What exactly is classical music or playing? Some keep on saying this one is classical, that one is not classical. Well, how exactly can I define what is classical or not? I love plucking and do it all the time.

A friend of mine told me that most of the time, for playing classical for string 4,5,6 I should use my thumb and for string 1,2,3 I should use the ring, middle and index finger, respectively.

Is it correct?

  • 2
    Boy, this should have been split out into multiple questions a long time ago.
    – user1044
    Sep 14, 2012 at 23:52
  • Nothing is off course stopping you from playing classical music on a electric, finger picking an electric or picking an classical guitar. As long as it sounds good you are OK.
    – Neil Meyer
    Oct 21, 2013 at 12:07

6 Answers 6


Your friend is oversimplifying things tremendously.

Classical Guitars vs. Steel-string Acoustics

To begin with, a modern classical guitar is an acoustic guitar strung with nylon strings (in the past, they were strung with strings made from animal gut). It differs from a modern "flat-top" acoustic guitar in that flat-top's are strung with steel strings, which have a much higher tension than nylon strings. For this reason, the internal bracing of the guitars are much different as well, and their tones are quite distinct.

Playing a Guitar in the Classical Style vs Fingerstyle

Both "classical" style and fingerstyle guitar playing involves plucking the strings with the fingers rather than with a pick. However, the classical style has, over time, developed a widely-accepted orthodoxy to its technique. This involves using the thumb and the first three fingers of the right hand, but not the pinky. All four fingers can be used to pluck any of the strings.

Fingerstyle playing, by contrast, is the result of folk music traditions, and has fewer commonly accepted "rules". There are sub-genres of fingerstyle, such as Travis picking, in which the thumb plays the bass notes and the fingers play the melody strings, but even there there is no general agreement on how many fingers to use. I use the first three fingers, for example, while Doc Watson uses only his index finger. Modern fingerstylists will do whatever they can to extract sound out of the instrument, including tapping the fingerboard, striking the strings or the body for percussive sounds, etc.

Generally speaking, you can play either style on either kind of instrument. Chet Atkins, for example, played fingerstyle but often using a classical guitar. Some classical techniques don't work as well on steel string instruments, and vice versa, but for the most part you can use either style with either instrument.

Classical Music

I don't think this is what you're really asking about, but here's a brief definition: Classical music is music from or based on the European art music tradition. This stretches back many centuries, to Gregorian chants and before, and has evolved through many different significant "periods" (such as the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, etc.) to the present day.

Classical music is not to be confused with the Classical Period of music history. The Classical Period refers to the style best exemplified by Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven, and comprises at most about a fifty-year period of music history. It is just one of many periods in classical music.

Classical music is distinct from, say, Jazz or Blues in that, for the most part, it lacks much, if any, African influence on its sound. This has changed somewhat in the last century or so, but such exceptions represent a small portion of the overall classical tradition.

  • So, you are saying classical style has some limitations that can be avoided by following modern playing style. So, why should I go for classical playing style when I know producing sound is my only and main goal? and this can be achivable easily when I have limitless ways to get there? Apr 11, 2011 at 15:39
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    @iamcreasy: That's sort of like asking, "Why should I study karate specifically instead of mixed martial arts, when my main and only goal is to kick ass?" If you want to be a great classical guitarist, you should study classical guitar. But if your goal isn't specifically classical guitar, then maybe for you and your musical interests, classical style isn't what you're looking for. Apr 11, 2011 at 16:02
  • What I was seeking for, is a full scale plucking based learning curve. Most of the time I play Blackmoor's Night, Justin King and people around me used to refer my choice as classical. That's why I first asked what classical music is. But, If the classical music is not affilicated with classic playing...its leading me to disarray! Apr 11, 2011 at 16:17

Strictly speaking the classical period was between 1750 - 1830 ish. Some well known classical composers were Mozart and Beethoven.

However the term classical is often used to refer to music that is not popular music (rock/pop/jazz/reggae etc) and is played on classical (orchestral) instruments.

Refering to guitars a Classical guitar is a nylon strung acoustic guitar. The neck is usually flatter and wider than a steel strung acoustic guitar. It is usually played using a fingerstyle or "plucking" technique like you describe.

The fingerpicking technique you have described is a great way to get started and is the one I teach to people new to playing this style of guitar.

  • So, picking up a nylon string guitar and following the finger convention is enough to get me started. Right? Can you redirect me to any tutorials / lessons? Apr 11, 2011 at 15:41
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    If you head over to Justin Guitar abd look up the folk fingerstyle lessons these should get your basic technique going. He also has some cool fingerstyle pieces to learn justinguitar.com/en/TE-021-FolkFingerstyle1.php Apr 11, 2011 at 16:58
  • Mozart and Haydn might be the stronger pair of examples. Beethoven bridged the Classical and Romantic eras. Apr 11, 2011 at 23:20

As the guys note. In regards to "classical guitar", there is an accepted method for playing "classical" guitar that has been refined considerably, with Segovia being likely the prime mover. Techniques of playing, fingering, holding the guitar, etc. are all very much standardized and would be expected from someone wanting to play in this style with other similarly-trained musicians. Even altering the indicated fingerings for passages can bring sharp looks of annoyance...

However, if you just want to play fingerstyle on a classical guitar, you can do whatever you like. Any number of jazz fingerstyle players use the classical instrument; Joe Pass for one.

  • +1 I was gonna say Segovia! BTW You can also play "'classical' guitar music" on steel strings. With flats you can get just as sweet as nylon and with no string noise. Oct 27, 2012 at 9:03

There are generally three things that distinguish classical guitar from other styles of guitar... the instrument, the playing style and the music.

The instrument: Classical guitarists always play on a particular type of guitar, with nylon strings, a hollow body, a rosette around the sound hole, and other distinctive features.

The playing style: classical guitarists have a very particular playing technique. This involves using a guitar support (such as a foot stool), plucking the strings with the thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers, keeping the thumb on the back of the guitar neck at all times, and more. The example technique you gave is sometimes used by classical guitarists, but not always.

The music: Classical guitarists play a specific genre of music called "classical music." Music from this genre is always written in sheet music notation, and is performed exactly the way it is written. However, classical music can incorporate many styles, such as Jazz, Impressionism, Romanticism, etc.

Source: Classical Guitar 101 - What is Classical Guitar?


As youcan see from articles such as this Wikipedia one there is a wide range of musical types which could all be lumped under 'Classical'

There are various styles of plucking and strumming, however a particular piece could be classed as 'classical' without any plucking at all.

And the traditional p,i,m,a technique is just one of a number of techniques. (P thumb, I index finger, M middle finger, A ring finger - which always concerned me as there wasn't a common letter for the little finger :-)

So - broadly correct, yes, but only as a subset of a much wider range of techniques. The Wikipedia article on it is actually pretty good.

  • What is p,i,m,a? Can you point me out some reference where can I find more about these techniques? Apr 11, 2011 at 15:43
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    @iamcreasy - if you first check out that wikipedia article, it does explain pima, and also if you check out the "Related" sidebar to your right or search on "classical" you'll come up with some good links such as: music.stackexchange.com/q/2075/104
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Apr 11, 2011 at 15:49
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    @iamcreasy: those are abbreviations often used in notating classical music for the guitar, and refer to the plucking hand fingers to be used. P = thumb, i = index, m = middle, and a = ring. Why not t, i, m, r? Because they're derived from Spanish rather than English (sort of the way we use Italian for tempo indications).
    – Anonymous
    Apr 11, 2011 at 15:52
  • I've seen 'e' for the pinky. I think it was a flamenco article in a guitar mag, 20yrs ago. FWIW. Oct 27, 2012 at 9:04

You can look at this in purely economic terms, not in terms of the styles of music.

There are three kinds of music, divided on economic lines: folk music, classical (or traditional) music, and commercial music.

Folk music is music written and played by people who have no expectation of earning any money from it. It is performed informally.

Classical music (a better term is traditional music) relies on patronage; the composers write the music because they are paid by wealthy sponsors, people or institutions who want the music. Individual musicians who play classical music can get paid, but the key to classical music productions is that they are not designed to earn any money--in fact they lose money, and the difference is made up by wealthy patrons.

Commercial music is a phenomenon of the 20th century, and is now in decline. Commercial music is whenever anybody writes, records, and performs music with the expectation of selling it and earning a profit from it, within a music industry that seeks to earn a profit overall even if individual commercial music projects may not earn money.

If you think about any music you've heard or played, and think about when it was first written and why, you'll see that most everything falls easily into one of these three categories. It also explains how "classical" music is different from other kinds of music, irrespective of cultural labels.

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