Strings are one of the most important components of a guitar. Acoustic guitars commonly come with metal strings (made from steel alloy core). However, it’s not necessarily unusual to find acoustic guitars with nylon strings attached.
Are nylon or steel strings better for acoustic guitar? Though acoustic and classical guitar are technically both acoustic (they do not require electrical supplementation to produce adequate sound levels), the term “acoustic guitar” typically refers to guitars that take steel strings. In contrast, nylon strings are better on classical/Spanish guitars.
In this article, we’ll discuss steel and nylon strings in more detail and investigate which type is best for acoustic guitars.
Are Nylon Or Steel Strings Better For Acoustic Guitar?
New guitarists may not be aware of the relevance a string’s material has with regard to the functionality of a guitar. Most of them would probably think that acoustic guitars with a nylon set should provide roughly the same performance as a state-of-the-art classical or Spanish guitar, thus not needing to buy a separate instrument. In reality, it’s not that simple.
Technically, acoustic guitars are specifically made with steel strings in mind. The features added to an acoustic guitar are meant to bear the tension caused by a metal set, starting with the neck’s construction and the configuration of the nut. Steel strings would be the logical answer.
Nevertheless, it should not be seen strictly as an either/or question. Nylon can still deliver decent sound, provided that the player makes some adjustments to the guitar setup (truss rod and perhaps a change in the nut and bridge). At times, though, these changes could permanently bind your guitar to nylon strings so that players may lose their guitar’s original versatility.
Also, nylon strings won’t render the same sound quality on an acoustic guitar as they do on a classical guitar. So, if possible, it would be better to buy a separate classical guitar or live with the shortcomings.
Main Characteristics And Differences
The sound aesthetics of a guitar string varies according to various factors. One of them is its construction and materials. The hardness of steel allows for brighter, more metallic tones, while nylon renders a mellower, silkier output.
Classical guitars, as they have a lighter build, are able to resist the pressure exerted by nylon while providing comfort. Classical guitars do not mesh well with metal strings.
Initially, acoustic guitars were meant to accommodate metal strings. Their build introduces a truss rod, a metal bar that stretches throughout the fretboard to enhance tension. Nylon strings made in previous decades could not withstand these rigid constructions due to the length and overall design they came in.
Traditionally, nylon strings did not have a ball attached to their end, so they had to be tied to the bridge, making them unfit to be put on acoustic guitars. String manufacturers, however, started introducing ball-end nylon strings for players who enjoyed the mellow tone of nylon strings combined with the feel of acoustic guitars.
As far as manufacturing goes, nylon strings are usually tailor-made, and their gauges are not as streamlined as they are in the case of steel strings. Steel strings have numbered gauges, whereas nylon strings have more proprietary names that are not universal or applicable to all brands, and the naming conventions carry more poetic baggage.
Additionally, the materials used for manufacturing nylon strings are more varied. Since they were introduced, they’ve been made with clear nylon, rectified or grounded nylon, black nylon, or carbon nylon core for the trebles. The “bass” strings (corresponding to the three lowest notes) consist of a filament core manufactured from nylon or other artificial fibre, wrapped in a myriad of different metals and alloys that can make significant differences in sound.
With that said, there are some aspects to consider whenever you’d want to switch to a nylon set on your acoustic guitar.
Nylon is more sensitive to environmental factors such as humidity or heat than steel, meaning that the strings will often lose their tuning.
Steel does not suffer as much in that department. New strings could suffer from detuning during the first two or three weeks, but after that time, they should stabilize as they stretch out.
To learn more about guitar strings and tuning stability, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• Why New Guitar Strings Go Out Of Tune Faster Than Old Strings
• Do Heavier/Thicker Gauge Guitar Strings Stay In Tune Better?
Nylon offers much greater comfort on the fingers than steel. Steel strings could be withstood as callouses start to develop on the tips. Nonetheless, for beginners, they can become a great hindrance. For this reason, some guitar teachers encourage their students to opt for nylon guitars at first and, as they move on, switch to steel if they so wish.
Steel is more taxing not only on the fretting but on the playing as well. Unless you use a plectrum, it’s very likely that your playing hand will also develop callouses. In this aspect, nylon has the upper hand.
Things may change when comparing classical versus acoustic guitars since classical guitars are typically made with broader necks. Then again, that is a subject that may be reserved for another article.
One of the major setbacks of putting nylon strings on acoustic guitars is that since they are made to accommodate harder metal strings, the high-E string may slip off the edges of the fretboard when equal pressure is applied during retting. Events like these are not that frequent, but they may irritate players from time to time.
This problem may be solved, but only through permanent changes in the nut and bridge, which might not be ideal for those who want the versatility to switch between steel and nylon.
As stated at the beginning of the article, steel has more resonance than nylon (almost bell-like) due to its hardness.
With nylon, you’ll get a far softer and more subtle tone suited for certain contexts. But, in general, nylon fits better on a classical guitar.
Acoustic guitars may need to be tweaked to be able to deliver optimal sound from nylon strings since they usually render a very muted tone with some buzzing included. Releasing the truss rod can be a useful workaround for this.
Regardless, each sound generally fits a given musical genre, as we’ll explain in the next point.
For more information on guitar strings and their effect on tone, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• How Do Guitar Strings Affect Tone? (Acoustic, Electric, Bass)
• Do Heavier/Thicker Gauge Guitar Strings Sound Better?
• Do New Guitar/Bass Strings Sound Better?
Considering what was laid out with regards to tone, certain musical styles, genres, or subgenres may benefit a lot more from the sounds rendered with nylon strings. These are supposed to be the “natural” alternative to the traditional gut strings used on lutes, albeit some may claim that the nylon sound in classical music is anachronistic.
Nylon is also deemed appropriate for soft jazz, bossa nova, or any other form of Latin American music (peculiarly those reminiscent of traditional Spanish folk music).
Steel’s brighter and louder tone is more fitting for rock, country, or pop music. Some guitarists may find the tone of steel strings interesting for certain types of folk or academic music due to its likeness to a clavichord sound. Notwithstanding, nylon is still the staple in academic classical music circles.
A Brief & Basic History Of Guitar Strings
In the beginning, stringed instruments, such as lutes or violins, used strings made from animal guts (especially intestines extracted from sheep and goats). They are also called “catgut”, but, despite the misleading name, they’re not made from cat intestine (it’s probably an abbreviation of the term “cattle gut”.)
By the turn of the 20th century, C.F. Martin and Gibson started experimenting with metal wires. They manufactured the first metal strings to cut costs from the expensive production process related to gut supply and add more volume to the sound, especially when played in ensembles.
On the other hand, in Europe, nylon strings would be developed circa 1948 due to shortages of natural gut in the aftermath of World War II. The companies responsible for this development were Augustine string company and La Bella /E. & O. Mari. Renowned guitarist Andrés Segovia also gave his feedback before their mass commercialization.
Nowadays, gut strings are still widely used in “period instruments” (used to emulate the same sounds that were presumably heard in previous eras in history).
The fact that acoustic guitars have been typically associated with metal strings doesn’t necessarily entail that nylon is out of the question. Recent developments in the field have made it possible for nylon strings to be used. Thus, the answer to the original question highlighted at the beginning of this article is wholly dependent on many of the factors described just above this paragraph. In theory, however, metal is the best choice.
This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.