Review: Ten Affordable Solid Top Classical Guitars

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The classical (aka nylon-string or Spanish guitar) is still a very popular instrument. Many guitarists start their musical journey on an affordable classical guitar.

This is why Kitarablogi.com decided to do a little round-up of a cross section of nylon-string acoustic in the all-important price segment of 250-400 euros. These days you can get a decent instrument with a solid wood top for a moderate outlay.

A solid top is an important ingredient in an acoustic guitar, played regularly the top will ”come to life” and mature to its full tonal potential. It’s true, you can make music on a plywood-topped acoustic, too, but such a guitar’s tone and volume will always stay somewhat restricted.

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Torres laid down the rules

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(photo: Wikipedia)

The father of the classical guitar was Spanish cabinet maker and luthier Antonio de Torres Jurado (1817-1892). Torres came up with the final shape of the Spanish guitar, the basic construction principles (like the top bracing pattern or the separate bridge saddle), and his choices of materials still inform and influence builders to this day.

Torres mostly used cedar for his necks and rosewood for his fretboards. Most of his tops were made from solid spruce. His choice of sound box woods was more varied, though. His back and sides were made from rosewood, mahogany, (flame) maple, and cypress.

Because cypress was a much cheaper wood in Torres’ time than, say, rosewood, cypress body instruments were usually the least expensive. Most flamenco guitarists of that time were cash-strapped, which is why they tended to play Torres’ cypress guitars. This, in turn, is the reason why many flamenco guitars are still made with cypress backs and sides today.

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Most modern classicals are built with dovetailed glue joints – the neck and sound box are made separately, and only glued together relatively late in the building process.

Torres used a different technique, which is nowadays called a Spanish Heel:

The neck blank and the neck block are made from one piece of wood, with the neck block looking like an angular ”U” or ”L” (viewed from the side). Either side of the neck blank has a deep groove for the rims to be glued into. The neck blank and sides together then constitute a frame for the top and back.

Fans of the Spanish heel claim that this type of construction will give you maximum vibrational transfer and better tone. Distractors, on the other hand, point to the difficulties the Spanish heel will give you, should a neck angle reset ever become necessary. I think I’ll keep on sitting on the fence on this one…

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(photo: Andy Manson, luthier)

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Nothing but winners

I feel like a sleazy gameshow host writing this, but there aren’t really any losers in this round-up. All ten guitars are real instruments that are well up to the job of making beautiful music.

Still, it is very interesting to take a look at the different ways modern manufacturers use to re-interpret Torres’ time-honoured concept for the modern player.

We will proceed in alphabetical order…

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Admira is one of the largest makers of classical guitars in the world.

German-born Enrique (orig. Heinrich) Keller founded an instrument workshop in northern Spain in 1944. Over time Admira has grown from a small maker into a well-known brand.

Admira guitars are distributed by Musamaailma in Finland.

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The Admira A5 is an affordable instrument from the Spanish maker’s Handcrafted-series.

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The workmanship is crisp and clean. The thin finish brings out the beauty in the A5’s woods. The golden tuning machines with their pearloid knobs add a nice touch of bling. The rosette is unusual, displaying a chain of little guitars in a row.

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Admira’s A5 is one of three instruments in this round-up built with a Spanish heel.

The neck profile is genuinely classical, meaning the neck is wide and flat with slightly angular shoulders.

The moderate action results in a very comfortable playing feel.

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The Admira A5 has a big voice with an even balance between its chunky bottom end and clear treble attack.

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Admira’s Malaga is part of their Student-range.

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The Malaga is one of the lightest instruments in this review. The workmanship on this cedar-topped beauty is excellent. The affordable nature of this guitar is only reflected in the very clean, but thinner-than-usual (non-kerfed) wooden linings joining the top and back to the sides.

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The neck profile on the Admira Malaga is traditional.

The review sample came with a surprisingly low action (for a nylon-string). This makes the Malaga an excellent choice for a beginner, but also a very viable candidate for flamenco players, who prefer a very fast action and a clicking attack.

Despite its very low action the Malaga plays with a clear and strong voice, completely devoid of string buzz or rattles.

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Esteve is a very traditionally-minded Spanish maker of classical guitars.

Esteve guitars are imported by Musiikki Silfverberg. Our review sample was kindly provided by Vantaan Musiikki.

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The Esteve 4ST is an instrument from the maker’s Student-range.

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This guitar is a real beauty with its tinted cedar top and its intricate soundhole rosette. Spanish style at its best.

The 4ST is the second guitar (of three) in this round-up that sports a Spanish heel. The workmanship is very crisp throughout.

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Esteve’s neck profile is genuinely classical – wide and flat. The action is at traditional settings. The guitar plays like a breeze.

Esteve’s 4ST has a huge and deep tone, which is warm and well-balanced. The instrument’s attack is clear and precise.

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Kantare Guitars are a celebration of Finnish knowhow and ingenuity.

Kantare guitars are designed in Helsinki by the grand old man of Finnish luthiery, Kauko Liikanen.

The special top bracing system sets these guitar apart from any other nylon-string. Instead of the traditional fan bracing (or a variation thereof), Kantares employ the patented LRS-bracing. Kauko Liikanen’s and Uwe Florath’s Lens Resonance System concentrates an oval pattern of braces around the top’s bridge area. The sound is concentrated in a way not dissimilar to an optical lens. LRS adds strength to the bridge area, while letting the rest of the top vibrate more freely than traditional bracing patterns.

Most Kantares are built in Romania. Hora is one of Europe’s largest makers of string- and bowed instruments.

Kantare’s Finnish distributor is Liikanen Musical Instruments.

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The Kantare Dolce C hg is a gloss-finished guitar with an LRS-braced cedar top.

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Our review sample sports Kantare’s brand-new arm rest, which is sold separately. The arm rest has been developed to put your plucking arm into a comfortable playing position, as well as to minimise top damping.

The Dolce C hg is a very beautiful, cleanly built instrument.

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Apart from the LRS bracing, a common denominator among most Kantare models is a maple neck.

Classical guitars traditionally feature mahogany or cedar necks; on the other hand, most bowed instruments use flame maple necks. The strength and density of maple makes it an enticing choice for use in a classical guitar neck, too, and the Hora factory has a large stock of flame maple.

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Kantare’s Hauser-style machine heads are of very decent quality, and work precisely.

The Dolce C hg’s neck profile is noticeably more rounded than a traditional Spanish neck, probably making this neck feel more comfortable for many. To help the beginner with finding the right fret positions, Kantare have included side dots at the fifth and seventh frets.

The Kantare Dolce hg has quite a loud voice and projects nicely. The sound is clear and precise.

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Kantare’s Vivace C features a brand-new, ecologically sound satin finish.

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The Vivace C is finished using a new German-made (by Hesse Lignal) non-poisonous product, called Proterra Resit. Proterra Resit uses a novel mixture of shellac, oil and carnauba wax.

Shellac (also called French polish) is an organic polymer that has been in use by instrument makers for centuries. Traditional French polish is very time-consuming and work-intensive in use, which is why you’ll find it on only a limited number of handmade instruments. The huge advantage of Proterra Resit lies in the fact that it is quick and easy to apply.

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The Kantare Vivace C looks and feels very ”eco” and ”organic”, in the best sense of these terms.

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The new finish nicely accentuates the beautiful wood grain of the guitar’s maple neck.

The neck profile is rounder than a traditional classical guitar neck, and there are two side dots (at the fifth and seventh frets) on this Kantare, too.

The Vivace C’s voice is very woody and a little bit dry. You can clearly hear the wood amplifying the string vibrations. The bottom end isn’t overpowering, the mid-range is warm, and the trebles sound open, but never too bright.

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LaMancha is a young brand from Germany.

LaMancha-instruments are design in Germany and made in China (under German supervision), in the company’s own factory.

LaMancha has managed to become Germany’s best-selling brand of classical guitars over the course of just a few years. Many of their models have already won awards by the European Guitar Teachers Association.

LaMancha’s distributor in Finland is Musiikki Silfverberg. Our review instrument was kindly provided by Vantaan Musiikki.

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LaMancha’s Rubi CM SN is a satin-finished guitar with a narrower-than-usual neck (LaManch call it ”Small Neck”), making it a good choice for young students and players with small hands.

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The Rubi CM SN is the third guitar in this round-up constructed around a Spanish heel.

The neck is made from toona, a south Asian relative of cedar, that also grows in Australia.

The neck is stiffened by two graphite rods, which have been inserted into the neck from the front, prior to the fretboard being glued on.

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The workmanship on this LaMancha is very clean. The Rubi CM SN is a very stylish and lightweight guitar.

The Rubi’s neck profile is narrower and rounder than that of a traditional classical guitar. There are two small side dots in the fingerboard for orientation.

The LaMancha plays like a dream.

The Rubi CM SN displays a well-balanced voice with a slender bass register and a woody top end.

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Japanese company Takamine is best known for its acoustic-electric steel-string guitars, but the company has always made classical guitars, too.

Takamine’s Finnish distributor is EM Nordic. The test instrument was kindly provided by DLX Musiikki.

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The Takamine GC3-NAT is a spruce-topped classical guitar made in China.

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The top’s yellow tint is reminiscent of the look of French polish.

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The stark and unadorned rosewood bridge of the GC3-NAT is a stylish contrast to the instrument’s beautifully intricate soundhole rosette.

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Takamine is one of the very few makers of Spanish guitars who uses a truss rod inside their nylon-string guitars’ necks.

The GC3-NAT’s neck profile conforms to tradition – it’s wide, flat, and a touch angular. The action is low-ish (for a classical), making for a very comfortable playing feel.

This Takamine needed a bit of breaking in to realise its potential fully, but it was well worth the effort. The GC3-NAT has a beautiful and fluid voice, a clean and open mid-range, as well as a precise attack.

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Valencia was a new name to me, even though the company has been in existence since 1972.

Valencia-guitars are designed in Australia, and built in  several factories in China and Indonesia.

Valencia’s Finnish distributor is EM Nordic. The review sample was kindly provided by DLX Musiikki.

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The spruce-topped Valencia GC50 is probably the most richly ornamented instrument in this review.

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There is multi-ply binding on both top and back, with the outermost ply being mahogany.

The back’s centre seam has also been adorned with a mahogany inlay.

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The neck of the GC50 is glued together from three side-by-side strips. The middle piece’s grain orientation is reversed to make neck warping less likely.

Valencia’s neck profile is fairly traditional, with just a touch of added roundness.

The action on our review instrument felt a bit high and stiff for my taste (I’m not Andrés Segovia). A guitar repairer (or a reasonably skilled guitarist) shouldn’t have a problem lowering the bridge saddle, though. Shaving off a millimetre, or so, should result in a much better playing feel.

The Valencia GC50’s voice is beautifully lyrical and open. Even in the highest registers the notes still have an astonishing richness and depth.

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Classical guitars have always been a very important part of Yamaha Guitars’ wide range of models. The C40 is still the best-selling classical guitar on the planet.

The more recent Concert Series bears testament to Yamaha’s ongoing commitment to research and development.

Yamaha’s Finnish distributor is F-Musiikki.

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The Yamaha CG122MS is one of the most affordable Concert Series instruments.

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TheCG122MS’s matte finish is applied very thinly, which is great for tone and feels nice, too.

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The CG122MS is a lightweight instrument with a slightly more rounded neck profile.

Side dots at the fifth and seventh frets make finding your way around the fingerboard a little bit easier.

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The CG122MS plays very well with a nice, traditional action.

The tone is warm and woody. The Yamaha sounds well-balanced, and displays a crisp and clear attack.

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The Yamaha CG142S is the only guitar in this round-up that combines a gloss-finished body with a satin-finished neck.

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Understated beauty is the thing with the CG142S. This is a very cleanly built guitar.

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On this Yamaha, too, the neck profile is a tad more rounded compared to a traditional neck profile. The playability is very comfortable.

The CG142S’s fretboard also has a couple of side dots for easier orientation.

Yamaha’s CG142S sings with a well-rounded, beautiful voice. There’s a healthy amount of clarity in the mid-range.

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To summarise I could state the obvious – there are many well-built, well-playing instruments in the 250-400 euro price segment. There should be the right guitar for everyone, depending on finish, neck profile and sound preferences.

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