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Steel Strings Vs Nylon Strings: Which is the Right Choice for You

Are you mystified by the wide range of colorful tones an acoustic guitar can give you?

Strings make the cornerstone of acoustic sound, but there is much more than just strings to these types of guitars. If you're caught up in the debate, consider this matter has gone unresolved for ages now. Needless to say, there are a few key differences you should be aware of when choosing to compare steel strings vs nylon strings on an acoustic guitar. 

Do you prefer the sweeping ambient sounds of a nylon string? Or would you rather have an all-rounder sound for some of the most popular genres out there? 

Whether you're a beginner and just learning the string names, an intermediate, or even an expert guitar player and want to know a tad more about your options, this article has you covered.

Read on to learn a few things to keep in mind when looking for your next acoustic guitar.

Music Genre - Which Guitar Is Best For What?

First off, your guitar should match your intentions, music is well above square specifications and all about personal preference. 

You'll find some of the most celebrated artists in music history have presented themselves with contradictory choices for their genre, even transcending and reinventing music along the way. So, there are general rules, but don’t feel like you have to stick to them.

Steel String Guitar Genres

Steel strings have surrounded pop, rock, bluegrass, folk, and country for a century now, mainly because these acoustic guitars offer more volume, attack, and power

Many argue that Eric Clapton gave one of his best stylistic performances when he played his acoustic set for MTV Unplugged. Stripping his electric blues to the ring of steel strings with no apparent effort on a soulful note.

Genres For Classical Guitar

In contrast, classical guitars and their nylon strings have excelled at jazz, Bossanova, flamenco, and folk. Despite their minimal range, the nylon string voice can house some of the most complex tones.

Willie Nelson, is known for playing his trusty nylon Martin N-20 "Trigger", it was unusual to see a country gentleman walk on stage with classical guitar at that time. But nelson, along with "Trigger," have become a legendary songwriting duo.

Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham is another mold-breaking nylon string guitar enthusiast. He's claimed many times that there's nothing he can't do with his Gibson Chet Atkins. If there's any doubt, we encourage you to take a look at his performance of "Big Love".

Different Materials, Different Sound

While this may sound like a no-brainer, steel strings are known for giving a bright, crisper sound from the get-go. Nylon strings in classical guitars are known for their warmer and mellow sound.

When you delve deeper into steel string guitars, you'll see that there's a variety in terms of gauge and even coated sets. Popularly, players gravitate towards bronze, phosphor, and nickel as these types of strings can last longer while sounding great.

Regardless of whatever you may choose, these different materials will help you experiment with different tones.

As for classical guitars, their strings vary mainly in size based on different manufacturers' tune peg entries. 

However, the materials for the lower bass strings tend to be silver coated. This often results in mild tone variations as the sound remains relatively the same.

A crucial comparison between steel strings and nylon string guitars is how they respond to a pick. While classical guitars may respond with a reasonable projection, you'll notice you lose a bit of warmth more often than not. 

On the other hand, a steel string's response will be mostly positive, enhancing its projection, brightness, and presence.

Action and Tension in Sound

A crucial element to the sound of any guitar is whether the instrument has a lower or higher action. This translates into simple English as the tension and height of the strings across your fretboard. 

Steel-string guitars, for one, usually have 100 pounds more string-load tension than their classical sibling. 

This distinctive feature on a steel string stands out because they have a truss rod on their design unlike most nylon acoustics. Its purpose is to give a reasonably low action in high fretboard positions and vice-versa. 

The average lower action on a steel string increases its attack. This is one reason why steel strings are sharper, brighter, and, overall, more treble-driven than nylon strings.

Nylon strings are under less pressure, so they become more flexible. As you can guess, this makes for their slower attack, mellower and warmer sound. It also makes the strings hurt less while you build up calluses.

Steel Strings Vs Nylon Strings - Adjustment

Each type of acoustic guitar has a different setup. Nylon strings will require you to learn how to tie them properly, whereas ball end steel strings are pretty much a conventional setup for steel string acoustics.
A common mistake made by beginners is to think that strings are interchangeable. Steel strings on a classical nylon acoustic can deal some irreparable damage, since these guitars aren't braced properly for high natural tensions.

Furthermore, when you tie nylon strings to a different acoustic, you won't be able to trust a pick for strumming on one end. Given the fact that you will probably wear the nylon a lot faster, and the tension will more often than not be too much for the strings to bear.

Bodies


Steel string acoustic guitars generally have a larger body and scale. This often makes a full-bodied, more defined sound with stronger projection. On the other hand, Nylon strings keep a shorter scale and body, often making for a more compressed and warm tone. Yet, this is not always the case as you can get smaller guitars in both styles

Classical nylon strings regularly sport elegant simplicity and even thinner laminated tops. 

Additional to other differences that may not be as evident to the plain eye, there are more flexible and smaller braces. On the other hand, steel string guitars sport more rigid, larger bracing. 

Typically, Nylon strings exclude strap pins, as they are traditionally played while sitting down in flamenco posture. Since the sides are crafted to fit anyone's lap perfectly

Mainly nylon string guitars are inherent to their classical cut, given the simple design is crucial for its sound and projection. 

They also tend to leave electronics and fretboard markers out of their design, along with single cutaways. 

Of course, there are a few exceptions in history, such as Gibson's Chet Atkins CE. It is known for its single-cutaway and enhanced resonance features with a more modern take on a very classical sound.

Conversely, steel string acoustic guitars are more practically built for any type of player by design. But the approach principles remain the same behind each six-string. To have a sturdy instrument, at least enough to hold strings on a pitch in a flexible way when strummed or plucked.

Neck Types

As you might have guessed at this point, classical guitars have a different nut and neck width to their steel wound sibling.

This comfortable spacing enables you to perform more accurately without accidentally striking the adjacent strings.  However, this is mainly designed for intricate finger-picking, shapes, and chords.

Generally, this feature has very simple pros and cons. While steel strings can deliver powerful sounding chords and razor-sharp fingerpicking notes, the latter tends to be overshadowed by its nylon-string counterpart.  It is far easier to play a fingerpick run on a classical guitar, given the extra space.

Tuning, Endurance, and Maintenance 

It's fair to start by noting that ideally, a guitar's string set should be changed regularly, preferably every three months. Otherwise, sets begin to lose their tone. In the case of nylon strings, they become flat in sound and become very difficult to tune as nylon strings are more susceptible to falling out of tune due to their softer material.

Humidity, temperature, and even aggressive playing take a heavier toll on them. Steel, however, is more resilient to environmental changes and abuse.

Regardless, you should always keep your acoustic guitar in mint condition by tuning before practice and wiping them with clean cloths once you finish.

Every guitar is susceptible to body grease, it speeds up their wearing, and in the long run, you’ll find it will add up to your guitar’s deterioration.

Author

  • Steel Strings Vs Nylon Strings

    My "day job" used to be teaching but I decided to give that up to play music full time. I have gigged all over the world playing in bands or as a solo act since then. I still have a passion for teaching others anything related to music. Writing content for InciteMusic.com gives me an opportunity to combine my love of music and education.

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