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The 8 best classical guitars 2020: nylon-string guitars for every budget

The 8 best classical guitars 2020: nylon-string guitars for every budget
(Image credit: Taylor/Cordoba/Ovation)

For many beginner guitarists, the trusty nylon-string acoustic, or ‘classical guitar’, is the first port of call. Often these guitars are inexpensive, with a playing action higher than a suspension bridge and not a great deal going on tonally. It may come as a surprise then, to find the nylon-string scene has an entire other dimension to it. Indeed, there are nylon models available from all the top brands in the acoustic world, with prices reaching similarly eye-watering levels for the very best classical guitars.

Admittedly, high-end nylon-string guitars tend to serve a couple of specific niches of music, namely classical and flamenco, but their overall appeal does crossover in some areas. In this guide we’ll discuss what distinguishes the different types of classical guitar from one another, as well as offering some recommendations of some of the best classical guitars you can buy today.

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Which are the best classical guitars?

On balance, the Taylor Academy 12e-N is hard to beat in the field of classical guitars. Any acoustic player – steel or nylon – will know of Taylor thanks to its reputation for providing guitars at the top table, but with its Academy series, Taylor has learned how to pack in all its experience and know-how into a range which is affordable to the masses. 

The Taylor 12e-N delivers the classic Taylor package; wonderful tone, superb playability and exemplary build quality. Even if you’re not a nylon player, the 12e-N is worth a quick dabble if you get the chance. It may open your eyes to an entirely different way of playing.

Best classical guitars: Buying advice

If you’re looking for a nylon-string guitar specifically, as opposed to a general purpose acoustic guitar, then the chances are that you play either classical or flamenco styles. These genres require a guitar that is geared towards the unique techniques involved, and ‘normal’ steel-strung acoustics simply wouldn’t provide enough finger real-estate in which to work your magic. 

How is a classical guitar different from an acoustic guitar?

Classical guitars differ from standard steel-string acoustic guitars in several ways, not least in the expanded width of the neck – up to 2” - to accommodate more complex fretting shapes.

You’ll also find differences in the construction, body shape and weight distribution. Bracing – the method of providing rigidity to the body – is usually lighter in weight and arranged in a way to enhance the guitar’s resonance, while classical and flamenco guitars also tend to have a shallower body depth than you’d find on, for example, a dreadnought acoustic. 

Within the sub-genre you’ll also find differences between flamenco and classical nylon-string guitars, with flamenco versions often featuring a reinforced plate to protect the body when percussive techniques are used. The neck on a flamenco guitar also tends to be flatter too, which allows for the playing action to be lower.

As well as classical and flamenco nylon-string guitars, there are also hybrids which utilise some of the features and aesthetics of ‘regular’ guitars – like narrower necks – which provide a good middle-ground to anyone seeking the warm, mellow sound of nylon, but who doesn’t want to completely change their playing technique.

Regardless, the best classical guitar for you is the one that allows you to achieve your playing goals. These are specialist tools and have certain characteristics which perhaps don’t lend themselves to playing crossover styles, but in the right hands a good nylon acoustic is a sight to behold. Here’s a look at some of the best classical guitars in the world today. We have standard classical guitars, flamenco guitars and hybrids, plus acoustic-electric options too.

The best classical guitars available today

Best classical guitars: Taylor Academy 12e-N

(Image credit: Taylor)

1. Taylor Academy 12e-N

Simply the best classical guitar for most people

Price: $699/£779 | Top: Lutz Spruce | Back & sides: Layered Sapele | Neck: Mahogany | Fingerboard: West African Ebony | Scale: 25.5” | Frets: 17 | Finishes: Varnish

Taylor-appropriate build quality
Superb electronics
Neck perhaps slightly too narrow for pure classical players

Taylor is seeing some great successes from its Academy line, which promises the full-fat Taylor experience at a cost that makes them – at least relatively – affordable for the many. The Taylor Academy 12e-N is a superb nylon-strung option which provides the benefits of classical and flamenco styling with the ergonomic familiarity of a more standard steel-strung guitar.

We particularly like the bevelled armrest which made for a nicely comfortable playing experience, while we were impressed with how the onboard electronics retained the guitar’s natural resonance even at higher volumes. 

Best classical guitars: Cordoba C7-CE

(Image credit: Cordoba)

2. Cordoba C7-CE

Gorgeous Spanish-specific nylon with onboard electronics

Price: $699/£649 | Top: Canadian Red Cedar | Back & sides: Rosewood | Neck: Mahogany | Fingerboard: Rosewood | Scale: 25.5” | Frets: 19 | Finishes: Gloss

You’ll love the cedar top
Quality preamp
Remember to turn the built-in tuner off!

Gigging musicians often require a certain level of quality and reliability from their guitars, and in the Cordoba C7-CE there exists an affordable, high quality guitar that would fit the bill nicely. The C7-CE packs in some superb tone-woods, which elevate the guitar sonically and aesthetically, and the onboard Fishman electronics, which blends an under-saddle piezo with an internal microphone, allows for precise control over your amplified tone. 

For the price, the Cordoba C7-CE is a pretty compelling package, and one we’re happy to recommend.

Best classical guitars: Ovation Timeless Legend

(Image credit: Ovation)

3. Ovation Timeless Legend

This bowl-back nylon acoustic is perfect for the stage

Price: $1,299/£1,195 | Top: Solid Cedar | Back & sides: Lyrachord | Neck: 5-piece mahogany/maple | Fingerboard: Ebony | Scale: 26.2” | Frets: 19 | Finishes: Natural

Bold, projected sound
Neck is a dream to play
Neck may be too thin for traditionalists

Ovation is something of a curio, relying as it does on that familiar ‘bowl’ shaped back and sides. Charles Kamen, founder of Ovation, believed there were certain inherent frequencies he didn’t want in an acoustic and set upon building his own solution comprising composite materials usually found in the aviation industry. The result was, and is, a guitar which promises elite performance at high volume levels, without fear of nasty feedback usually associated with amplifying acoustic guitars.

The Ovation Timeless Legend Nylon is the culmination of all that innovation, providing a solid cedar top which gives a mellow, balanced sound when combined with the Lyrachord material. This is a high-end instrument, of that there is no doubt, although its neck is slightly thinner than some classical or flamenco veterans may like. That said, if you’re going to name your guitar ‘Timeless Legend’ it had better be good, and thankfully Ovation has managed to live up to that promise. 

Best classical guitars: Yamaha C40II

(Image credit: Yamaha)

4. Yamaha C40II

Affordable ‘proper’ Nylon-string from Yamaha

Price: $149/£149 | Top: Spruce | Back & sides: Meranti | Neck: Nato | Fingerboard: Rosewood | Scale: 25.5” | Frets: 18 | Finishes: Natural

Great step up for younger players
Sounds good for the price
Hard to criticise!

While the transition from ¾ scale nylon-strung acoustic to either steel-strung acoustic or electric is a tale as old as time, there are some who prefer a path less-trodden. Graduating from a ¾ scale up to a full-size nylon-stringer makes for the ideal next step in the playing career of plenty of players, and in the Yamaha C40II there is the perfect guitar with which you can make that leap.

In keeping with Yamaha’s generally excellent reputation for quality levels which exceed their price tags, the C40II classical guitar delivers a superb playing experience, great sound and solid construction which should see most players through the next few years of their musical journey.

Best classical guitars: Washburn Festival EACT42S

(Image credit: Washburn)

5. Washburn Festival EACT42S

Thinline electro-acoustic with crossover appeal

Price: $419/£399 | Top: Spruce | Back & sides: Mahogany | Neck: Mahogany | Fingerboard: Engineered Wood | Scale: 25.5” | Frets: 19 | Finishes: Natural

Excellent feedback control
Looks different
Not one for the flamenco purists?

It’s not unknown for players of different styles to dabble with a bit of fingerpicking, if the mood dictates. In the Washburn Festival EACT42S there exists almost the perfect guitar for a bit of musical escapism. Featuring dimensions and scaling not dissimilar to a more traditional acoustic, but with enough trappings to ensure it excels as a nylon-string, the Festival offers a superb entry-point to ‘proper’ classical guitars. 

We appreciated the unfettered access to the upper frets, while the 4-band EQ ensured we had a huge amount of control over our amplified tone. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea visually, but we felt the Washburn Festival delivered a lot of guitar for the money.

Best classical guitars: Cordoba GK Pro Negra

(Image credit: Cordoba)

6. Cordoba GK Pro Negra

Top-shelf material from the classical guitar specialists

Price: $1,699/£1,585 | Top: European Spruce | Back & sides: Indian Rosewood | Neck: Mahogany | Fingerboard: Ebony | Scale: 25.6” | Frets: 19 | Finishes: Natural

Amazing sound and feel
Wide/thin neck plays like a dream
Certainly not cheap…

Often when you’re looking for a particular type of guitar, it pays to see what the pros are using. When you’re looking for something that can handle the rigours of full-blooded flamenco, there are few better places to look than with the Gipsy Kings.

The Cordoba GK Pro is a top-of-the-line model, endorsed by the Kings themselves, and brings with it a number of elite-tier fittings and features. This guitar positively urges you to play at high-tempo, with all the percussive flourishes that accompany it. The premium tone-woods ensure it sounds as good as it looks, while the slightly thinner body makes it comfortable to play whatever stance you prefer. It’s not cheap, but the GK Pro has authenticity and vibe in spades. 

Best classical guitars: Godin ACS-SA Slim

(Image credit: Godin)

7. Godin ACS-SA Slim

Innovation? In a classical guitar?

Price: $1,495/£1,399 | Top: Cedar | Back & sides: Silverleaf Maple | Neck: Mahogany | Fingerboard: Richlite | Scale: 25.5” | Frets: 22 | Finishes: Natural, Black Pearl

High grade playing experience
Versatile
Something about plugging a nylon-string guitar into a synth makes us feel strange…

If the talk of thin necks and built-in EQ panels has upset some of the more traditionalist classical guitar players, you might want to move to the next entry. You see, in the Godin ACS-SA Slim we have possibly the most technologically advanced classical guitar on the market. In fairness, it is unashamedly aimed towards electric players who need something else in their arsenal. Still, adding a 13-pin synth connection, meaning it can control Roland’s GR Series guitar synths, is plain bonkers.

Putting that to one side, there is still a lot to love about the ACS-SA Slim. It boasts a sensible selection of high-end tone-woods, with the Silverleaf Maple and Cedar top balancing out together nicely, while the craftsmanship evident is in keeping with other guitars in the Godin stable. Maybe you are the kind of person who wants to plug a classical guitar into a synth. More power to you if you are. This, my crazy friend, is the perfect guitar for you. 

Best classical guitars: Takamine GC-6CE

(Image credit: Takamine)

8. Takamine GC-6CE

Solid mid-range offer geared towards classical players

Price: $529/£499 | Top: Spruce | Back & sides: Black Walnut | Neck: Mahogany | Fingerboard: Laurel | Frets: 20 | Finishes: Natural, Black

Wide neck is a joy for classical playing
Ideal step up for the intermediate player
Not the most exciting classical guitar in the world… but does it need to be?

Classical guitar players tend to be a different breed to your average electric player. There’s no hankering after oversized amp stacks or obsessing about reverb pedals. In many ways, it’s a more sedate way of living. A few carefully chosen tone-woods, a wide neck and a bit of care and attention paid to projection and resonance, and a happy player will be found. In the Takamine GC-6CE, there is the perfect guitar for many classical players. 

We found the combination of black walnut and spruce gave the GC-6CE a wonderfully chimey tone, which was a pleasure to experience. It doesn’t have bells and whistles – except for the onboard electronics – but it does deliver a consistent, pure, clean sound which we became rather enamoured with. For the classical player making the move from beginner to intermediate, the Takamine is a superb choice.