10 Things Steel-String Players Should Know About Nylon-String Classical Guitars

From the July 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By PAULINE FRANCE

Switching from steel-string to nylon-string guitar is perhaps something you haven’t considered—at least up until this point. I get it. Unknown territory can be scary, but embarking on the discovery of a new guitar might just be what you need to spark some creativity. So allow me to introduce you to a fabulous new—yet ancient— instrument as I break down the ten things you should know about nylon-stringed guitars, if you’re a steel-string player.

Here’s a guide with links to each section in this article:

  • One has metal strings, the other has nylon
  • Flick the pick
  • Embrace a new body
  • A classical guitar has a wider neck than its steel-string sibling
  • Lower tension means less pressure and smoother sounds
  • Prepare to take a seat
  • Consider letting your nails grow
  • You’ll need a footstool and a few other gadgets
  • You’ll want to learn how to restring
  • Classical guitar is not limited to classical music
  • 1. One has metal strings, the other has nylon

    Steel-string guitars are equipped with metal strings, producing a brighter and crisper sound. Classical guitars have nylon strings that produce a softer sound. Metal strings can be tougher on your fingertips when pressing against the fretboard, especially if you’re in your early guitar-playing stages and haven’t developed calluses. Nylon strings are easier on your fingertips, making fingerpicking and pressing against the fretboard less hard on
    the fingers.

    2. Flick the pick

    Why limit yourself to one pick when you have five attached to your body? In traditional classical guitar, you don’t use picks—you use the five fingers on your picking hand instead. An advantage of playing with your fingers versus using a pick is the orchestra-like effect you can achieve. Gretchen Menn, composer, solo artist, and guitarist for Led Zeppelin tribute band Zepparella, is fond of this effect and the versatility classical guitar has to offer. “One of my favorite elements of classical-guitar training is slowing down to the micro level and really exploring the breadth of tonal spectrum that your right hand offers. Finding your personal tonal varieties and understanding and working with this spectrum in a musical context brings up another concept—the creation of convincing polyphony not just through correct execution of the notes, but also through carving out tones for different voices to exist. When done well, many pieces for solo classical guitar can really sound like a duet to someone not familiar with these possibilities,” Menn says.

    3. Embrace a new body

    The body of the classical guitar offers elegant simplicity. When you get your hands on one (at least the traditional kind), don’t expect to see things you’d normally find on a steel-string guitar, such as electronics, a cutaway, fretboard markers, or even strap buttons. But some of the most significant structural differences aren’t so noticeable to the plain eye. For Andrew Enns, head luthier at classical-guitar company Córdoba Guitars, the bracing and top thickness play an important role in the difference between the two guitars. “Nylon-string tops are thinner, with smaller, more flexible braces, while steel-string guitars have thicker tops with larger, more rigid braces. The principle behind both is the same, to make the guitar strong enough to hold the strings at pitch, yet flexible enough to vibrate when the strings are plucked,” Enns says.

    4. A classical guitar has a wider neck than its steel-string sibling

    Because of the extra width on the classical-guitar neck, it is easier to avoid stroking neighboring strings, especially when executing intricate chord shapes or fingerpicking patterns. And while you can certainly fingerpick on a steel-string guitar, it’s simply much easier to do so on a classical, given the extra space between your strings.

    5. Lower tension means less pressure and smoother sounds

    The string-load tension on a steel-string guitar is about 100 pounds higher than on a classical -guitar. As a result, a noticeable difference is the ease with which you can press on the classical guitar fretboard. Another direct outcome of the difference in tension is the type of sound the strings on each guitar produce. “A nylon string is more flexible and under less tension at pitch, giving it a slower attack and more mellow sound, while a steel string is under much greater tension providing a faster attack and brighter sound,” adds Córdoba head luthier Enns.

    6. Prepare to take a seat

    In the traditional world of classical guitar, you sit with the instrument in between your legs. The waist of the guitar body rests comfortably and falls naturally on your thighs. Since conventional classical guitars don’t have a strap button, you’ll almost always see people playing sitting down and using a footstool for support, versus standing up as most steel-string players do.

    7. Consider letting your nails grow

    While having long nails on your picking hand is not mandatory, long nails will provide you with a crisp and louder sound, whereas playing only with your fingertips will give you a dull, less lively sound (plus having long nails is kind of a cool, dead giveaway letting people know you play guitar).

    8. You’ll need a footstool and a few other gadgets

    Some essential items in the classical guitarist’s toolshed include a footstool to mount your foot on for proper posture and hand positioning; a comfortable chair with no arms (a tall bar stool is not recommended as it would interfere with proper posture); and a nail file to immediately treat chipped fingernails. These are items that are not normally in the steel-string player’s arsenal, but that certainly make a difference for classical-guitar players.

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    9. You’ll want to learn how to restring

    You’ll notice an immediate difference in the way a classical guitar is restrung compared to the steel-string guitar. The nylon strings on a classical guitar have a plain end, which means you have to tie them to the bridge with a knot. A steel-string guitar has ball-end strings that are fixed with bridge pins.

    10. Classical guitar is not limited to classical music

    This is perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about classical guitar. It is easy to assume that because the word “classical” is in the guitar’s name, one is obliged to play only pieces belonging to that genre. But this is not at all the case; in fact, you can play virtually any style of music on classical guitar, including pop fingerstyle arrangements, country, tangos, bossa nova, jazz, and yes, classical, too. Take artists like Rodrigo y Gabriela who rip through such Metallica songs as “Orion” on their nylon strings, or singer-songwriter José González, who produces lilting indie-folk tunes on his nylon-string guitar.

    So there you have it. As the saying goes, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” I hope these tips empower you to try something new!

    This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

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