Not all guitars are made equal, and classical guitars are known to be significantly different from their counterparts in terms of build and strings. While most modern guitars have steel strings, classical guitars set themselves apart with strings made out of nylon. This difference is more than just a preference, and there are quite a few reasons why classical guitars have nylon strings.
Here are 5 reasons why classical guitars have nylon strings:
- Nylon became a cheaper alternative to the standard material.
- Nylon strings provide a mellow sound.
- Nylon strings are better for beginners.
- Nylon is more suited to specific styles
- A classical guitar build is best suited for nylon strings.
Classical guitars have a lot to recommend them, and many people choose them for many reasons. In this article, I’ll go into detail about why nylon strings have become a welcome partner to classical guitars. I’ll also highlight some key differences between classical guitars and their modern counterparts.
1. Nylon Became a Cheaper Alternative to the Standard Material
Before anything else, the primary reason classical guitars actually use nylon strings is because of the origin of the guitar. Long before anyone alive today was born, guitars were much different than now. The sleek neck and fine strings we use now were preceded by strings made out of ‘catgut’.
As appalling as that sounds, the name of the material isn’t literal. Rather, catgut was a slang term for what was actually used for strings, which were often the intestines of sheep or goats.
As time went and on and things changed, intestines have thankfully fallen out of fashion. Along with the fact that plucking an animal’s innards didn’t appeal to the mass populace, it was simply too expensive a practice to maintain and mass produce. At this point, nylon strings came in.
Nylon strings offered a cheaper alternative to catgut, allowing guitarists to maintain a similar tone to what you’d get from catgut at a fraction of the price. These days, nylon strings are still used on classical guitars with a little innovation added into the mix. Usually, the first three strings are made from single-strand nylon, while the rest have multiple strings of very thin nylon encased in a metal thread.
2. Nylon Strings Provide a Mellow Sound
As important as the historical reasons might be to the development of the classical guitars we know today, they’d have never survived through the years if they didn’t have something to offer outside of sentimental value and a respect for history. Nylon strings have a sound that’s very different from today’s more popular steel-string guitars.
Whereas steel string guitars have a brighter, sharper tone, classical guitars give a much more mellow and soft sound. Famous country singer Guy Clark described it as “the purest form of guitar making.” In the hands of a veteran, nylon strings can produce what can be described as a melodic caress; a style of music used to serenade, slow dance, and everything in between.
Both strings have their merits, but the sound that nylon strings produce is a big plus for some. So much so that they swear by it and focus only on playing classical guitars.
3. Nylon Strings Are Better for Beginners
Which guitar is better is largely a matter of some debate, but the prevailing consensus is that classical guitars are better for beginners. Intuition tells us that nylon is lighter and less harsh on the fingers than metal.
For beginners looking to learn, nylon does offer an easier experience for the fingers than steel and is far easier to play for extended periods until you get used to the effect of the string’s tension on your fingers.
That said, the severity and importance of this are debatable. Nylon strings are easier on the fingers overall, but over time, most guitarists will get used to the strings and feel minimal discomfort as long as their strings are attached properly.
Apart from the effects of the strings on your fingers, classical guitars are cheaper across the board due to their build and cheaper strings, making them a good choice for beginners who don’t wish to sink excessive amounts of money into a new hobby.
4. Nylon Is More Suited to Specific Styles
One major reason why nylon strings and, by extension, classical guitars still see as much use as they do today is their suitability to a specific style of music. As previously mentioned, nylon strings produce a tone that’s warmer than steel strings. This warmer sound lends itself well to playing genres of music that don’t go as well on steel strings.
If you’ve ever listened to classical music, you’ll generally have an idea of what nylon strings are better suited for. Classical music lends itself to softer tones which nylon strings do best. If your focus is majorly on classical music, then nylon strings are by far your best bet.
Classical guitars aren’t just limited to classical music either. If your tastes venture into folk music, flamenco or even jazz, nylon strings will outperform steel. In general, classical guitars perform best when used for songs that sound best when played on a softer, mellower tone that requires plucking instead of strumming.
This distinction doesn’t mean that you cannot strum classical guitars. Many people strum on their nylon strings, and they do it well, but as nylon is less durable than steel, you’ll have to restring your guitar far more often.
5. A Classic Guitar Build Is Best Suited for Nylon Strings
The difference in the types of strings also brings a difference to the build of the guitar. It would be almost impossible to fit steel strings into a guitar produced a few centuries ago. The difficulty would be due to the difference in time, and the difference in the guitar builds.
As previously mentioned, nylon strings evolved from catgut which was a relatively lightweight material. Due to this, classical guitars aren’t built to withstand the tension brought by fitting steel strings on them. While you could get by with fitting nylon strings on an acoustic guitar (albeit with many difficulties), trying the inverse on a classical guitar would likely destroy it over time.
Differences Between Classical and Acoustic Guitars
The difference between string types and sound on both guitars makes many beginners wonder which guitar is better overall. Any guitarist should put a lot of thought into deciding which guitar to go for as subtle differences arise depending on your needs.
Acoustic guitars are far more versatile than classical guitars. Classical guitars are best when matched with music that can be fingerpicked, such as folk and classical music. While they excel in this regard, steel strings are better for almost every other genre.
That said, there are many nuances to be considered in your choice of guitar. Depending on your requirements, you could lean more towards classical than acoustic.
While there are many other things to consider in your choice, the reality for most people is that they go with the cheapest option to save money where they can. If price is the single most important thing to you, a classical guitar would better serve you. They’re usually cheaper than their acoustic counterparts.
Although acoustic is slightly more expensive, the price difference is usually not excessive for guitars of similar quality.
As I said before, both guitars are good at different things. While acoustic is more versatile and a better choice, if you have no specific requirement genre-wise, classical guitars could be a better option if you only plan to play specific genres. For guitarists looking to delve into the world of folk, jazz, and classical music, nylon strings are your best friend.
Depending on your genre, the versatility of the acoustic guitar could be rendered moot. Many musicians that pride themselves on staying in only one or two genres of music usually choose the classical guitar and its nylon strings because it’s far more suitable for them.
This particular bit of nuance is likely to be the deciding factor for most people after price, as it’s far more important than anything else. After all, this directly affects the sound of whatever music you plan to create.
The difference in build is yet another thing that sets both guitar types apart. Unlike the first two points, however, the difference in build isn’t always noticed until you take a closer look at both. The most glaring of these differences is the strings. Classical guitars come with nylon strings, while acoustic guitars come with steel strings.
The differing string types means both guitars are built specifically to accommodate their respective strings. Classical guitars have a wider neck to accommodate for the larger amplitude produced when the strings vibrate. They also have slotted heads with attachments to allow you to tie the string while steel string guitars are held in place with pins.
Finally, since nylon guitars aren’t usually played with picks, they don’t have any guards to protect the strings. Using a pick with them is a short road to a damaged guitar. Acoustic guitars, on the other hand, have pickguards to protect the instrument from pick damage.