Nylon Guitar Buyer's Guide
So you’re thinking about getting yourself a guitar but the differences can be a little confusing. The choice between nylon and steel string guitars really comes down to what kind of sound you’d like to produce and what style of music you’d like to play. Can you rock out on a classical guitar? Play spaghetti western music on a dreadnought? Sure, the authorities won’t come for you. After all, there’s plenty of crossover with many a rock or pop song featuring a classical guitar (from Willy Nelson to Eric Clapton.) Traditionally, nylon string guitars are used for classical and flamenco music and steel string acoustics are used for rock, pop, and folk. But don’t be afraid to be a rebel.
For the beginner, there’s often the temptation to choose a nylon string over steel due to the softer feel of the nylon strings. This should always be weighed against the tone the instrument will produce and how that fits with the style of music you’d like to play.
Classical or Flamenco?
The nylon string guitar you will most likely encounter in a music store or web site is a classical. In the majority of music stores you’ll find a much smaller contingent of flamenco guitars, if there are any at all. Classical or flamenco? Again, this boils down to the style of music you want to play, and again, there’s some crossover. Though they both use nylon strings, there’s some subtle, yet important, differences between the two. Click on the tabs for each to learn more.
About the Author - Michael Barberich
A New York guitar phenom from a young age, Michael still smiles looking back on playing his first bar gig at the ripe old age of fourteen. By eighteen, his acrobatic guitar style had caught the attention of a popular local band (whose members were all ten years older) and together they quickly conquered the legendary Long Island music scene, playing six nights a week to large audiences. Says Michael of this period, "To fill time, the band would often throw me two solos per song. I did the math recently and realized I was playing about sixty solos a night times six nights a week. That's three hundred and sixty solos per week! That's really where I learned to play, on stage every night in front of lots of people."
As comfortable playing or producing in the studio as he is on the stage, Michael's varied career has afforded him the opportunity to work with many of his heroes including Steve Vai, Justin Hayward, Gary Brooker, Rod Morgenstein, Steve Howe and Cheap Trick. Always happiest with a guitar in his hand, you can find Michael showing his versatility performing with LI Hall of Fame inductees Barnaby Bye, Macca Nation (a tribute to Paul McCartney & Wings) or his kitschy 70's band, the insanely popular, 45rpm (voted Long Island's best cover band for 2013 and 2014.)
Classical refers to the specific technique of finger style playing, the repertoire , and the style of the instrument. What once drew the distinction of being used to entertaining the aristocracy with works by Bach and Mozart now entertains the masses in the hands of Willie Nelson. Go figure. The classical guitar has traveled through many styles of music. From Andres Segovia to Paco de Lucia to Tom Morello. It’s an interesting journey.
In addition to the wood used in construction, the rich warm tone of a classical guitar is a function of its nylon strings, whose slinky feel make fretting a note or chord softer than on an acoustic guitar. This doesn’t mean that only soft sounds can be produced though. A classical guitar is one of the most expressive instruments in all of music with a wide dynamic range. Some characteristics of a classical guitar are a much flatter and wider fret board than you would find on an acoustic guitar. Classical players also like their action a little higher to produce a clear, full tone. You’ll notice the slotted headstock with the tuners inserted horizontally. You’ll also find that the strings are attached a little different than on an acoustic or electric at both the bridge and tuners. Unlike the standard acoustic guitar, the classical has no pick guard, leaving the gloss cedar or spruce top to resonate freely in concert with the rosewood or mahogany back and sides. The classical guitar can also be held differently depending on the style of playing. For instance, traditional Tarrega style is performed using a foot stool.
Cordoba Luthier C10 CD Classical Acoustic Guitar with Case
Cordoba Iberia C7 CDIN Classical Acoustic Guitar with Gig Bag
Taylor 814CE-N Grand Auditorium Nylon Acoustic Electric wCase
Flamenco guitar players use an aggressive, often rapid-fire, right-hand technique known as rasgueado where the strings are “raked” using the nail side of the fingers. For this reason, flamenco guitars often (but not always) employ pick guards or tap plates on either side of the sound hole. These serve a dual purpose as they not only protect the instrument’s finish, they are also used for the percussive tapping common in flamenco. Lastly, the action, or string height, on the slightly thinner neck of flamenco guitars is set very low to accommodate the playing style.
Cordoba GK Studio Negra Flamenco Acoustic Electric with Gigbag
Cordoba Iberia F7 Flamenco Classical Acoustic Guitar with Gigbag
Yamaha CG172SF Flamenco Guitar
Any acoustic guitar is an amalgamation of the types of wood used to construct it and a nylon string is no different. Widely considered the major factor in producing the guitar’s tone, the soundboard, or top, is often made of a very resonant wood. Cedar is the most common for its production of a round, full bass with warm sounding trebles. Shades of cedar can run from tan through red or even brown. Also popular is spruce, which is usually lighter in color and produces a tighter, more focused sound with a bright, clear tone. Though a laminated top is less expensive, a solid top is much preferred and available for just a few dollars more. Favored by luthiers for its round bottom and smooth top, rosewood has been a perennial favorite for constructing the back and sides. Rosewood is darker in color than mahogany, another popular choice. Both lighter in color and weight, mahogany shades tend to range from a brick red to a light orange hue and provide a balanced, even tone. Cypress is the more traditional choice for flamenco guitars. Known for its quick and bright attack, cypress delivers ideal tone for flamenco playing styles.
Of the six, the first three each consist of a single filament of DuPont nylon with the remaining three strings spun from bronze or copper wire plated with silver over a nylon core. Strings are available in either the traditional tie ends or ball ends, similar to an electric or acoustic guitar string. Tie ends tie at both, the bridge, and at the tuners. The string gauges are commonly listed as tensions. Medium tension, hard tension, extra-hard tension, etc.
Can I String a Nylon Guitar with Steel Strings or a Steel String With Nylon?
No. Strings for nylon and steel string guitars are not interchangeable. Due to the difference in string tension between nylon and steel strings, this would wreak havoc on the instrument’s neck and top. There are also issues with the thickness of the strings and the associated tuning key openings. Lastly, most nylon strings lack the ball-end used on acoustic and electric guitars. In a nutshell, don’t do it. See all Classical Strings
With a full size scale of 25.6 inches, a classical guitar has roughly the same scale as a Telecaster. Great playing classical guitars can also be found in ½ and ¾ scale for smaller hands.
Are you using this guitar for live performance? If so, you’ll want to consider getting a guitar with a pickup installed. This will allow you to amplify the instrument when performing with other musicians. Pickups can also be added on after your purchase. An under-saddle or internal mic system would require installation by a qualified professional but a transducer type is easily attached and removed.
Fishman Loudbox Mini Acoustic Guitar Amplifier
Marshall AS100D Acoustic Soloist Guitar Amplifier
Boss Acoustic Singer Pro Acoustic Guitar Amplifier