Playing classical guitar with a pick could be considered almost the equivalent of a sacrilege for some instrumentalists. In recent decades, we have witnessed a good number of renowned guitarists using picks on classical guitars, to wit: Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Willie Nelson have all played classical nylon strings with a pick, to great success.
Will playing with a pick cause damage to nylon guitar strings? Nylon strings are softer and wear more quickly than steel strings when using a hard pick, so a soft plastic plectrum or fingerstyle playing is generally preferred. Immediate damage should not be a concern. However, picking nylon strings will likely reduce their lifespan compared to fingerpicking.
In this article, we'll discuss the impact that picks (and the playing styles that utilize picks) have on nylon strings and how the strings could be damaged.
Related article: Top 10 Best Classical Guitar String Brands On The Market
Can I Play Nylon Strings With A Pick Without Damaging Them?
Theoretically, we can't play nylon strings with a pick expecting absolutely no damage. Similarly, we should expect wear and tear when playing with our fingers. Compared to fingers, picks will typically cause more stress to the strings in question, whether they're nylon or not.
Playing with a pick will provoke additional friction on the string's surface and cause it to wear out more quickly.
Nylon is the softest and least durable material commonly used in guitar strings (compared to steel, nickel, brass and bronze), so picking techniques will wear nylon strings at a relatively increased rate.
On the topic of string materials, we should discuss the typical composition of classical guitar strings sets, focusing on the “bass strings” (the bottom 3 strings, generally tuned to E, A, D) and the “treble strings” (the top 3 strings, generally tuned G, B, e).
The treble strings have the thinnest gauges and are typically made solely of nylon. Hard picks can wear these strings out faster than fingerstyle playing.
The bass strings have thicker gauges and are typically wound with other materials (such as silver-plated copper or bronze) around their nylon core. Since picks generally only wear on the string's surface, these bass strings will be less susceptible to damage, thanks to more durable winding and plating.
For more information on guitar string winding, check out my article Flatwound Guitar Strings Vs. Roundwound Guitar Strings.
So the question may be posed, “how negligible or how intense will the damage be if played in a certain way?”
It bears remarking that nylon strings benefit from softer playing. If you plan on using a pick for strumming, the pick should be as thin as possible, owing to the force required to play all strings at virtually the same time.
For more arpeggiated playing, you would probably benefit from using thicker picks as thin picks could accidentally play unwanted notes due to their flexibility. It also allows you to deliver a fuller tone without applying too much force to the string.
With all that said, the overall impact that picks have on nylon strings is usually not noticeable if played gently.
Plectrums used for nylon strings should be made exclusively of plastic (Delrin, nylon, celluloid) or rubber. Avoid employing harder materials such as metal or stone.
So, picks tend to wear out strings faster than fingerstyle playing, and fingerstyle is the “classical” approach to classical nylon-stringed guitars. That being said, nylon strings won't suffer immediate damage when played with a pick.
Nylon String Durability
Beyond picking, guitar strings are subjected to other wear and tear once they're removed from their packaging and strung to their instrument. In this section, we'll discuss the general durability of nylon strings and how their longevity affects their being played with a pick.
Steel strings can last up to three months or 100 playing hours, whichever comes first. In the case of nylon strings, however, it's more variable, but they frequently start losing their shape after 2 months or 80 playing hours. Nevertheless, they'll still be playable for the most part.
On the flip side, steel strings are more prone to breaking or snapping due to their susceptibility to corrode and the additional tension required to retain their pitch. Nylon strings are subjected to less tension and, since they're made out of plastic, are far more flexible than steel strings, being able to withstand greater vibration.
Just as with their steel counterparts, nylon strings can be affected by environmental conditions such as moisture and heat, but not in the same manner. The most striking impact will be noticed on the tuning since nylon has less grip on the pegs and will slip more in humid environments, consequently losing its tune faster. Nonetheless, nylon is not bound to rust, which is a big factor in steel strings' durability.
Even though nylon strings could theoretically last a very long time, they can potentially snap or break, especially when using a pick. Despite this, classical guitarists hardly change their treble strings within their first year of installation.
The wound strings used for bass notes are far more sensitive because of the metal used to wind them, which is likely to experience corrosion in damp places. This is why the bass strings have to be changed more frequently than treble strings on a classical guitar.
So, when playing with a hard pick, the treble strings are naturally more prone to wear and tear. However, over time, the bass strings will actually become more susceptible to snapping due to picking.
As previously stated, the plectrum used for nylon strings should be made out of softer materials such as plastic or rubber. The reason is that they wear the strings a lot less than harder materials.
The plectrum's shape is another factor that can contribute to a nylon string's potential damage.
Many picks come with both sharp and round tips. If you opt for using a pick with a sharp or pointed tip, make sure it's flexible and thin. This will damage the string a lot less. As a downside, the sound will be weaker, and the plectrum will wear out.
Rounded picks can be a bit heavier since they are less taxing on the strings, but some guitarists may not like the sound or the playability.
Additionally, soft picks are also more lenient on the soundbox when there is no pickguard installed. Metal, stone, or wood picks will cause discernable scratching damage to the tonewood, particularly when heavy playing is involved.
Picking Vs. Fingerstyle
With all of the above said, unless you want to use the classical guitar as an exclusively lead guitar or for strumming, nylon strings generally deliver better tones when they're played with the fingers rather than a pick. There is also more versatility, as you can use a combination of techniques with the fingers that can't be emulated with a pick.
Conversely, sweep-picking cannot technically be done with the fingers. However, the sweep-picking technique can be emulated on a classical guitar with the fingers or using the nail on the forefinger.
In any case, it should be stated again that there is no anathema attached to using a pick for playing a nylon-string classical guitar. However, those with more academic or flamenco guitar backgrounds may frown at the idea. A pick may provide a practical option for those who find strumming with the bear fingers too tedious or those who want to add speed to their leads.
Have any thoughts, questions or concerns? I invite you to add them to the comment section below! I'd love to hear your insights and inquiries and will do my best to add to the conversation. Thanks!
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