There's no finer acoustic than a lightly built nylon-string classical guitar, and no luthiers more skilful than those who spend countless hours bringing these glorious instruments to life. If you're coming from a steel-string background you will be amazed at just how responsive the best high-end classical guitars feel to play, and just how lyrical they can sound.
Once considered a little dowdy, nylon-string acoustics are currently enjoying a renaissance, due to the massive popularity of Latin musical genres, the cult appeal of fusion styles such as Nuevo Flamenco and the efforts of brands such as Cordoba and Yamaha to develop and build instruments with contemporary appeal.
Many of the top Spanish luthiers demand sky-high prices, and command agonisingly long wait lists. So, in this buyer's guide we've focussed on brands and builders that are a little more affordable and accessible, with prices starting at around $1,500 and topping out at about $10,000.
Whether you're a classical maestro, a fan of flamenco fusion or a steel-string player searching for a high-quality crossover, we've got the guitar for you.
Best high-end classical guitars: Guitar World recommends
Is it blasphemy to suggest anything other than a Spanish made guitar as one of the best high-end classical guitars? Heresy to believe that there's a better alternative? It depends on your outlook, doesn't it?
Córdoba may be based in California but you can tell that its heart longs for the mountains of Andalusia. Its Rodriquez guitar pays homage to its namesake and great past master while featuring small, contemporary details in its mostly traditional design. A labour of love for founder Tim Miklaucic, this is a guitar that'll serve its owners well, whether they're into classical, jazz or Latin styles. It's also relatively affordable.
For steel string players who fancy a bit of nylon action of the lowest kind, the Yamaha NTX5 is heaven sent. Its slim neck, narrow nut and conservative string spacing will have you running your digits up and down the fretboard in no time. Here's a thinline crossover that anyone can get to grips with.
Just as importantly, Yamaha's Atmosfeel pickup and preamp system is a triumph that delivers outstanding versatility and tone. The RRP is already good value, but the street price makes the NTX5 an absolute bargain.
For the tocaores out there, we must mention the flamenco blanca Felipe Conde FC-26. What a stunning Madrid-made instrument. And the classical purists? It's not Spanish but the Yamaha GC42C could grace any concert hall around the world.
Best high-end classical guitars: Product guide
No company has done more to popularise the nylon-string guitar over the past few decades than Córdoba. It has, almost single-handedly, dusted down the dowdy, high-brow image of the classical guitar and re-invented it as a contemporary instrument. The astonishing thing is, this Californian company has achieved this while conforming to traditional Spanish building methods.
The Rodriquez is a significant guitar for Córdoba founder Tim Miklaucic. The name of his company is a tribute to the Rodriguez family of guitar builders who were based in the Andalusian city of Córdoba, notably Rafael Rodriguez and his brother Miguel Rodriguez Serrano.
This homage is closely modelled on a lightweight Rodriguez guitar from the '70s that features five rather than seven braces. Consequently, this is a guitar that's very expressive with responsive handling and a rich, full tone. It's a joy to play.
The time-honoured combination of cedar and rosewood is classic, but Córdoba has also added a few modern refinements such as a truss rod and geared tuners.
If you're a steel string player looking for an easy introduction to the joys of plugged-in nylon, this is the guitar for you. Yamaha first launched its performance orientated NX series to great acclaim more than a decade ago, and it’s recently undergone a complete overhaul.
Four qualities mark the NTX5 out as something special. First, typically of Yamaha, build quality is unsurpassed – make no mistake, this is a pro-level instrument. Second, its slim, soft-C shaped neck is a dream to play for guitarists transitioning from steel-string acoustics and electrics. The combination of a narrow nut, 24 fret ebony board and venetian cutaway make it a pleasure to noodle away on, just about anywhere on the neck.
Third, the thinline body makes this beauty so easy to just pick up and play, without having to fight the bulk of a full-sized acoustic guitar. The slim body pretty much kills any feedback annoyances too.
Finally, Yamaha's clever new Atmosfeel pickup and preamp system is simply awesome. An undersaddle piezo with individual string sensors captures only the mid and low-mid frequencies, leaving the highs to a body sensor. This successfully eliminates the characteristic synthetic 'quackiness' associated with piezo pickups. In addition, an internal microphone captures the overall body resonance of the guitar, adding a realistic sense of space, an airiness that can be dialled in via a mix control.
The result is a feedback-resistant thinline that sounds authentically like a full-bodied guitar, making it ideal for live performance and studio use.
Read the full Yamaha NTX5 review
If you're into Flamenco, you'll want to practice your Rasgueado technique on an authentic instrument, a guitar with a pedigree baked in by decades of toil under a hot Spanish sun.
Felipe Conde, based in Madrid, can trace its roots back to 1915. In fact, the founder of the company, Domingo Esteso, served as an apprentice to famed luthier Manuel Ramirez way back in 1887.
The company remains family owned, passed down from generation to generation, and the guitars are still hand-made with the finest materials and incredible attention to detail.
Choose an FC-26 and you'll be in good company – everyone from Paco de Lucía to Leonard Cohen has played this guitar, it's one of Conde's most popular models. This is a classic Flamenco Blanca, constructed with spruce for the top, Spanish cypress for the back and sides, Brazilian cedar for the neck and ebony for the fretboard.
For this level of guitar, Felipe Conde only uses wood that has been air dried for 25 years or more. You won't find the need for a torrefied top here!
The steel-string 814ce is classic Taylor through and through – arguably the most iconic guitar to come out of its El Cajon factory. So, stringing this modern classic up with nylon is an intriguing proposition.
The 814ce-N shares its steely cousin's famous, mid-sized Grand Auditorium body shape, uses much the same materials and enjoys a very similar aesthetic. Once again, the top is premium quality Sitka spruce, which is a perfect tonal match for the fine Indian rosewood back and sides.
The resulting tone exhibits a rich low end, nicely tamed mids and a high-end brilliance. In a nutshell, that mid-sized body and classic choice of tonewoods results in a sound that's characterful yet superbly balanced. Very 814ish.
Of course, there are some major differences between the two guitars. The N is much lighter built – with a thinner top and fan bracing – the armrest has been deleted and the electronics are completely different. Also, the nut width has been increased to accommodate the thicker nylon strings, but not hugely so. It's still a relatively narrow 47.5mm, so most crossover players will warm to it immediately.
If you're a Taylor fan looking for a nylon-string guitar on which to play jazz, bossa nova or country then this is a no-brainer. Classical? Yes, of course, but purists would be better off with an instrument that has a wider neck.
You can purchase a Yamaha classical guitar for less than $150, but not one quite like this. Handcrafted in Yamaha's 130-year-old custom shop in Hamamatsu, Japan, it would be the absolute pinnacle of quality were it not for the 'superior' GC82 model that sits above it. That guitar has a whopping RRP of $18,000.
Nevertheless, the rule of diminishing returns dictates that most players will be ecstatic with the GC42C. Crafted from Madagascar rosewood on its back and sides and an American cedar top, it exudes a richness and clarity that has to be heard to be believed.
Every part of this guitar is handmade, using traditional tools and techniques, by a tiny number of skilled luthiers using the very best materials – watching them at work is a meditative experience.
During the late '60s and '70s, recognising that Japan's peerless artisanal culture didn't stretch to building guitars at this level, Yamaha collaborated with master Spanish luthiers Eduardo Ferrer and Manuel Hernandez. Over many years, they taught Yamaha's luthiers how to craft instruments of exhibition quality, skills that are still very much evident today.
If you prefer the slightly brighter tone of spruce, try the GC42S model instead. As is often the case with Yamaha, both models are widely discounted.
Takamine is another Japanese company that's been handcrafting fine nylon-string acoustics for decades. It's also famous for pioneering acoustic electric guitars back in the 1970s, so it knows a thing or two about overcoming amplification issues.
The TC132SC is a curious mix of the modern and the classical. The tonewoods and workmanship are traditional, but the Venetian cutaway and Cool Tube CTP-3 preamp system are clearly contemporary. Then again, the nut width is a very conventional 51mm. So, this is no crossover.
Instead, think of it as a wonderful instrument for live jazz, Latin and even classical performances. Impressively, Takamine has managed to engineer the TC132SC to be supremely feedback resistant, making it a well-behaved companion on-stage.
Despite being handcrafted in Takamine's pro series Japanese workshop, it's the cheapest guitar here by some margin. Nevertheless, build quality and tone are next level – it's a real bargain.
In all honesty, the Multiac Nylon Deluxe is as much an electric guitar as it is an acoustic. It has a thin, chambered mahogany body – a little like a Gibson Les Paul – and a solid spruce top with no sign of a sound hole. Instead, the upper bout has a small port that's mostly taken up with electronics.
Plug it in though, and it springs to life with a rich and sonorous voice, just like a good nylon acoustic should. So, what is it exactly, and who's it for?
Godin, in collaboration with LR Baggs, has developed this Multiac as the ultimate performance and studio tool. Its solid, slim body banishes feedback and the multiband EQ enables its sound to be tailored to suit any room or venue. This incredible performance is, in no small part, due to LR Baggs' custom voiced pickup system, which features an individual saddle transducer for each string, maximising depth and clarity.
In addition, a Lyric mic, hidden away inside the body of the Multiac, is positioned to pick up sound only from the guitar's top, avoiding any muffled boominess from the body. Not only is this sensitive to regular fingerstyle and strumming, it also breathes life into percussive playing styles.
Of course, the sound from the Lyric and the transducers can be blended together to achieve your signature tone, or to compensate for the room. Oddly, for an acoustic, there's also a saturation slider. Rather than full-on drive or fuzz, it's actually a very subtle simulated tape-saturation effect that adds a welcome touch of warmth and fullness.
This guitar is very appealing for touring jazz, Latin and even flamenco musicians who spend a lot of time on the road, playing multiple venues that have quite different acoustic properties. For many players, it’s a more reliable and robust solution than a regular acoustic.
Hernández, working out of Valencia, has a reputation for producing good quality, handmade classical and flamenco guitars at affordable prices. Its Romance model is positioned as a mid-upper level classical guitar that hits that tasty sweet spot where delectable build and delicious tone coincide at a price that's not too unsavory.
The Romance is available with either a spruce or cedar top, depending on whether you prefer a brighter or warmer voice. The backs and sides are made from granadillo, which is a tonewood similar to rosewood but one that's a little harder and denser. It's a wood valued for its clear bell-like sparkle that sustains beautifully.
This guitar is noted for its projection, so if you're looking for a chiming, sustaining tone that sounds excellent at volume then the Romance is a good choice.
Best high-end classical guitars: Buying advice
Buying the best high-end classical guitar for you
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If you're already a classical or flamenco player then we can safely assume that you're sold on the idea of playing nylon, and are ready to invest as much as you can sensibly afford on a fine guitar.
However, if you're currently playing a steel-string guitar but teetering on the cliff-edge of a nylon purchase, allow us to give you a gentle shove. At the very least, nylon will add new color and texture to your sound. More likely, it'll open up a whole new repertoire for you to enjoy, including classical, flamenco, jazz, fusion, Latin and bossa nova.
Unfortunately, many of us started our guitar-playing journey on a cheap nylon-string acoustic that was awkward to play and sounded about as musical as strumming a clothesline. Put those thoughts behind you – start playing a high-end nylon acoustic and you'll begin to appreciate just how wonderful these instruments can be.
Cheap nylon-string guitars are known generically as Spanish guitars or classical guitars but, as the price points increase, three basic types emerge. They're actually very different beasts, so it's critically important to buy the one that suits the musical genres you are most likely to play.
Classical guitars are built for buzz free playing, good sustain and a balanced tone that may err on the side of rich warmth, depending on the choice of tonewood used for the top.
Backs and sides are invariably made of rosewood, with tops of spruce or cedar. Spruce imparts a clean, bright sound, while cedar is often warmer and more mellow. Neither, in itself, is right or wrong but if you play with others consider which one will sit better in the mix.
Flamenco guitars look similar to classical guitars but are quite different because this famous gitano artform demands an instrument that has a bright sound with a sharp attack and very little sustain. Fast strumming patterns – 'rasgueados' – and swift fingerpicking –'picados' – are central to the flamenco style, calling for a guitar that responds well to rapid playing.
To meet these challenges a flamenco guitar is more lightly built than its classical relatives, with a shallower body and very low action. So low, in fact, that fret buzz is inescapable and often regarded as an intrinsic part of the guitar's sound.
Tonewoods are often substantially different too, with cypress being the choice for the backs and sides of traditional 'blanca' guitars, a wood known for its bright tone and attack. You'll never find a cedar top on a flamenco guitar, but in recent years 'negra' guitars have risen in popularity. These feature backs and sides of a denser wood, such as rosewood, in order to increase volume and take the edge off the bright tone.
A flamenco guitar will also feature a large, transparent guard called a golpeador to protect its top from potentially destructive percussive strikes.
Playing flamenco on a classical guitar is difficult and sounds awful. Similarly, playing classical pieces with a 'blanca' guitar will likely sound too thin and brittle, but you may get away with a 'negra' guitar.
Whereas flamenco and classical guitars have a long history, crossover guitars are a much more modern invention, developed to woo steel string players over to nylon. They have several defining features that include a thinline body, slimmer neck, narrower nut, tighter string spacing, electronic pickup systems, more frets and maybe a cutaway.
If you're used to playing an electric guitar or steel-string acoustic then the fretboard of a classical will probably appear as flat and as wide as an aircraft carrier runway. To remedy this, crossovers usually have a nut width that's closer to a steel string guitar – about 47mm – the fretboard will be radiused too and a cutaway will provide better access to the upper frets.
Crossovers are usually geared towards performance, with more comfortable, feedback resistant thinline bodies and sophisticated pickup and preamp systems. So, if a regular classical is a step too far for you, or you perform a lot of live gigs, a crossover is an excellent choice.
Very high-end classical guitars will be made by a single luthier in a small workshop or custom shop, and the price will reflect this. Down a level, and you can expect your guitar to be made by a very small group of luthiers in similar surroundings.
At these levels, your guitar should be made from choice tonewoods and feature expensive appointments. For example, while a decent set of machine heads for an electric guitar can be yours for $100, classical guitar tuning machines can easily cost five times that amount.
Unlike their steel-string cousins, nylon-string guitars tend not to feature a lot of bling, such as mother-of-pearl inlays and very fancy purflings. Most will even lack a logo on the headstock.
However, rosettes are a big deal, so you can expect your high-end guitar to be blessed with a beautifully intricate mosaic of tiny pieces of colored wood. Headstock shape can also be ornate, with most luthiers proudly fond of a signature style.
You'll find that purists are extremely particular about the neck-body joint. Where steel-string brands will use a mortice and tenon joint, often a dovetail in combination with bolts, this is frowned upon in the classical world.
According to tradition, quality instruments should be built with the labor-intensive Spanish heel technique. To explain briefly, the neck of the guitar is built first, with an L or C shaped extension that will end up inside the body of the guitar. The body is then built up around this block.
The resulting bond is extremely strong, true, resilient and probably does have a bearing on the final tone of the instrument because string vibration is carried more efficiently. The Spanish heel also negates the need for a future neck reset, which is just as well because it would be a near-impossible job to do.
Some claim that iconic luthier Antonio de Torres (1817 – 1892) invented the Spanish heel technique, but regardless of whether this is so or not, he certainly did revolutionize guitar development from the 1850s onwards. His guitars were recognisably similar to those we play today – bigger and lightly built with efficient, responsive fan bracing for improved tone and projection.
In the tradition-obsessed world of the classical guitar, you'll find it's common for luthiers to boast that they're building in the style of Torres or later innovative builders such as Manuel Ramirez and Munich-based Hermann Hauser Sr.
Torres certainly wouldn't have used a truss rod in his guitars' necks, the comparatively low tension produced by gut and nylon strings doesn't warrant one. However, some brands, such as Córdoba, are now using adjustable truss rods or graphite/carbon fibre inserts to increase neck stability. Whether they're needed or not is open to debate.
High-end classical and flamenco guitars may also be protected with a beautiful French polish finish. It's more time-consuming to apply than nitrocellulose or polyurethane but it's unbeatable for bringing out the natural beauty of the wood, and it doesn't crack.
For decades, beginner classical guitars, often of dubious quality, have been a favorite instrument on which to teach children basic music skills, whether they enjoy the experience or not! Because of this the classical guitar is commonly available in smaller sizes to suit tiny hands and bodies – namely ¼, ½, ¾ and the full-sized 4/4.
At the top-end of the market this isn't really a thing. Few parents are going to splash out thousands of dollars on an instrument that their child will quickly grow out of, if they haven't discarded or destroyed it first.
Nevertheless, there is one size, the 7/8, that's ideal for smaller adults, so it's not uncommon to find this as an option offered by some luthiers. Córdoba has chosen to name its 7/8 model a 'parlor', a term more commonly used to describe small steel-string guitars.
Additionally, prior to the late Torres era, classical guitars were much smaller, and some niche builders still produce guitars inspired by these old elongated shapes and sizes.
When trying to make your choice you may come across guitars described as Student, Studio, Concert and Grand Concert models.
Student and studio guitars are essentially the same thing, guitars built for students (as opposed to maestros, there's nothing in between!). There are no set standards, so these terms are used loosely to differentiate these models from the very high-end.
A student guitar may retail for anything from $250 to many thousands, in fact, there's a very dry YouTube video featuring a very serious Thomas Kirchhoff describing a $6,000 Yamaha GC42 as a student instrument. Don't let the label put you off.
Concert and Grand Concert guitars are also largely the same thing. Originally, these terms were used to describe a larger guitar with more projection that could hold its own in a concert hall, but over time the meaning has morphed to describe a top-end instrument. Again, there are no accepted standards, so a Grand Concert from one brand may well be significantly cheaper than a Studio model from another. Frankly, both terms are pretty meaningless.
Find out more about how we make our recommendations and how we test each of the products in our buyer's guides.