There are a lot of similarities between acoustic and classical guitars. For example, both guitars are tuned to the same notes (EADGBE), are entirely acoustic (meaning the sound is created by the guitar itself and not amplified electronically), and both types have the same number of frets.
However, there are some key differences to keep in mind. A common question many beginner classical guitarists ask is whether or not you can use steel strings on a classical guitar. Perhaps you have some leftover steel strings from your acoustic guitar, or you simply want to experiment with a different sound. But is it ok to use steel strings on a classical guitar?
Short Answer: No. Absolutely not! Classical guitars should only be strung with nylon strings. Steel strings have a higher tension, and since classical guitars don’t have a truss rod, the increased tension can crack the neck, breaking your precious instrument.
What happens if you use steel strings on a classical guitar?
One of the major differences between an acoustic and classical guitar is that a classical guitar does not have a truss rod. A truss rod is a metal shaft that runs through the guitar’s neck lengthwise to stabilize the neck against the tension from the strings.
Steel strings have a much higher tension than nylon strings. With the absence of a truss rod, a classical guitar’s neck can warp or even break if you place these high-tension steel strings. The last thing you want to do is have to replace your expensive instrument, so avoid using steel strings on a classical guitar at all cost!
Difference between classical guitars and acoustic guitars
There are some other major differences between classical guitars and acoustic guitars besides the truss rod.
Guitar top: Acoustic guitars have much thicker tops than classical guitars. Acoustic guitars also feature more rigid bracing than the smaller fan bracing you’ll see in classical guitars.
String action: Classical guitars have higher action than acoustic guitars. The distance between the strings and the fretboard is around 3-4mm for classical and 2-2.5 for acoustic. This is because nylon strings tend to vibrate and buzz more. Most guitarists lower the action on acoustic guitars because the steel strings are difficult to push down.
Nut: Since nylon strings are much wider than steel strings, classical guitars also tend to have wider slots on the nuts.
Shape: Acoustic guitars usually are larger than classical guitars. Classical guitars have a smaller shape resembling the number 8. Acoustic guitars also commonly have a cutaway for easy access to higher frets. But classical guitars will rarely have cutaways.
Fretboard: Classical guitar fretboards are much wider than those of acoustic guitars. Classical guitars also do not have markers on the fretboards.
Bridge: Whereas acoustic guitars use bridge pens to secure the strings in the holes, classical guitars require you to tie the strings onto the bridge.
Difference between nylon and steel strings
So, now that we’ve sorted some of the main differences between classical guitars and acoustic guitars, let’s dive into the differences between nylon and steel strings.
Of course, the material is the most apparent difference between the two strings. Nylon is a much softer material, which leads to less tension and fewer callouses on the fingers. On the other hand, steel is a much harder and durable material. The high tension on the strings means you will need more force to play notes properly. You won’t have to change nylon strings as often as steel strings because they do not rust and exert less tension, which means you will also break a string less often.
Fun fact: As gross as it sounds, classical guitars used to be strung with animal guts and intestines until they were replaced with nylon during World War II!
The sound is one of the first differences you’ll notice between the two strings when you start playing. Nylon strings have a soft warm sound, which makes them a better choice for genres like classical, folk, or flamenco. Guitar players have much more control over the tone as you can play closer to the bridge, making the sound brighter or closer to the neck, making the sound warmer.
Conversely, steel strings are better suited for players that want to play genres like rock, country, or pop. The bright and crisp sound you get with the steel strings is incredibly versatile and can be used for any music genre. They are also much louder than nylon strings.
The two types of strings warrant different playing styles as well. For example, nylon strings are generally finger-picked and require you to grow out your nails for best results, while steel strings are normally played with a pick. You can certainly finger-pick a steel-string guitar, but get ready for your fingers to bleed! Finger picking a steel string also won’t give you as much volume as playing with a pick, but depending on the sound you are going for, it is definitely an option.
I do not recommend playing nylon strings with a pick. This is because nylon-string classical guitars do not usually come with pickguards. So playing with a pick can damage your instrument.
Just starting out playing guitar and need some more help? Check out my guide on the best beginner guitar books!
Now you know that you should never use steel strings on a classical guitar. Doing this will only damage your instrument and cost you more money in the long run when you can instead run to your local music shop to buy a pack of nylon strings. Although classical guitars and acoustic guitars may look similar, the differences are major enough that the strings are not interchangeable in any way, shape, or form!
Can you use nylon strings on a steel string guitar?
Yes, while you should never do this the other way around, you can use nylon strings on a steel string guitar. However, nylon strings have a lower string tension than steel strings, so you may need to adjust the truss rod.
Is it better to learn guitar on a classical or steel string guitar?
There are benefits of learning guitar on both steel string and classical. Nylon strings are easier on the fingers, so beginners will not be in as much pain when starting out on a classical guitar. However steel strings help guitarists build callouses faster, which makes playing any guitar easier over time.
If you have any more questions, feel free to reach out. I’m happy to answer them!