As a fingerstyle guitarist, should you choose between nylon or steel strings, or are both OK? Let's look at the pros and cons of using a Classical Guitar versus an Acoustic guitar to play fingerstyle songs.
Nylon strings are commonly used on classical guitars and are suited for a warmer, softer playing style. Steel strings, on the other hand, give a bright, crisp tone and are commonly used on acoustic and electric guitars.
In addition to the kind of strings, the construction of the guitar can also influence the way you play the instrument. Classical guitars, which are commonly used for classical music, typically have wider necks and flatter fingerboards, while acoustic guitars, typically have narrower necks and slightly curved fingerboards.
Is Fingerstyle Guitar Better With Nylon Strings Instead of Steel?
The choice of which guitar to use ultimately comes down to personal preference. My preference is to use a classical guitar, due to the advantages that I list below. However if I am playing a cover song, I will generally opt to use the type of guitar that the original performer employs.
In the case of playing Sungha Jung songs, I generally use a steel string guitar, except in the case of Siesta. Sungha Jung plays this song on a classical guitar, and I follow his example.
Can I Use Nylon Strings On A Steel String Guitar?
Typically, you should not put nylon strings on a steel-string guitar. Steel-string guitars are constructed differently from classical (nylon-string) guitars, with different bracing and tension requirements. Steel strings exert more tension on the guitar’s neck and top than nylon strings do.
Installing nylon strings on a steel-string guitar may result in the string snapping as you tighten it to the desired note. However, you may come across folk nylon strings. These are a niche product that come with ball ends (like steel strings) rather than the tie ends typically found on classical guitar strings. This allows them to be easily installed on folk guitars, which have bridge pins.
Pros and Cons of using Nylon Strings for Fingerstyle Guitar
If you choose to play fingerstyle guitar with nylon strings, either on a classical or a crossover guitar, you can take advantage of several things.
Pro: Beautiful Warm Sound
One of the most significant differences between nylon and steel strings is the sound and tone they produce. Nylon strings are known for their warm, mellow, and rounded sound. They produce a softer and more delicate tone, which is well-suited for classical and fingerstyle guitar playing.
Con: Softer Sound For Certain Techniques
Steel strings produce a bright, sharp, and cutting sound. This can be more ideal for more aggressive playing styles. But the timbre difference also helps bring out harmonics, which are essential to fingerstyle guitar.
Note that the sound and tone of the guitar also depend on other factors such as the shape of the guitar body. However, the choice of strings can significantly affect the overall sound and tone of the guitar.
Pro: Better For Beginners
Nylon strings are generally easier to play than steel strings, especially for beginners. Nylon strings have lower tension, which makes them more comfortable on your fingertips.
In addition, classical guitars, which use nylon string guitars have a wider neck than the acoustic dreadnaught or the electric guitar. This can make it easier to fret certain chords, as you run less of a chance of muting or muffling the adjacent strings with your fingers.
However, crossover guitars or hybrid models, although they have nylon strings, sometimes are constructed with a narrow neck.
Pros And Cons of Using Steel Strings For Fingerstyle Guitar
Let's take in the following considerations when using a steel string guitar for fingerstyle guitar.
Pro: Easier To Play Chords With The Thumb
Steel string guitars with their narrow neck, let you use the thumb of the fretting hand to play chords. This can be an advantage if you are playing fast passages that have slurs and you need to hold down a bass note with an extra finger.
Con: Steel Strings Will Wear Down Your Fingernails
Steel strings will chew away at your natural fingernails, especially if you play often or aggressively. Nylon strings will wear down your nails much less than steel strings.
Pro: Easier To Play Special Fingerstyle Techniques
Acoustic guitars with steel strings produce a brighter and louder sound. This is a huge advantage when it comes to playing advanced fingerstyle guitar techniques.
Effects such as tapping and harmonics will sound much clearer and with less effort on the steel string guitar than on the classical guitar. I show you how to play these advanced effects in the complete course for learning fingerstyle guitar, Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now!
In short, the greater responsiveness of steel strings, owing to their higher tension, make this the clear choice for playing fingerstyle guitar songs that include lots of tapping, slapping and other percussive effects.
Con: Increased String Tension
However, because steel strings have significantly higher tension compared to nylon strings, this can require more force with your fretting hand. It can also require you to pluck the strings with more force. This increased tension can lead to hand fatigue and discomfort, particularly if you play for extended periods.
Pro: Longer Durability
When it comes to durability, steel strings have the upper hand. They are made of a more robust and denser material, which makes them resistant to wear and tear.
Steel strings can last longer and maintain their tone and intonation even after extended use. Nylon strings will more readily lose their tone and intonation over time, especially if you play your guitar often.
Of course, if you want the best possible tone from your guitar, it is best to change your strings as often as possible. If you wait until your strings are completely worn out, you will never get the best possible tone out of your guitar, no matter how good a quality instrument you have.
Con: More Wear On The Guitar
Steel strings when pressed against nickel frets will leave lines. This leads to the requirement that frets be filed. The guitar may even require a total re-fret if the divots are deep enough. These impressions on the frets can lead to intonation problems and playability issues down the line.
Pro: Better For Percussive Techniques
The steel string acoustic guitar has a more durable construction, owing to the higher tension of the strings. This makes the body of the guitar more resistant to thumping, if your intention is to play percussive fingerstyle guitar.
On the other hand, classical guitar players rarely use percussion. The exception is flamenco guitar, where guitarists use a percussive technique known as golpe.
In order to to shield the guitar's delicate wooden surface from damage caused by the guitarist's fingernails when employing golpe, flamenco guitarists place a thin plastic layer or protective covering called a golpeador or tap plate.
Fingerstyle VS Pick - Nylon and Steel Guitars
Both classical and acoustic guitars can be used for fingerstyle playing as well as strumming with a pick. Classical guitars are played fingerstyle the majority of guitarists, although there are some guitarists, mostly those in the fusion space, who successfully play classical guitar with a pick.
It is still more common to see the steel string acoustic guitar played with a pick rather than fingerstyle.
String Tension and How To Choose Lighter Strings
Classical guitars have lower string tension due to the use of nylon strings, making them easier to play and suitable for beginners. Acoustic guitars, on the other hand, have higher string tension due to the use of steel strings. This makes them suitable for more experienced players.
Bends On The Steel String Guitar
Because the strings of the steel guitar are under higher tension, which makes bends have a wider pitch variation. For instance, it's extremely difficult to get a bend of a whole step to sound on a classical guitar. On the other hand, you can readily perform a change in pitch of up to three half steps when performing a bend on the steel string guitar.
When playing a steel string guitar, choose the lowest possible string tension. My preference is for "extra light tension" strings. You may see this tension referred to by the string thickness; with extra light, the thickness of the first string is .010 inches.
Nylon vs Steel Strings for Fingerstyle Guitar: Which Is Better?
When it comes to playing fingerstyle guitar, especially if your intention is to play songs by Sungha Jung, the clear winner is the steel string guitar. The ease in which you can perform advanced techniques on this guitar make the steel guitar the instrument of choice for fingerstyle guitar.
However, if you enjoy playing fingerstyle guitar music on the classical guitar, by all means, choose the nylon string guitar. Fingerstyle music is meant to be enjoyed, and if this gives you the most satisfaction, then the nylon string is the best option.
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