Best Guitar: Steel-String vs. Nylon-String
If you love hearing other people play guitar, you might be inspired to get one of your own and start practicing. Doing so can be therapeutic, relaxing, and could potentially open the gateway to a brand-new line of work, if you turn out to be quite talented at it.
Like most every beginner, you’re going to want to start with an acoustic guitar, so you can practice chords and basic melodies without extra equipment and volume getting in the way. But the question remains: what kind of guitar? There are two main types out there: steel-stringed and classical nylon-stringed; each one has its advantages and disadvantages. We’ve compiled the best and worst qualities of each type of guitar, to aid you in making your final decision.
Most popular music is played on steel-string guitars. The reason for this is both sound and volume. Steel-strings simply produce a louder, sharper, and twangier sound than nylon, and are perfect for rocking out and creating a high-energy atmosphere. Therefore, if you want to play the hits you hear all over the radio and on iTunes, you’re likely going to want a steel-stringed guitar.
In addition, the longer neck of a steel-string guitar makes it easier to play higher up on the neck. This is true both for guitars with an extra groove cut out in the shoulder of the guitar, and ones that do not have such a thing. Either way, the neck is long enough, and the body low enough, to allow for easier soloing and other high-fret work.
Finally, being made out of steel, the strings are quite resistant to heat. This, combined with tighter winding of the strings, means that less tuning is necessary, once the strings settle. If you don’t like to tune your guitar all that much, a steel-string guitar can mean less time tuning, and more time playing.
You can’t really rock out on a nylon-string guitar, but you can certainly romanticize. The gentle, mellow sound of a classical nylon guitar is perfect for the soft, seductive sway of much jazz and Latin music.
Also, nylon strings are very soft and gentle on the player’s fingers, risking no blisters and required no calloused fingers to play effectively. Beginning players who have not yet developed strong fingertips, or those who simply don’t want to deal with pain while playing, might find going nylon to be ideal for them.
Finally, if you’re a smaller player, or don’t want to deal with a large-bodied guitar, the typical nylon-stringer has a much smaller body than its steel-string brethren. For convenience while travelling, and easy handling at home or on stage, a classical nylon-string guitar might well be the way to go.
These are pieces of steel, and you need to press down on them hard, in order to properly play them. This can be very painful, especially in the beginning, before you develop the coveted fingertip callouses necessary to constantly press down and not feel much of anything.
Also, while it is true that steel strings detune less, that is NOT the case early on. New steel strings will detune very easily the first few times they’re played. Even if you tune each string perfectly, they will magically detune after one or two chords. Expect to keep tuning and retuning several times over, until the strings settle.
Another thing to remember is that the body of a steel-string guitar is typically much larger than a nylon-string. For smaller players, as well as beginners, a huge guitar could easily become cumbersome, not to mention discouraging for future practice.
Don’t buy a classical nylon-string guitar if you just want to play the latest pop smashes. Rock and pop music is very difficult to play on nylon strings, as they lack the volume and power that most rock and roll music requires. Nylon is great for mellow music and romantic melodies but, if your goal is to be the next Van Halen, you have little choice but to invest in a steel-stringed guitar.
Also, any song that requires you to solo, or otherwise play high up on the guitar neck, will be quite difficult to pull off on a classical guitar. The body might be smaller, but it’s also higher up on the neck, usually beginning at the 12th fret, as opposed to the bodies of most steel-string guitars, which begin at the 14th fret. In addition, many classical guitars do not have a groove carved out of the body’s shoulder, as many steel-string models do. That groove makes reaching the highest frets even easier, and most nylon guitars simply do not possess it.
One final thing to consider with nylon strings: they need to be tuned a lot. Steel strings, after they initially settle, should stay tuned for a good long time. However, nylon strings, due to not being as heat-resistant as steel, as well as being less tightly wound, will come loose more often and require more retuning. If you are not a fan of tuning and retuning your guitar repeatedly, perhaps a nylon-stringer is not for you.
So, which one’s best for you? Don’t worry too much about money when comparing the two, as they cancel each other out, price-wise. You can get cheap models of both guitars for well under $100, or you can spend thousands of dollars on something incredibly beautiful and exquisite.
So focus on what you want out of a guitar instead. If you’re the soft, romantic type, and want a gentle sound to create an exotic atmosphere, then perhaps the more classical nylon-stringed guitar is best for you. On the other hand, if you want to rock out or play your favorite hit songs, then you’ll probably want to go for a steel-stringer.
Virtually every guitar store out there will let you sample and play before buying anything; consider that your test-drive. Find both a nylon and a steel-string guitar, and find out which one fits your body right, which one feels best on your fingers, and which one brings out the musician in you. Then, you should be more than ready to make your final decision.