce tops and cypress or sycamore for the backs and sides to enhance volume and emphasize the attack of the note.
Construction: The body of a classical guitar is generally deeper and the woods are slightly thicker. Flamenco guitars have a flat or negative (before string tension) neck relief, making the action very fast at the cost of some buzzing. The strings are also closer to the body on flamenco guitars to facilitate tapping. Flamenco guitars often bear a "golpeador", which is a sheet of plastic mounted to the face of the guitar to protect its finish.
Sound: The classical guitar is designed to give the soloist the tools to perform poly-timbral music: "An orchestra in a box". The attack is soft with a longer and gradual decay. The flamenco guitar is designed to cut through the sound of dancers stomping their feet. The sound is a bit more percussive, a loud sonic burst followed by a swift decay.
How can one tell the difference between a student guitar and a concert guitar?
Price-wise, a decent solid top student model starts at $300 whereas a concert model starts at about $2000. Upon inspection you'll find that superior building materials are used to produce a concert model (i.e. deluxe machine heads, real bone nut and saddle, rosewood with a random and gnarly grain pattern, and soundboard material with a tight and uniform grain pattern from the finest quarter-sawn material.)
Looking at the label may also provide some clues. A concert guitar will often, but not always, bear the handwritten signature or initials or stamp of the master builder. The student model usually has a lengthy serial number printed on the label with the words, "Guitarras de Estudio".
What are the differences between cedar and spruce soundboards?
The most noticeable and most obvious difference is in appearance. Spruce is light blonde in color, almost sometimes with a honey/amber tint, while cedar is darker and appears in various shades of brown. Cedar bears a distinct, pleasant odor and is slightly more porous, which may contribute to a faster responding sound. However, there are many more factors that contribute to the overall sound of the guitar. These include internal structure, thickness of material, pattern and shape of the instrument, type of finish, and type of strings. Spruce is the traditional wood that was used for centuries of guitar making. Cedar is much newer on the scene, having become popular and widespread in its use, starting in the mid-1960's.
What is French polish?
French polish is actually a method used to apply varnish in which hundreds of thin coats of shellac (sometimes blended with other resins and oils, depending on the tastes of the varnisher) are applied with a solvent-damp rag. Although it is a rather delicate finish, more susceptible than other finishes to dings and scratches, French polish is considered to be the most desirable. Over time, when the finish becomes dull with wear, the shellac can be restored to its original luster by applying new finish to the old. It is wise to have an expert repairman who is familiar with the technique to do the job.
What other types of finishes are used?
Common lacquer and acid catalyzed finishes are the other choices among guitar builders. The common lacquer finish is obtained by spraying lacquer (usually nitro-cellulose) to the surface, allowing it to dry, sanding it, then repeating the process several times until a suitable coating is achieved.
An acid catalyzed finish (sometimes called "resin" finish) consists of two parts which are mixed just prior to application; a type of varnish and a hardening agent. The finish is quick drying and very durable. Since it is also not solvent soluble, it needs to be sanded away completely in order to be restored. Kohno and Jose Ramirez are two well-known makers who have utilized this method.
What are the differences between Indian and CSA rosewoods?
CSA Rosewood has more of a crystalline or glassy appearance, often exhibiting ornate grain patterns, which provide a feast for the eye. Indian Rosewood has straight grains and no pattern. It is currently illegal to export CSA Rosewood for the use of guitar building; hence, making it a rare commodity and more sought after. Some guitar makers such as Fleta, Simplicio, and Friederich insist that Indian Rosewood is the ideal choice. Neither is really superior over the other in terms of sound.
What are the differences between rosewood and ebony fingerboards?
Ebony is much harder and denser than rosewood. It is also black in color, sometimes bearing light "flames" in the grain. Ebony is a bit more expensive and should last beyond the lifetime of the guitar. Some players prefer rosewood, claiming that being softer, it cushions the fingertips to some degree. Rosewood fingerboards are much lighter and more often used on flamenco models.
What is bracing and how does it affect sound?
Bracing consists of strips of wood arranged in a pattern and glued to the underside of the soundboard. Its function is to support the soundboard and to transmit vibrations across it.
What does quarter sawn mean?
A quarter sawn board is cut along the radius of the log, from the center to the edge. The affect is to produce a piece of material with the greatest number of annular rings possible running across the edge of the board. It is the most structurally sound cut of wood and is best for transmitting sonic vibrations.
What is the difference between a factory guitar and a handmade guitar, and what are some examples?
While these are not technical terms (and there are always exceptions), guitar making can be broken down into four broad categories:
1. Single Artisan: Makers like Friederich, Field, Blochinger, Bruck, etc. who really work entirely by themselves. At this level, they buy raw wood, or sometimes even chop trees down themselves, or at least visit mills and hand-select their wood. With the exception of tuning machines and strings, they build or create all the parts, including necks, headstocks, veneers, stains, rosettes, etc. And finally they build and finish the entire guitar, completely by themselves.
2. Artisan Workshop: This is where there are multiple builders working together. This could range from the Fleta workshop (a guitar made in 1970 for example, would have been the combined effort of Ignacio, Francisco and Gabriel Fleta). No single guitar at that time can be proven to be built 100% by Ignacio (or either of his sons for that matter). They were likely all built with joint effort, but all the parts are built from scratch in the workshop by those makers. The labels at that time also said "Ignacio Fleta e hijos". The Romanillos workshop is another example (Jose and son Liam), Conde Hermanos concert guitars from the Felipe V address (brothers Mariano and Felipe Conde), Teodoro Perez (Teodoro and son Sergio), etc. These outfits are usually family-run and very small.
3. Production Workshop: This would include Kohno, Hill Guitar Company, Ramirez concert guitars, etc. It is a larger-scale outfit where you have highly-skilled craftsman who have typically been trained in guilds (at least in Spain), but the individuals don't build guitars with labels bearing their own names. In this environment, you have workers who are specialized at certain tasks (like varnishing or assembling the box, etc.). Sometimes at this level (but not always), "parts" (rosettes, purfling, etc.) are bought from outside sources but all construction is done in-house. Depending on the number of workers, outfits such as this often produce in the range of 20 guitars (or more) per month. Loriente guitars fall in this category.
4. Factory: This is certainly the broadest category, and is where you most often find the "assembly line" style of manufacturing. There are some factories like this in Spain and of course everyone knows that these are currently springing up in grand style in China. There is a higher degree of automation and greater reliance on machinery which insures consistency of the final product, which is being more "mass produced". Workers here are not necessarily skilled craftsmen - usually they are trained in putting pre-fabricated parts together, like legos, on an assembly line.
Again, there are always exceptions and category-blending, whether it's an individual maker who builds in batchs or buys his rosettes, or a "factory" with a dozen employees.