Friday 3 December 2010

Nylon vs Steel

Roman inspired me to write about Nylon stringed guitars versus Steel stringed guitars. I've played both, for long periods of time, so I reckon I'm entitled to a bit of an opinion :)

Nylon or steel is very polarising - pretty much most guitarists would play only nylon, or only steel, there aren't many who would play both, except maybe for a few very specific novelty reasons.

Rather than try to form this blog into a coherent narrative, I'm going to randomly bullet point up my learnings about nylon and steel in no particular order:

1. Generally, steel has a bright sound, nylon has a mellow if you like bright, you are probably going to play steel; mellow, nylon.

2. Nylon strings are an absolute pain to break in, they stretch over many days. Steel breaks in quick and easily. Never change nylon strings just before a gig.

3. Steel strings are under a lot more tension - you can't put steel strings on a nylon guitar (just in case anyone was thinking about it). This makes fretting "harder" than fretting on nylon. You'll develop serious calluses on your left hand fingertips playing steel, nylon will only develop minor calluses. (By the way, calluses are a good thing). If you are a newbie, steel will hurt your soft tender newbie fingertips to start with. If you are a hard core steel player nylon will feel like big floppy lackybands.

4. Nylon strings are fatter than steel strings. Makes them easier to fret particularly for newbies, again less pain. Generally nylon necks need to be wider than steel necks to account for the fatter strings.

5. Nylon necks are wider than steel necks because of the fat strings, but also because nylons tend to be used more for complex left hand work. There is more room to move around, more forgiving to error. You can play just as complex stuff on either, but they nylon is going to have that little bit more room and you won't need to be quite as precise as steel. If however you have a small hand, a full width (50-54mm) neck might represent a problem.

6. Nylon allows more expression, more emotion (stands back, ducks and covers). Look, it's true. You don't get the same level of dynamic and tone control out of steel with just your fingers. I'm not saying that steel is meant to be played flat out all the time, but it is easier to put more dynamics, note-for-note, in nylon playing than steel playing. The subtleness in tone and volume differentiation that you can apply in nylon is wider, and easier to control. This is high-end skill stuff; n00bs, intermediate and even advanced players are still concentrating on playing a piece correctly, applying dynamics is one of the last things a player really starts to focus on.

7. Steel bodies naturally have a bigger sound and wider frequency response than nylon. You'll never get that huge fat tonal response from strumming a chord on nylon than you will from a big dreadnought steel body. Steel is a natural choice for rhythm strumming.

8. Steel will rip your fingernails to shreds if you are a fingernail player. Fingernails are naturally at home on nylon, and bring even more dynamicism to your playing. As a fingerstyle player, your best bet on steel is to play without fingernails, and build up (and maintain) calluses on your fingertips for picking. Use a thumbpick. Or, Alaska piks are a great choice for steel and even nylon if you weren't blessed with strong fingernails.

9. Bends can be wider on steel than nylon. Due to the extra tension, you can bend beyond a tone even as you are getting closer to the open position. On a nylon, even at the 12th you'll battle to bend out to a tone, and even then you'll need to bend the strings more than halfway across the fretboard - meaning you won't be able to play the strings you are running across - generally, nylon isn't really made for bending.

10. "You are cooler playing steel." Ha, maybe. You can play nylon on your right leg, or standing up with a strap, but the best position is the classical left leg foot on stool to get the angles right. (I'm also "too cool" for that position, but I do know and accept that the classical position is easier and better).

11. Nylons are a good beginners guitar. You won't hurt your fingers as much, nylons are more forgiving than steel and you don't need to be quite as strong.

12. Intonation, and compensation, is crazy on nylon. Because the three monofilament strings have very different characteristics to wound multifilament strings the bridge/saddle/nut has a hard time balancing this out. It's hard to find a very well-intonated nylon string - well at least one that suits your playing style. Interesting trivia: the D string is under more tension than the G string. The monofilament strings are so fat and floppy that just pressing harder when fretting can change the pitch. Performing a chord requiring some deft stretchy left hand work will invariably cause you to slightly bend strings as you reach because they are floppy - the pitch perfect amongst us (certainly not me) will wince with pain.

13. Crossing between nylon and steel from time to time requires a mindset change in addition to the physical approach change. Nylon to steel will hurt your fingertips, you'll feel like you are pressing hard and plucking hard, and the tone will almost sound "harsh". Steel to nylon will feel like you are playing a flimsy child's guitar with elastic band strings and you'll have to play gently so you don't twang the thing. But if you can keep your mind open, and play each type in the manner it needs to be played, you'll get a lot of enjoyment from what each one provides.



  1. Great post! I play both nylon (custom built classical) and steel string (1958 Martin 00-15 mahogany), you are spot on with your descriptions of both! Students often ask, "Which is best?" I tell them exactly what you said :)

    For newbies, I've found that ball-end nylon strings on a steel string guitar gives them the advantage of a thinner neck and easier strings to learn on. Not the best tone--but you mentioned that dynamics is the last thing students learn to listen for--right again!

  2. Thanks for the article. Great, I would have forgotten some aspects, had I written it myself :-)

    I play nylon as well, as you know, but I started and played on steel for a few years. I switched to nylon originally as a cheap option, as it is often possible to find second hand nylon string guitars for cheaper than steel string guitars (regardless of quality), 10 pounds is quite common for nylon.

    All you said is right, Jaw. Just one thing.
    Nails. If nylon strings are almost exclusively played with nails (they are called classical guitars after all), and steel strings are globally most often used with plectrums, steel strings can equally be played with nails, and often are in many styles such as folk fingerpicking, some blues...
    Maybe the only thing you didn't mention, is that whether steel strings are considered good for fingerstyle or not, they are better for strumming (with or without a spectrum), at least for rock/pop music (flamenco is another matter), I think the fact that the neck is narrow and the strings have more tension just make it easier to hit them all at once, it lends itself to a more rhythmic playing style.

  3. I really enjoy your commitment and way with words about this stuff, so I thought I'd put in my 2 cents.

    I'm another guy who likes to go back and forth from steel to nylon. I feel it helps me keep from stagnating by switching it up a little.

    I've heard a million times that you cannot put steel strings on a nylon guitar. I guess it's in my nature to try things people tell me can't be done. So let me preface this by saying I wouldn't try it on an expensive classical guitar. I've done it on my relatively low-end Cordoba classical guitar for about a year and haven't had any kind of negative effects on the neck or bridge. The secret is that you must have a classical guitar with an adjustable truss rod (not all of them do) and you must use pretty light steel strings. I use Martin "Silk & Steel" strings.

    I think it makes for a good hybrid as the S&S strings don't feel like they exert much more tension than high tension D'Addario nylon strings, but you are able to wail on it a little harder than on nylon and natural harmonics are much easier to pull off. However, it still feels much lighter than playing a regular steel string with light gauge strings.

    The S&S strings have a silk wrapping on the ball end which I have to remove on the low E string for it pull through the bridge. All of the other strings thread through with plenty of space and the silk helps keep it from wearing on the bridge. Other than that, it works way better than I expected. I like to use it when learning a new arrangement because it doesn't wear me out as much as my Martin OMC can after extended playing time, but still gives me a steel sound. I never even had to adjust the truss rod. One of these days I'll probably work up the courage to make some YouTube videos and I'll use it for some.

    A comment about string spacing on steel strings for fingerstyle playing: I'd add that a steel string guitar with 1 3/4" nut works better for fingerstyle than one with 1 11/16" if you have bigger hands.

    A comment about fingernail wear and tear on steel: I suppose that varies by individual and playing intensity as some people have thicker nails than others. It is also important to keep them filed to a reasonable length on a regular basis.

    And one last thing that is an important difference is that most steel string guitars expose the 12th fret before the body of the guitar allowing you to reach the higher frets easier (especially with a cutaway). Classical guitars have the 12th fret at the body which makes it much harder to reach the higher frets.

    OK, that's all I've got.


  4. Re expression: I had the chance to see Tommy E play the other day at the Penang Jazz festival - that man can put a lot of expression into his playing. He just gives it everything and still makes no mistakes. I saw him playing up close and he has absolutely enormous hands, no wonder the over the neck stuff works so well.

    I still prefer nylon mind you - especially classical stuff ;-) Nylon fingerstyle can be a bit more more of a muddy mess of sound than steel string I think.

  5. C.:
    Well, truss rod may prevent neck bow, but besides that the extra tension can tear the bridge off (they say it's pretty shocking to wake up to that big bang), or bend the top (especially solid top, laminated is tougher), because the bracing is different. The fretting of classical's neck is usually made of softer metal, so the steel string can wear that off. Oh, the plastic tuning rollers will also hate the metal.
    Some guys on a forum has calculated the difference between D'addario's Nylon and Silk and Steel strings tension: it's 35.2 lbs, 16 kg.
    It's okay, if it works for you, but let's make it clear: it's absolutely dangerous to put steel on a classical.

    Show us your vid when it's posted!

  6. L3fty,

    I can't make a video now because the bridge popped off and took out my eye. j/k I'm sure you're right, it's probably not the best idea I ever had. I'm not really in love with that particular guitar so I figured what the hey. I don't really notice any wear on the frets, but I did remove the plastic rollers and milled out some little plastic inserts to receive the metal shaft on the inside edge. Not really because I was afraid of the plastic wearing out, but because the smaller diameter makes it easier to tune the steel strings. Thanks for the data on the difference in string tension. That's definitely good info. Anyways, if anyone reads this, I'd stick to Jaw and L3fty's advice and leave this experiment to people with too much spare time and an extra crappy guitar.

  7. this comparsion was great and useful!

    next time.. thumb vs thumb-pick? :P

  8. This dilemma is bigger than ever now inside me!
    I have a 400$ acoustic and 150$ classical I barely play and I feel ready to upgrade to high end stuff. But I have to make up my mind!

    I've been doing fine playing steel up to now.
    But the way you wrote it out, nylon seems to be more appropiate for fingerstyle. For instance, the wider fretboard and specially the easier dynamics are really important points.

    On the other hand, here in Spain for every acoustic guitar there are 20 classical ones. I like to stand out with my fender with its strat shaped headstock and its brighter sound.
    Moreover, I like to play lead guitar too and hope to join a band sooner or later. You did not mention in the article (I think) that classical guitars usually have less 'clean' frets, preventing to reach the highest notes. That, and no bending makes nylon non-viable for lead guitar...
    I appreaciate not having to change nylon strings as well.

    humm :(


  9. Well, there are plenty of great players - in fact, probably the most well know players - who play steel. I started out on nylon, but progressed to steel. But then realised there was something about nylon that just plain worked (Naudo rammed that home). I played my old classical a bit, but after steel it didn't feel right, so I went to the hybrid/crossover. Which was fine for a year, until I realised that yeah it was the classical I really wanted.

    And then - ouch - the price goes up exponentially as your palate for tone matures :)

    Lead guitar - eh, you don't need nylon for that IHMO. And yeah, you won't be doing great big bends on nylon.

    I recommend borrowing a nylon for a while and seeing how you go. I needed a year before I realised a full classical is what I wanted.

  10. thanks for the tips, i have started on a Strat electric, but over time i want to play all, Gibson, nylon and steel.

  11. Replies
    1. Naudo Rodrigues lives in Tenerife and is a genius. Words cannot describe him, you must see for yourself. Fortunately his mate Juan has recorded hundreds of his fingerstyle covers, set aside some time and go here

      Naudo is my number 1 inspiration, I am the guitarist I am today from seeing what he is able to do and trying it for myself