Are you looking to pick out your first acoustic guitar?
You could easily be forgiven for not realizing that there are two distinct types of acoustic guitar worth considering.
In this article I’m going to explain the similarities and differences between the two acoustic guitar types and help answer the question…
Should I get a Nylon or Steel string guitar?
Nylon Vs Steel Strings… Which is Better?
Before jumping into the similarities, differences, pros and cons of each type of guitar, you may be wondering if there is a quick answer to whether one is better than the other.
There isn’t a short answer.
It all comes down to personal preference and how you intend to play the instrument.
I heard an analogy about comparing these two guitar types that I quite liked: It’s like comparing a pickup truck to a sports car. Is one truly better than the other? It depends on who you ask and what they are using the car for.
Nylon string guitars are often preferred by classical, flamenco, and some jazz guitarists. Steel string guitars are often favored by modern fingerstyle guitarists and singer/songwriters.
Let’s look at why this is the case and how to tell if a guitar is nylon or steel string.
Nylon String Guitar Specs
As their name implies, nylon string guitars have strings that are made of nylon. Because of this, the top three strings (the smallest string sizes) look like they are made of clear plastic. The bottom three strings (the largest string sizes) look to be made of metal.
This is because they are nylon strings that have metal wound around the outside.
Here are some of the common features you will see on nylon string guitars:
- No body contours
- More uniform/classical in body shape
- Rear-facing tuners
- Tuning pegs inside the headstock
- Wider nut width
- Lower string tension
- No fret markers on fretboard
- Strings wrap around bridge
Steel String Guitar Specs
Steel string guitars, on the other hand, have strings that are made of metal. These strings can be coated with copper, bronze, or just plain steel.
You’ll notice that the top three strings (smallest string size) are unwound, whereas the bottom three strings (largest string size) are wound with metal on top of a metal inner string.
Here are some of the common features you will see on steel string guitars:
- More body shapes to choose from
- Some have contours
- Tuners on side of headstock with pegs on top
- Narrower nut width
- Higher string tension
- Fret markers on fretboard
- More body wood options available
- Strings held in place on bridge by bridge pins
These are of course generalizations, as acoustic guitars vary widely in their design, especially in the current market. This goes for electronics too. While there was once a time where electric-nylon string guitars were rare, there are more and more options available now.
How Do They Sound?
It helps to be able to pick out a steel string vs nylon string guitar based on specs and looks, but what matters most is how they sound and how they feel.
Nylon String Guitars – Sound and Feel
Nylon string guitars offer a warm and softer tonality than their steel string counterparts. They have a softer attack and less sustain, making them ideal for classical guitar pieces that focus on note definition, as the notes you play will ring out for a short time, but every note can be heard.
While they are rarely preferred for flat picking/strumming, nylon string guitars are ideal for flamenco style playing for their short decay that lends itself to a soft, percussive sound.
A commonly asked question is “Are nylon string guitars easier to play?”
In many ways , yes!
Nylon strings are a softer material than steel strings, making them feel buttery smooth under your fingers. They also have a wider nut width, making fretting close-voiced chords easier and less likely that your fingers will cram against each other. This can be slightly more difficult when it comes to fretting larger chords.
They also have a lower string tension, which makes pressing the strings down to fret notes, as well as bending strings easier.
This makes nylon string guitars feel like an easier guitar to play, and it makes them a great choice for beginners.
Steel String Guitars – Sound and Feel
Nylon string guitars are warm and lush sounding, while feeling easy under the fingers. Why would you buy a steel string guitar? Because…
What most people associate the “sound” of an acoustic guitar to be is that of a steel string acoustic. These are the guitars that get strummed around a campfire and that you writer your first songs on.
The steel strings make the guitar sound brighter and louder. They also have more sustain, so the chords hold out for longer.
They are much better suited for flatpicking and for strumming, as the strings are tougher and project better.
The steel strings will definitely require diligence when you start out. They can hurt your fingertips until you develop callouses, but you well develop them if you stick with it.
These guitars have a higher string tension, which makes them slightly more difficult to play, especially when it comes to bending strings. However, they will teach you to play with confidence. No other guitar will point out your flaws quicker than a steel string acoustic.
Can I Replace Nylon Strings with Steel Strings?
Unfortunately, the inherent qualities of nylon and steel strings require the guitar itself to be built for that string type. Because of this, you cannot simply swap out string types on the same guitar.
Nylon and Steel string guitars have their nut slots cut out for the appropriate string size.
The bridge and tuners are designed for proper string winding. In the case of nylon, the strings wrap around the bridge, whereas steel string guitars use bridge pins.
Most importantly, steel and nylon guitars are set up for vastly different levels of tension. Nylon has so much lower tension that nylon string guitars don’t require a truss rod. If you were to put steel strings on a nylon string guitar, you could easily damage the instrument.
If you want to know when the best time is to change your guitar strings I recommend you read my post i wrote on that, alternatively I wrote a great post on when to restring your guitar as well.
Should I Get a Nylon or Steel String Guitar?
It depends on your playing style and experience level.
Neither is better than the other, but they can serve different purposes.
If you are a beginner, want to learn classical guitar, or like a warm and mellow sound, I would recommend you go with Nylon.
If you want to strum chords with a pick, like lots of design options, and want to project, I recommend Steel.
You can’t go wrong. One day you might be able to own both!
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Davis Wilton Bader is a professional guitarist/writer based out of St. Louis, MO. He plays in the bands Lumet and The Outskirts.