Papas was born in Sopiki, Greece, then a part of Albania. He was exposed to classical music at an early age by his father, who was a church chanter, a voice teacher, and a casual player of the violin. When Papas was a young teenager, he went to live with an uncle in Cairo. He attended school and studied piano, and it was then that he began to study both the mandolin and the guitar. He returned to Greece in 1912, where he fought as an Albanian guerrilla against the Turks in the Balkan Wars. Later he joined the Greek army and fought in the Graeco-Turkish wars.
Around 1914 he moved to the United States and began teaching classical guitar in Washington, D.C., from 1920. The lack of published guitar music led him to found the Columbia Music Company. The company still publishes many arrangements and original compositions for the guitar, including a number by Papas's friend Andrés Segovia. Perhaps best known is Papas's Method for the Classic Guitar (494-00194 / CO 300), and his revised edition of Fernando Sor's Sixty Short Pieces for Guitar (vol. I: nos. 1–38, 494-00227 / CO 170a; and vol. II: nos. 39–60, 494-00227 / CO 170b), first published in 1963. Papas was also a regular contributor to many scholarly music journals, notably Crescendo.
Some of his better-known pupils include Charlie Byrd, Sharon Isbin, Aaron Shearer, Jim Skinger, Dorothy de Goede, Clare Calahan, John Marlow, Jerry Willard, and the jazz musicians Bill Harris and Alvino Rey. Papas was a lifelong friend of Andrés Segovia, whom he met at Segovia's 1928 debut performance in North America.
Additional publications from the Columbia Music Company include:
- Papas's Bach Album: Fourteen Pieces, by J. S. Bach (Bourrée II, from Suite No. 4 for Cello, BWV 1010; Andante, from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, BWV App. 131; Minuet, from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, BWV App. 114; Minuet, from Violin Partita No. 3, BWV 1006; Gavotte, from Gavotte en Rondeau from Violin Partita No. 3, BWV 1006; Gavotte I, from Suite No. 6 for Cello, BWV 1012 (revised by Elisabeth Papas Smith); Gavotte II, from Suite No. 6 for Cello, BWV 1012; Minuet, from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, BWV App. 115; Minuet III, from Suite in G, BWV 822; Minuet, from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, BWV App. 132; Gavotte II (Musette), from French Suite No. 3, BWV 808; Prelude, or Little Prelude for Lute, BWV 999; Sarabande, from Violin Partita No. 1, BWV 1002; Bourrée, from Lute Suite No. 1, BWV 996), arranged by Sophocles Papas (494-00213 / CO 169).
- Five Catalan Melodies (El Noy de la Mare, El Testamento de Amelia, Plany, La Filla del Marxant, El Mestre), revised by Sophocles Papas (494-00204 / CO 232).
- Arpeggio Studies, edited and fingered by Sophocles Papas (494-00368 / CO 257).
- Eight Lessons, fingered by Sophocles Papas (494-00189 / CO 160).
- Elisabeth Papas Smith: Sophocles Papas: The Guitar, His Life (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Columbia Music, 1998)
- Thea E. Smith, Papas' granddaughter and current president of Columbia Music Company.
- See http://comusco.com/sophocles_papas.en.html; retrieved 12 April 2016.
- See Columbia Music website, as above.