John is a fervent writer, gamer, and guitar lover. Former automatic-transmission repairer, welder and hobbyist game developer.
Buying your first acoustic guitar can be a bit daunting. There are so many different brands, designs, and sizes that it can be something of an overwhelming decision. Fortunately, there’s a wealth of information on the differences between various guitars, and it’s very easy to find. For this article, however, I want to focus on one particular aspect, and condense that information down into one, easy to read page. What is that aspect?
Steel strings, or nylon strings?
When it comes to buying an acoustic guitar, the most fundamental choice you have to make is which kind of strings you want. From this choice, many aspects of the guitar design and the way it plays will be automatically settled. So on that note (pun intended), let’s look at what those differences are, and what they mean to you as the player.
The largest part of the guitar is the body, so let's start there...
The most obvious difference between steel stringed guitars and nylon stringed guitars—also known as “classical guitars”—is the size. Classical guitars typically have a smaller body than their steel stringed equivalent. To get an idea of the size difference, a 3/4 size classical guitar is about the same size as a 1/4 size steel string guitar. Whether or not this particular aspect is a deciding factor will be down to you. If you’re buying the guitar for a young child who is learning, classical may well be the best choice simply because it is smaller (we'll look at why small steel string guitars aren't a great option later).
On the other hand, if the guitar is intended for a full grown adult, some people prefer a larger guitar body. It’s definitely worth visiting a guitar store and holding one of each to see how they feel in your hands.
The general look of the guitar may be an important factor to you, but why do they look different?
Given that the likely audience for this kind of article is new guitarists looking to get started, the look of the guitar shouldn’t be a huge factor in your buying choice. Worry more about how it feels. But if you are concerned about the look, especially if you’re planning on spending a healthy chunk of change on a decent guitar that you intend to keep for a long time, then there are visual differences that stem from the type of string which you can take into account.
We’ve mentioned the size, of course. The next visual difference you’ll find is the shape. Steel stringed guitars can actually come in a few different shapes, whereas classical guitars—as the name might suggest—pretty much come in one shape, the classical guitar shape of a figure 8.
The next visual difference you’ll find is that the neck is wider and flatter on a classical guitar. This isn’t just a visual thing; it also affects the way it feels when you play. There are many resources around the web that will explain the difference in playing between flat and radius'd fret boards, but suffice it to say, you should definitely experience both before settling on one.
Of course, if you’re a beginner just looking to get started, you won’t have a playing style yet, and you can just go with whichever you prefer the look of. One final note for beginners, however; classical guitars typically don’t have any fret inlays. Fret inlays are markings (often simple dots) placed on certain frets that can often make it easier to find the fret you’re looking for when first starting out. Of course, you can always achieve the same effect with some little stickers (anything will work). It won’t look as profesional, but it will do the job as a learning aid.
It's a guitar. We HAVE to talk about how it sounds!
As you would expect from such wildly different materials, nylon and steel strings produce very different sounds. Nylon strings are much softer, and not as strong as their steel counterparts. This strength difference means that nylon strings require less tension (they don’t need to be wound as tight) in order to be tuned up. It also means that the sound emitted from a nylon string is much warmer, and not as naturally loud.
In contrast, steel strings are much tougher, and have to be wound tighter in order to be properly tuned. This means that the guitar itself needs to be stronger in order to accommodate that additional tension. In terms of the sound itself, steel strings produce a much brighter, crisper tone than nylon strings, and are naturally much louder than a nylon guitar.
Think about the kinds of music you want to play with your acoustic. If you have some mellow country music in mind, a classical guitar should be just the ticket. If you’re leaning towards a more folk rock music sound, perhaps you should steer towards the steel strings.
Perhaps most important of all; how does it play?
So, we’ve touched on this a little in the other sections, but playability is obviously a big—if not the biggest—factor when choosing a guitar. It can look amazing, make you feel cool, and be the most expensive guitar ever made… but if you don’t feel comfortable playing it, you’re not going to enjoy it.
This should aspect should be given extra consideration when buying guitars for young children in the hope that they will take an interest in their new instrument. It can be hard enough getting a child to take up a particular hobby in the first place, without that hobby being physically uncomfortable.
And on that specific note, classical guitars have a strong advantage over steel string guitars in the case of beginners, and certainly in the case of beginner children. As any seasoned guitarist will tell you, playing guitar can be hell for your finger tips in the beginning. Pressing hard against the what is essentially metal wire is not good for the skin. Over time, the skin toughens a little and it becomes less of a problem, but those first few weeks or months can be off-putting, especially for children. Nylon strings are much easier on the fingers, however, so bear that in mind.
The next major consideration regarding playability is one we’ve already touched on; body size. The classical guitar is typically smaller, which suits children and smaller adults. You can get half and three quarter size steel string guitars, but they are notoriously difficult to tune. On the other hand, perhaps you’re a taller person and the smaller guitar body feels a bit toy-like in your hands. In that case, even a full-size classical guitar might not be the one for you.
In an ideal world, cost wouldn't be a factor. But as it is a factor, let's compare.
When considering the price you’re willing to spend, you tend to need to look a lot more at your own circumstances than the guitar itself. For example, if you’re buying a first guitar for a child who has only just started playing, I’d strongly recommend not spending too much until you know for sure that they’re interested and they’re going to keep it up. That being said, don’t fall into the trap of buying a super cheap mess that can’t keep its tune.
In general, classical guitars tend to be cheaper. That’s not to say that there aren’t some beautifully crafted, high quality nylon string guitars, but like-for-like, there’s simply less involved in the making of a classical guitar. Truss rods to strengthen the neck, radiused fretboards and fret inlays, bridge pins… these are all things that go into a steel string guitar that, for the most part, are surplus to requirement for classical guitars.
So that’s that. Ultimately the choice will be down to your own preferences, but hopefully this article has given you enough information to make those preferences well informed.
© 2017 John Bullock