If you’re relatively new to acoustic guitars, you may have encountered instruments with different strings, different shapes, and different profiles. This article will help you understand the differences between nylon and steel string guitars. First, you should know that they are very different instruments. One is not superior to the other, but understanding their individual attributes will help you decide which instrument is best for you.
If you’re a more experienced player, familiarizing yourself these differences will help you expand your guitar consciousness and maybe convince you to try something new.
“Guitar” is a Category, Not an Instrument
Guitars are not a monolith; they’re an archetype. The “guitar” you picture in your mind shares similar structure to the one that I conjure in my head. They both have strings, a wood body, and a fretted neck, but the details might vary dramatically. That’s part of the instrument’s appeal—a Stratocaster warped through a synth pedal is just as much a guitar as a Legacy Concertina played purely acoustic—guitars can produce a universe of sound.
Even if we discount electrics, acoustic guitars offer expansive tonal variety–more than enough for a lifetime of experimentation and play. One of the ways you can experience that variety is through different string materials, namely steel or nylon.
Most modern guitars are designed for steel strings. American music—from blues and bluegrass, to rock and country—rings through steel. But steel is not your only option. In fact, steel strings are relatively new inventions in the annals of guitar lore.
A Brief History of Guitar Strings
The first guitars, dating back to mid-thirteenth century Europe, had strings fashioned from dried animal intestines. In fact, intestine strings were the norm for nearly 600 years—the vast majority of guitar history. You may have heard the term “catgut” strings, but their origins are not actually feline. The original “gut” strings came from sheep or cows, both of which were once referred to as “cattle.” “Catgut” is simply shorthand for “cattle gut.” The intestines were cleaned, steeped, scraped, sanitized, dyed, and dried, before being wound together to produce strings of different sizes. There’s a reason catgut strings are no longer fashionable beyond their potentially off-putting origins. In addition to being tonally inconsistent, gut strings were difficult to tune, very sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity, prone to breakage, and prohibitively expensive.
The exact provenance of steel guitar strings has been lost to history, but they emerged in the United States sometime in the mid 1800s. The steel string guitar is a wholly American instrument, popularized during the time of Western expansion when extruded steel for fencing the vast tracts of land in the territories was readily available and cheap. Cowboys strung their guitars with the same wires they used to contain their cattle. The evolution of modern guitars and modern music can be traced back to this moment in U.S. history when an iconic industry came to life. You can read the whole story in a series published by our friends at Premier Guitar Magazine. It’ll be worth your time.
While Americans shifted to building new guitars that could handle steel strings, classical players in Europe continued to pluck dried gut. During World War II, demand for surgical sutures—also made from catgut—soared, making the source material difficult to find. DuPont had invented nylon in 1935, but no one thought to use the new material in instruments until catgut became scarce. The classical guitar Maestro, Andres Segovia, worked with New York luthier Albert Augustine to produce the first commercial nylon strings in 1948. Nylon proved capable of mimicking traditional strings in sound and feel while being easier to produce, more consistent, less impacted by humidity, far more durable, and significantly less expensive.
Today’s players can enjoy all the different string options, even gut strings, though they’ll set you back a few extra dollars.
What’s the Difference?
Nylon and steel string guitars may look similar on the outside, but internally, they’re quite different. As the luthier and writer Ervin Somogyi wrote, “From an engineering standpoint, these are different instruments that share the same name.” Steel strings are under much greater tension than nylon, which means that a steel string guitar’s top and neck must be able to withstand much more force without warping, and the bridge has to be sufficiently anchored to avoid ripping off the soundboard.
To go back to the words of Somogyi, a great guitar must exist, “on the cusp of disaster. That means that it is NO STRONGER than it needs to be to hold together under string tension and the rigors of being played; and it is NO WEAKER than that either, because to make it so will ensure eventual failure (breakage or collapse). One can understand that a soundbox that is built to that balance point will be able to vibrate and resonate as fully as possible.”
Both nylon and steel string guitars, if well built, teeter on the cusp of disaster in order to produce great sound without crumbling. But, they each have very different cusps. For that reason, you cannot put steel strings on a guitar that was built for nylon, and vice versa.
How Do They Sound?
In addition to having very different construction, nylon and steel string guitars also produce vastly different sounds. Most of the music you’re accustomed to hearing was produced by steel string guitars. Steel string instruments, such as the Rainforest S Concert, produce a sharper, crisper, and louder sound familiar to contemporary audiences and players.
On the other hand, nylon string guitars (such as the Pursuit Concert Nylon) aren’t intended to be strummed or played aggressively. They’re subtle, fingerpicking instruments with distinctive feel and tone. They produce a soft, warm sound often found in folk, jazz, Flamenco or, of course, classical guitar.
Which Should I Buy?
Choosing a guitar is a deeply personal and subjective decision. Most players want to experience the feeling of participating in the music they love. They want to transition from being a passive listener to an engaged creator. To that end, you should purchase the guitar that allows to you create the music you want to hear. For the vast majority of players, that means steel strung instruments, but there are other factors to consider.
Nylon strings are somewhat gentler on the fingers. Some sources, even expert ones, suggest that players should begin with nylon strings to avoid some of the finger pain that comes with the guitar learning curve. For what it’s worth, we disagree with that advice. Finger pain is mild and fleeting. After a few weeks of consistent playing through nominal discomfort, your fingers will develop callouses and will stop hurting. If you can’t push through a short period of slight sting, you probably aren’t all that serious about playing guitar and won’t be committed enough to stick it out into proficiency.
More importantly, if the guitar you learn on can’t produce the appropriate sounds for the music you want to create, you won’t get to experience the satisfaction of playing your music. That satisfaction and joy is what makes most players stick with the difficult rigors of learning the guitar. We suggest starting out with a guitar that emulates the songs and artists you want to play. For most people, that means starting out with steel. If, however, your personal tastes draw you to subtle fingerpicking—folk, jazz, Flamenco, or classical guitar music—nylon will be your preferred material.
More experienced players may want to diversify their sonic palettes, and adding a guitar strung with a different material opens up a whole new world of play. Since steel and nylon strings are, as noted earlier, “different instruments that share the same name,” guitarists enjoy a unique opportunity. Our fundamental muscle memory can transfer to what is, essentially, a different instrument and allow us to play very different music.
If you’re a well-heeled strummer looking to add finger style to your repertoire, consider adding a guitar made for just that purpose to your collection. On the other hand, if you cut your teeth learning classical guitar, like our good friend Gretchen Menn, and want to expand into the universe of rock, blues, bluegrass, and country, pick up a new axe strung with steel.