The Five Ways Classical Guitar Has Shaped My Jazz Guitar Playing

  • By Aaron Shapiro
  • April 12, 2021

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reflecting on how my classical guitar background has helped me as a working jazz guitarist. These days I tend to perform more often in a jazz guitar context although I had been studying classical guitar long before I knew jazz even existed. I decided to write this article as a way to look at the interplay between these two styles of music in my own playing. The techniques, skillsets and arrangement ideas I’ve encountered in classical repertoire have pushed my jazz guitar playing forward in some important ways. To help illustrate my points I’ve included some short audio samples of classical guitar pieces that have had an impact on my guitar playing and compositions for the instrument. Take a listen to my version of Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” to hear how I work classical guitar influences into a solo jazz arrangement.

Alternate String Tunings

Most jazz guitarists I know prefer to play in standard tuning (E, A, D, G, B, E) whenever possible. On the other hand, classical guitar repertoire requires the use of alternate string tunings somewhat regularly. The most common alternate tuning I have seen in classical guitar music is drop D tuning, where the low E (6th) string is tuned down a whole step (D, A, D, G, B, E). I’ve learned from classical guitar pieces like “Julia Florida” that drop D tuning can add lots of depth to a solo guitar performance. Recently I’ve started using drop D tuning in some of my solo arrangements in jazz. This tuning works especially well with jazz standards played in the key of D major or D minor and also sounds great with lots of Brazilian jazz songs. Although some common chord shapes are trickier to play in drop D tuning, I think having the low D drone opens up lots of new possibilities for me as a solo guitar arranger.


“Julia Florida - Barcarola” is one of the most well known classical guitar pieces in drop D tuning.

picks nails

Fingerstyle Playing

My earliest exposure to fingerstyle guitar playing was as a young classical guitar student. I had been playing fingerstyle for five years before I first tried playing guitar with a pick. Over time I’ve found that each approach to picking has its benefits and drawbacks. I have more speed and attack when playing with a pick, but fingerstyle playing can open up more options for dynamics and tone. These days I find myself using a pick on almost every jazz ensemble gig I play but occasionally I’ll perform a solo jazz concert where fingerstyle playing really benefits the music. In the audio examples you’ll find an excerpt of me playing “La Catedral”, Agustin Barrios’ 3-part guitar suite. Each movement of the piece is a different challenge for the classical guitarist’s right hand. This piece really worked up my fingerstyle guitar playing!

I prefer using heavy guitar picks. The two I use the most are made by Fender and Dunlop.
I play fingerstyle guitar with short nails that reach slightly past the fingertips on my first 4 fingers.

Extended Technique

Classical guitar repertoire requires the use of several extended guitar techniques that aren’t used as frequently by jazz guitarists. Composer Matthew Burtner loosely defines extended technique as “using an instrument in a manner outside of traditionally accepted norms”. Some extended guitar techniques like Tambour, tremolo, and artificial harmonics are used so commonly in classical guitar repertoire that by now they’ve been accepted as being quite traditional. It’s less common to find jazz guitarists working in these techniques into their compositions, but I’ve found they can add lots of color to a jazz arrangement. I’ve included a short sample of “Mazurka-Chôro” from Heitor Villa Lobos’ Suite Populaire Brésilienne which uses harmonics, arpeggio and vibrato techniques at the end of the first movement.

Table of Natural Harmonics

A harmonic is a chime-like overtone that results from lightly touching the string with a finger while plucking it with another. This table shows where harmonics naturally occur on the guitar but artificial harmonics can be played on any fret, including the ones listed above.

Reading Music

Classical guitar also gave me my first exposure to reading music notation. I was taught that reading music was a useful skill across many genres so I learned the notes on the staff and how sharps and flats worked from a pretty early age. This gave me a leg up once I started to read jazz charts in my high school jazz ensemble. I included a side by side example of a famous composition from both classical and jazz music to highlight some important differences. Notice how in Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” the chord symbols are written above the staff to outline the harmonic structure behind the single note melodic line. This is a good representation of what a jazz lead sheet looks like. It is not Duke Ellington’s full big band orchestration but a good outline of the melodic and harmonic movement in the song. In classical guitar pieces like Bach’s “Bourrée”, no chord symbols are used. Instead I am reading notated chords and counterpoint melodies. For these reasons (and many more) the classical guitar music I read sometimes poses a greater challenge for me, but it has made me a more confident sight reader in a jazz context.

Bourrée in E minor
In A Sentimental Mood

Above: Bach’s Bourrée in E minor was the first Baroque piece I learned to play on guitar. It is an excellent introduction to counterpoint and the Baroque style.
The “A” sections in Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” in the form of a lead sheet. Although the lead sheet provides a good outline to the song, Duke Ellington’s full orchestration is what makes this song a classic.

Guitar-Based Composition

I’ve learned some unique chord voicings and inversions that I would have never encountered had it not been for classical guitar. It’s important to remember that in jazz music, most of the standard songbook repertoire was composed by pianists and horn players. In contrast, classical guitar music is usually written by guitarists for guitarists. This means that classical composers like Villa Lobos, Sor, and Barrios already mastered the inner workings of the fretboard and could structure their compositions to create the best possible sound on the guitar. They knew which open strings sound best in certain spots, and they wrote with the mechanical demands of the instrument in mind. They also understood the limitations of the instrument and could use them to strengthen the composition. I think this “guitar-based" approach to composition has greatly influenced the way I write jazz music too. Whether it’s using open strings in a unique way or finding the most comfortable chord for the left hand to play, classical guitar showed me the importance of knowing what your instrument (and hand) can and can’t do.


Above: Heitor Villa Lobos, Fernando Sor and Agustín Barrios. 3 master composers playing their guitars.

Sound Examples

1. Agustín Barrios’ “Julia Florida” is a staple in classical guitar repertoire that uses drop D tuning.

2. Barrios also composed La Catedral, a 3-part magnum opus guitar suite. Each movement is a different workout for right hand fingerstyle playing. The excerpt I recorded is from the piece’s first movement- “Prelude Suadade”.

3. Suite Populaire Bresiliene is Heitor Villa-Lobos’ 5 part guitar suite heavily inspired by early 20th century folk music from his homeland in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The end of the first movement “Mazurka-Choro” uses both natural and artificial harmonics.

4. Guitar music like Bach’s Lute Suite in E Minor requires the guitarist to read counterpoint. The treble and bass lines are two melodies working in conjunction with each other, moving in different directions.

5. Villa Lobos’ “Chôro No. 1” is one of my favorite compositions for classical guitar. The composer was also a brilliant guitar player, enabling him to write arrangements that could be played naturally and expressively on the instrument.

6. My solo guitar arrangement of Duke Ellington's "In A Sentimental Mood" draws on techniques I've learned from classical guitar. Drop D tuning, extended technique, counterpoint and fingerstyle playing are all in effect.