Differences Between a Classical and a Spanish Guitar

By Mike Marcoe ; Updated September 15, 2017
The Spanish guitar is a variation on the classical guitar

Through the ages the guitar has been one of the most popular and commonly used musical instruments. The varieties of music that can be played on the guitar range from classical, folk and blues to rock and roll. The classical guitar is not electric and has a standard fitted body shape like a violin, with a flat back and six strings. Today the classical guitar and Spanish guitar are often incorrectly referred to as being the same instrument. There are distinct differences between a traditional Spanish guitar and a classical guitar.

The Facts

Guitars are musical family members of the stringed instrument group. Guitars are usually played by strumming or plucking. The general standard for a guitar is that it has six strings and a fret board, which is a finger board composed of wood and metal strips that designate half steps for the guitar strings. Knowing different frets helps a guitar player find the correct pitch, note and tone for playing music. Guitar music is usually written to be read in chords or tablature one octave above other sounds. Classical guitars and Spanish guitars are often synonymous terms.


Guitars have been around for over 5,000 years. The pharaohs of Egypt originally played guitars. The Romans brought the guitar to Spain around 1500, and it was so popular that it became Spain's national instrument. The early Spanish guitar was called the “vihuela.” The guitar made its way to Mexico with the first Spanish settlers or conquistadors. Hernando Cortez was known to teach guitar in Mexico around 1526. Andalucians in southern Spain and later in Mexico began playing a modified type of guitar that they called the “Flamenco guitar.” Along with the Flamenco guitar, popular dances for celebrations were developed, along with colorful outfits to match. Flamenco dancers and music are popular today in Mexico and Spain. Flamenco became known as a particular style of playing the guitar rather than a distinctly different kind of guitar.


How guitars are made, their components, the shape of the body and string type can affect how an instrument sounds. Although the terms “classical guitar” and “Spanish guitar” are often interchanged, the traditional Spanish guitar was a different instrument that sounded different than the classical guitar and was more complicated to play. Traditional Spanish vihuelas were made with six double strings, or twelve strings. The strings were made of gut or genuine sinew. The tuning on a vihuela is the same as on a classical guitar, except for the third string, which is tuned half a step below the note of the third string on a classical six-string guitar. The Spanish vihuela is also a larger instrument, and therefore sounds somewhat different. There is also a Mexican vihuela that has five strings and is used by mariachi bands to play the special style of mariachi music. The vihuela was called “viola” in other countries, but it is not the same instrument as that larger violin-type of stringed instrument with the same name.


Vihuelas are rare. There are only three surviving vihuelas known in the world today. Although people who specialize in making musical instruments could make vihuelas, playing one would require learning distinctly different fingering on the fret board and music. The first music composed for the vihuela was written by the Spanish composer Luis de Milan in 1536, and used a combination of numeric tablature to write the music. A vihuela is often seen as being the same thing as a lute. In comparison, the classical guitar and the lute are two distinctly different instruments.

About the Author

Mike Marcoe is a writer/editor with more than 19 years of experience. His clients have included the Educated Investor, the University of Wisconsin, New York Life, the "Encyclopedia of Personal Finance," "Your Retirement Watch" and "The Internet Review of Books." He works as the content manager for a financial education software firm and holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Wisconsin.