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Too long overlooked, the nylon-strung ‘classical’ instrument seems set to make a comeback, due in no small way to the current popularity of world, latin and jazz. With its mellow tones and lyrical voice, it offers an intimate, quieter, more reflective sonic character, in contrast to the wild, musical mood swings of its steel-string acoustic and electric counterpart.
Although the classical guitar as we know it is said to have started life as the ‘guitarra latina’ with the Italian luthiers of the 16th century, today’s instruments are clearly modelled on the mid 19th century Spanish ‘Torres’ form, built by luthier Antonio Torres, with its larger body and more simplified styling.
This was not the only school of guitar making in 19th century Europe, however. Lacote, a highly respected French luthier, was producing lavishly decorated instruments out of his Parisian atelier and there was also a thriving group of luthiers in greater Germany, most of whom had migrated north from their Italian homeland to service a vibrant musical scene in the city of Vienna.
The most notable of the city’s luthiers was Johan Staufer with his unique ‘persian slipper’ headstock, and these instruments with a harmonic bar rather than the accepted fan bracing, were to sound very different to their Spanish counterparts, having a more rapid attack and a treble or mid-range dominance.
Later developments in Germany by the Hauser lutherie would see the adoption of fan bracing as standard. However, the tonal and timbral characteristics were still subtly different to the Spanish model, this is a point which was not lost on the great classical guitarist Segovia, who at one point in his career favoured a Hauser above all other models.
Today, most quality nylon-strung classical instruments are made in Spain, with names such as Conde Hermanos, Rodriguez, Ramirez and Contreras heading the frame. But there are also the highly sought after Hauser and Hanika instruments from Germany and a small clutch of quality Japanese manufacturers such as Yairi, Asturias and Matsuoka.
The variety of instruments, especially electros, is wider than ever before, from the standard classical shape to the ‘cutaway’ with cedar or spruce tops matched to rosewood or mahogany back and sides. Undersaddle pickups and preamps have become so highly developed over recent years that it is now perfectly possible to use a nylon-strung acoustic on the bigger stage, without facing feedback problems.
We’ve sampled a cross section of what is available to the serious player in the lower to middle price range and come up with four current electros: two full-bodied and two cutaways.