The Sound of Nylon: Advantages and Applications of Classical Guitar Strings

The Sound of Nylon: Advantages and Applications of Classical Guitar Strings

Sep 22nd 2023

The Sound of Nylon: Advantages and Applications of Classical Guitar Strings

Do you need a break from the twang of steel and bronze strings? Nylon might be the answer. These acoustic classical guitar strings are for more than just Beethoven and Mozart. You’ll hear them on albums from John Scofield, Pat Metheny, Leonard Cohen, Willie Nelson and other legends. We’re here to explain nylon strings and how they can elevate your play.

What Are Nylon Guitar Strings?

Almost immediately after the synthetic nylon polymer was introduced in 1938, luthiers began using it for instrument strings. They cost less than traditional gut strings (and were less disgusting), and they offered a similar performance that was more consistent.

Both nylon and steel strings (invented around 1900) became popular during World War II and remain the standard. Today, nylon strings are the go-to for traditional music that has a “sweeping” sound. In addition to classical, this includes jazz, bossa nova, Spanish flamenco, Latin and certain folk music.

Benefits of Nylon Guitar Strings

There are many good reasons to use nylon acoustic strings on a guitar. Nylon is easier on the fingers than steel, making them excellent for beginners. They offer a warm, smooth, mellow tone for ballads and soft genres. The lower tension makes the strings much easier to bend for solos. Nylon strings have a faster response time than steel and are very resistant to sunlight and humidity.

Drawbacks of Nylon Strings

Before everyone rushes to switch, we want to be fair and point out a few disadvantages of nylon strings. They aren’t as powerful as steel strings, meaning nylon doesn’t work well for rock, blues and similar styles. The strings are highly sensitive to temperature, and they don’t settle as much as steel. Finally, the strings are much more likely to break or come loose, and using picks will damage them over time.

Can I Put Nylon Strings on a Steel String Guitar?

While you technically can add nylon strings to a guitar designed for metal strings, there are a few things to consider. The tuning will be less stable, and you’ll need to loosen the truss rod to account for the reduced tension. If you don’t, the intonation will be off and the neck will eventually warp.

A hidden factor is that steel string guitars have a narrower neck than classical guitars. This means the nylon strings will be closer together than they were designed for, which can make playing trickier. Finally, if you’re using an acoustic-electric guitar with a magnetic pickup, the nylon strings won’t register.

How to Choose Nylon Guitar Strings

If you’re looking for a set of nylon strings, there are three primary considerations: material, gauge and tension. Let’s go into some detail on each.

Nylon String Materials

Acoustic classical guitar string sets consist of treble strings (high-E, B, G) and bass strings (D, A, low-E). The trebles are typically made of clear or black nylon. Clear nylon balances brightness and warmth while having excellent projection, sustain and vibrato. Black nylon is mellower and has more treble overtones, making it popular for folk guitarists. Each manufacturer has their own nylon blend, which creates subtle sonic differences. Some people have started using carbon fiber, titanium and composites for their treble strings. Each is crisper and brighter than nylon, which can help counterbalance a dark-sounding guitar.

The bass strings consist of a multi-filament nylon or composite core wound with metal — typically 80/20 bronze or silver-coated copper. An 80/20 bronze (80% copper and 20% zinc) string set has good brightness and sustain, pairing well with clear nylon. Silver classical strings have a warmer tone to complement black nylon trebles. You also have a choice between round-wound (bright tone, textured feel) and flat-wound (dark tone, smooth feel).

Finally, nylon strings can have ball ends or loop ends. Only use ball ends on a steel string guitar as the bridge pins won’t properly secure loop ends.

Nylon String Gauges

Nylon strings have several gauge options just like steel strings — but that’s where the comparisons end. For starters, the treble strings are much thicker compared to those on a steel string. Also, the size difference between the different nylon gauge sets is relatively small. Consider this D’Addario nylon string gauge chart for their Pro-Arté classical strings:

String Light Normal Hard Extra-Hard
High-E 0.0275 0.0280 0.0285 0.029
B 0.0317 0.0322 0.0327 0.0333
G 0.0397 0.0403 0.0410 0.0416
D 0.028 0.029 0.030 0.030
A 0.033 0.035 0.036 0.036
Low-E 0.042 0.043 0.044 0.0445

In fact, nylon strings aren’t even designated by gauge — they’re designated by tension. Still, when putting nylon strings on steel string guitars, use the smallest gauge possible to help them sit properly.

Nylon String Tension

Each string gauge has a different tension that affects how it plays. Using D’Addario again the total tension of their Pro-Arté string sets are as follows:

  • Light: 79.81 pounds
  • Normal: 85.85 pounds
  • Hard: 89.94 pounds
  • Extra-Hard: 91.81 pounds

Light/low-tension strings are the easiest to play and are best for old, fragile guitars. The tone gives the body of each note more definition. On the flip side, they are the quietest nylon strings and the most likely to have fret buzz. Hard/high-tension and extra-hard tension strings are the loudest and emphasize the “attack,” making them good for strumming. They’re the hardest strings to play, though, and they may damage the neck and bridge of certain guitars. Normal/medium-tension strings strike a compromise between light and hard. They have reasonable volume, a balanced sound and can go on any guitar.

Browse our full selection of classical guitar strings today and find the right set for your axe. Need a hand? Call us Monday-Friday at 1-877-830-0722.