by Mark Kemp
The nylon-string acoustic guitar is known mainly as a classical or flamenco instrument, but its rich tonal qualities lend themselves to particular roles in country, folk, jazz, rock, pop, and even hip-hop. The Brazilian bossa nova sound is based on a rhythmic and percussive nylon-string sound pioneered by the guitarist João Gilberto. And the great American guitarist Chet Atkins often played fingerstyle on nylon-string guitars—he was a huge influence on many guitarists, who would take his ideas into multiple genres. On these ten essential non-classical albums, the nylon-string guitar is at the center of each artist’s vision.
Puerto Rican guitarist Jose Feliciano’s massive mainstream breakthrough is generally considered to be the first album of pop music played entirely on a nylon-string guitar. To be sure, Feliciano! sounded like nothing else that came out in 1968. It was an album of vocals and classical guitar and included covers of some of the most well-known pop and rock songs of the times, namely the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” and the Doors’ “Light My Fire,” which reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200, but also songs by the Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers.
When asked by Music Radar in 2012 if he considered himself a pioneer for using nylon-string on pop songs, Feliciano said, “No, not at all. I was just doing what sounded good to me. I did what I did. And if things weren’t done or were looked down on . . . like the way I do certain bends on the acoustic, that’s not done, supposedly. It took Charlie Byrd to show me that it is done, and in that sense, I copied him and his ideas, and I added my own thing to it.
“I’ve always had blistering speed with my right hand. People call it ‘flamenco,’ but it’s not. I’ve heard the phrase ‘Jose Feliciano and his flamenco guitar’—that’s not what it is. I’m not a flamenco guitarist. I happen to play a nylon-string guitar that flamenco guitarists also use, but I’m not a flamenco guitarist.”
Songs of Leonard Cohen (1969)
Leonard Cohen’s 1969 debut, with such notable songs as “Suzanne” and “Sisters of Mercy” may have been the most low-key folk album to come out of the 1960s. It was certainly different from the gritty urban American folk coming out of Greenwich Village in New York City. For one thing, Cohen accompanied his deeply poetic lyrics with a nylon-string guitar that he played with a slight tremolo. “It’s essentially a Spanish style—a more classical version of flamenco,” Cohen’s music arranger Javier Mas told Anthony Reynolds in the book Leonard Cohen: A Remarkable Life.
Asked why Cohen chooses to play classical guitar, Mas can only guess, because Cohen doesn’t often talk about his guitars or his playing. “I think Leonard always uses nylon-string guitars precisely because that was his guitar at the beginning . . . Maybe he plays with metal strings sometimes, but I believe all his life was playing nylon and so it’s natural that he feels comfortable with that . . . and the sound from that type of strings really helped his songs and his playing. . . . Sometimes we talk about technique itself, in particular the special Spanish way of playing the guitar. He has got that nice tremolo playing that makes an incredible sound in his songs, and that’s one old Spanish technique.”
Jerry Reed Explores Guitar Country (1969)
Because Jerry Reed is such a virtuosic player and because his repertoire, particularly on this album, is so eclectic, he can make you forget he’s playing a nylon-string guitar. On Guitar Country, Reed gets the classical guitar’s Spanish-style tone on standards such as “Georgia” and a slowed-down “Wayfaring Stranger.” The nylon sound is a little less apparent on “Bluegrass—with Guts,” “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” and “St. James Infirmary,” in which he stretches out on some of his signature swamp-funk excursions.
Guitar Country is the first album Reed recorded using a Baldwin 801CP, though he loved Baldwins and had used other models before. He started out on a Gretsch Chet Atkins signature hollow body, but over the years focused more and more on straight nylon-string acoustics. Reed chose to use classical guitars for the most mundane of reasons: he played so damn hard that steel strings ripped off his nails.
“Like Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, and a few others, Jerry Reed created a unique style of guitar playing…,” said studio musician David Hargate. Added music scholar John Knowles, “His playing has the complexity of classical music but the rhythmic sense that comes from country, rock, and gospel.”
Ralph Towner/Gary Burton
In the early 1970s, ECM Records described its overall philosophy as “the most beautiful sound next to silence.” This ECM collaboration between vibraphonist Gary Burton and multi-instrumentalist Ralph Towner, best known for his delicate, unamplified touch on nylon-string guitar, defined that philosophy. The nylon-string and vibes interplay on tracks such as the Leonard Bernstein/Betty Comden/Adolph Green composition “Some Other Time” and Towner’s own “Song for a Friend” are the essence of chamber jazz: intimate, quiet, contemplative, and absolutely beautiful.
“The classical guitar has a tremendous variety of attacks and sounds built into it,” Towner told Anil Prasad, of the web magazine Innerviews: Music Without Borders, in 2000. “My intention is to make people forget about the instrument when playing the music. If you play the instrument well enough, you draw attention away from the literal ‘Isn’t he a very good guitar player?’ thing. You’re trying to transcend that kind of thinking in the audience and lure it into a sort of trip that explores the colors and beauty of the music going on, as well as the story that’s unfolding. And with all these colors that are available, it really is orchestrating—assigning parts to French horns here, trumpets there, violins here.”
Red Headed Stranger (1975)
It was the time of the preacher—and Willie Nelson was about a half a decade into making a Martin N-20 classical guitar not only his signature instrument, but also one of the most famous guitars in popular music. He named it Trigger, and it would be hard to imagine Nelson’s mellow, nasally voice, always just behind the beat, without the accompaniment of his N-20, which is also always just little behind the beat.
Actually, it would be easy to imagine it: Just listen to Nelson’s early recordings of “Hello Walls,” “Nightlife,” and “Mr. Record Man,” which he plays on a Baldwin 800C electric classical. They’re classic songs, everything’s on beat, and Nelson sounds fantastic. He just doesn’t sound like Willie. When he got Trigger after a drunk in a bar stomped on the Baldwin, the first album he played it on was 1969’s My Own Peculiar Way. But it wasn’t until the first five years of the ’70s that Nelson and Trigger became a team that recorded eight albums on which his sound changed radically: He was out of the grips of Nashville’s dogma and he let Trigger sound like Trigger, and his own vocal phrasing sound like Willie. Also in that five-year span he recorded three concept albums, Yesterday’s Wine, Phases and Stages, and Red Headed Stranger, on which he really let the Spanish qualities of his nylon strings ring.
Sun Kil Moon
Admiral Fell Promises (2010)
This album was released under the name of Mark Kozelek’s indie-folk band, but it’s actually a work of solo nylon-string guitar songs with vocals by Kozelek alone, and it features some of the best playing by the San Francisco-based artist, who began as a founding member of the Red House Painters. The songs incorporate classical-style playing with straight singer-songwriter material. “I was interested in classical guitar when I was younger, but got away from it,” Kozelek told music journalist Rob O’Connor in 2010. Then he bought some classical recordings, including a five-CD set by Andres Segovia. “I decided, for my next record, that I wanted to play guitar and sing as beautifully as I could. With the classical guitar, the whole range of sounds is covered. Bass and drums would have swamped up the sound of this record. I wanted it to have the feel of those old classical-guitar records.”
MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 (2002)
As a member of the Fugees, Lauryn Hill helped make the acoustic guitar cool among the expanding hip-hop scene of the 1990s. When the group broke up, Hill released a critically acclaimed solo album in 1998, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, that suggested a promising future for the singer, songwriter, and guitarist. But she went silent for four years. And then came this: MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, a live album featuring just Hill with a nylon-string guitar and a lot on her mind. It was like no other Unplugged performance, partly because Hill took the “unplugged” part of the equation very seriously and turned the occasion into both a venue for trying out new song ideas and an outlet for her to vent about the perils of fame and the music business.
By far the most important thing about this album was that by stripping down to just herself and her funky, syncopated, vigorously played classical guitar, Hill became virtually naked. And her raw talent was crystal clear from start to finish, though her unfiltered commentary was difficult to hear and divided her fans and critics. Hill’s MTV Unplugged appearance was also important for being the last album she would release, as of 2016. She has occasionally performed live since then, most recently last year in shows that featured both solo songs performed on her nylon-string guitar and full-band performances of her own material as well as covers of Sade, Bob Marley, and Pet Sounds–era Beach Boys.
Solo Guitar (1989)
After performing in important early sessions by George Benson and joining the jazz-fusion band Return to Forever, acoustic guitarist Earl Klugh released a string of albums in the ’70s and ’80s that defined the “smooth jazz” style, covering a mix of originals and classic pop and R&B songs as background music. But Klugh never considered himself a jazz guitarist, and on this 1989 solo album of well-chosen, beautifully played standards, he made the case for his being a Chet Atkins–style nylon-string fingerstyle guitarist first and foremost.
Growing up in Detroit with the Motown Sound in his back yard, Klugh became interested in a different kind of music when, at 13, he saw Atkins perform on The Perry Como Show. Klugh began teaching himself to play fingerstyle on a small nylon-string guitar his parents got him for Christmas, but eventually took lessons. “I was interested in formalizing my technique a little, because I had already run into some bad habits,” he told Acoustic Guitar in 1997. “I played fingerstyle from the start, which I think was key to my development. My teacher was a Spanish guy who played Spanish-style folk music. That was a really good beginning for me.”
In 1989, Solo Guitar turned out to be a new beginning for Klugh.
Caetano Veloso (1986)
Classical guitars are a staple of Brazilian styles like bossa nova, tropicália, and newer catch-all genres such as MPB, and Caetano Veloso—the most internationally famous of Brazilian singers and songwriters—has played classical guitars on many recordings. But in 1985, Veloso walked into Vanguard Studios in New York City with just his nylon-string guitar and laid down this stunning set of 13 stripped-down gems. Some, like “O Leãozinho” and “Dindi,” were songs he and practically every other Brazilian have recorded in other arrangements; others he’d never thought of trying, like his raw, acoustic, Latin-flavored take on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Veloso’s self-titled 1986 album was the first pop album released on the previously classical-only Nonesuch Records.
Rodrigo y Gabriela
Rodrigo y Gabriela (2006)
After a pair of warm-up albums, Mexican guitar virtuosos Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero released their third album, the self-titled Rodrigo y Gabriela, in 2006, on which the duo perfected its mix of fiery, nylon-string instrumentals with a heavy-metal mindset. Rodrigo y Gabriela set a new template for instrumental guitar duos—one that valued dripping passion and emotion as much as technical proficiency. Rod and Gab mixed Latin styles, flamenco, and Irish percussive techniques into a delightfully energetic stew. The album even included a brilliantly executed cover of a song that, for all practical purposes, should never have been attempted: Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”
“Although we play nylon-string guitars, we never had classical training,” Quintero told Acoustic Guitar last year. The duo’s music, she added, is “eclectic, with influences from many different genres, but it’s primarily rock. Me and Rodrigo play rock.”