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If you’ve been playing guitar for any length of time, you probably can tell the difference between the loud, bright sound of a steel-string acoustic guitar and the softer, warmer sound of a classical. And if you play a steel-string, you might want to try out classical guitar sound without shelling out the cash for a new instrument. But can you put nylon strings on your steel-string instead? Let’s find out.
Why Would You Put Nylon Strings on a Steel-String Acoustic Guitar?
If you’re hoping to switch out your steel strings for nylon ones, you aren’t the first to do so. In the 1950s and 1960s music scene, plenty of folk guitarists used nylon strings on steel-string guitars. That’s because nylon tends to have a “rounder,” mellower tone that works especially well for fingerpicking.
But often, guitarists swap out their strings out of pure curiosity. And because changing strings doesn’t take a whole lot of technical know-how, it’s something even novice players can do.
Lastly, you might want to switch to nylon strings if you’re a beginner with sensitive fingers. Starting out on a steel-string can be rough on your fingers. It’s understandable to want to start with nylon. But if you just want a more comfortable playing experience for those early days, using silk and steel strings is simpler and easier.
Is It Safe for the Guitar?
Most of us feel a genuine connection to our instruments. And if you’re wanting to switch to nylon strings, you’ll want to make sure that the process is safe for your guitar.
Putting nylon strings on steel-string guitars CAN be safe, but there is some risk involved. Much of that risk has to do with string tension. Steel-string acoustics have a string tension of over 150 pounds, while classical guitars have a tension of under 100 pounds.
That might not sound like a big deal, but think about how differently steel and nylon-string guitars need to be built in order to accommodate that tension. Steel-string instruments come with a truss rod, a metal rod inside of the neck that adjusts neck tension.
On most guitars, you can access the truss rod either right under the soundhole or on the headstock behind the nut. To access the truss rod at the headstock, you might need to unscrew a small piece of plastic first.
Most truss rods can be adjusted with an allen wrench. Turning the wrench adjusts the rod to counteract the pull of the strings. Without that counter-pressure, your guitar’s neck is likely to bow over time.
But what does that have to do with the safety of the guitar? A steel-string guitar neck is built to counter the high tension of steel strings. If you switch to nylon without adjusting the truss rod, the neck is very likely to bow over time. That’s because the tension exerted by the neck is much, much greater than the tension of the nylon strings. To prevent that from happening, you’ll want to loosen your truss rod tremendously so it exerts very little tension. when you switch to nylon strings.
How Do You Do It?
Before we run through the basic steps you’d need to take in order to put nylon strings on your guitar, it’s important to include a disclaimer. Most experts will advise you to take your instrument to a guitar tech, especially if you need the truss rod adjusted.
Simply changing strings is safe for even beginners to do, but if you make a mistake when adjusting a truss rod, you can potentially cause serious damage to your guitar. With that said, here are the steps to take if you want to put nylon strings on your steel-string.
Choosing Ball-End Nylon Strings
If you have any familiarity with the classical guitar, you know that the strings are effectively tied around the bridge and saddle. Since getting that process right takes some practice, nylon-string guitars can be tougher to re-string than their steel-string counterparts.
Metal guitar strings have ball ends, which makes it so your bridge pins can hold them in place. Pins won’t work with traditional nylon strings, but they’ll work with nylon ball-end strings. These strings aren’t enormously popular, but Fender, D’Addario, and Ernie Ball (as well as other brands) do offer them.
Installing Your Strings
Some steel-string acoustic guitars have string-through bridges, also called “pinless bridges.” With these bridges, you might be able to get away with tying traditional nylon strings. However, ball-end classical strings are faster, easier, and more secure to install. To get these strings over the bridge saddle, simply slip each string through its corresponding bridge hole.
For guitar with bridge pins, you’ll need to first remove each bridge pin. Bend the string slightly, about 3/4 of an inch from the ball end (this will help the string naturally fall over the saddle). Then, put the ball end through the hole. Replace the pin, making sure the bottom of it is securely holding the ball-end down.
What If They Don’t Fit?
Even if you do get the ball-end nylon strings secured, you may find that the diameter of the heavier-gauge strings is too wide to string them through each tuning machine. This can be incredibly frustrating, and there’s no easy way around it.
To minimize the risk of your nylon guitar strings being too big for your acoustic, try to purchase nylon strings in the lightest gauge you can find. Lighter-gauge strings are thinner in diameter, and they tend to have a more treble-rich tone than heavier strings do.
If none of the ball-end nylon strings fit, you might consider how badly you want to put nylon strings on steel-string guitars. In order to get nylon strings to fit, you’d need to change the tuning machines on your guitar.
Adjusting the Nut
Selecting your strings and putting them on is just the first step in your re-stringing adventure. Maybe you’ve secured your strings with your bridge pin system and gotten them through the machine heads on your acoustic guitar, but you see that the strings are sitting on top of the nut slots rather than in them.
Steel strings are thinner than nylon strings, so it follows that the nut slots are thinner. To truly optimize the setup, you’ll need to widen the nut slots. You’ll need nut files to do this. The process is relatively straightforward, but if you haven’t done it before, you may want to seek some guidance.
If you choose to widen the nut slots, it’s important to realize that your steel-string guitar won’t play as well if you switch back to steel strings. You should only attempt this step if you intend to keep nylon strings on the guitar for the foreseeable future.
Should You Just Buy Another Nut?
You might think that widening the nut slots sounds tedious — wouldn’t buying a classical guitar nut and putting that on instead be much easier? The idea is tempting, but classical guitar strings have wider string spacing than steel strings. The spacing gives classical guitarists more room for complex fingerings. If you put a classical nut on a steel-string acoustic guitar, it will (1) extend past the sides of the fretboard and (2) make it so the string spacing is different at the bridge than it is at the nut.
That said, if you’ve been thinking of upgrading your nut anyway, now would be a good time to do so. There are plenty of materials out there that can improve your tone — bone, brass, and composites like Tusq or NuBone are all good choices.
Setting Up Your Guitar
Once you’ve performed all the necessary adjustments and have tuned up, try playing a little. In most cases, you’ll notice some buzzing, and your intonation is almost certainly off. In order to make your acoustic guitar play well, it will need a setup.
Setting up a steel-string guitar strung with nylon strings can be a challenge, and if possible, having a guitar tech do it professionally is best. But if you do it yourself, remember that loosening the truss rod is crucial.
When setting the action, remember that a classical guitar generally has higher action than a steel-string acoustic guitar. Since there’s less tension on nylon strings, they’re more likely to buzz. If you set your nylon strings at the same height as steel strings, playing is likely to become extremely frustrating very quickly.
What Does It Sound Like?
As we mentioned earlier, steel-string acoustic guitars have a bracing pattern that’s designed for much higher tension. As a result, when the lower-tension nylon strings are strummed or plucked, the sound will be a bit quieter and mellower.
Of course, tone is subjective, but you might find that you like the sound. This is a nice setup for folk musicians and fingerstyle players. Putting nylon strings on a steel-string acoustic results in a warmer sound. If you have an acoustic-electric, your pickup will still work even with the different strings. That’s because acoustic pickups sense the string vibration when each string is played.
Depending on your exact guitar setup, there are some potential tonal drawbacks. Since there’s more slack in the nylon strings, there’s more risk of string buzz when you play. Additionally, especially when you put them on, nylon strings tend to need frequent re-tuning. New strings need time to “settle,” and during that period, be prepared to stop and re-tune frequently. This can be frustrating to deal with, but most nylon strings will hold tune fairly well once settled (as long as your guitar has decent-quality tuners).
Also, you’ve likely noticed that guitars with nylon strings don’t have pickguards. That’s because classical guitarists don’t play with a pick. Nylon strings aren’t necessarily made for strumming — you can play them with a pick, but because they aren’t as robust as steel strings, playing with a pick will wear them out faster. Depending on your playing style, that trade-off may or may not be worth it.
Is Making the Switch Worth It?
As you can see, switching your acoustic guitar over to nylon strings can be a complex process. And if you want your guitar to sound its best with nylon strings, it’s not likely to sound its best or be as playable if you make the switch back to steel.
If you really like the sound of nylon strings on a steel-string acoustic, it’s best to choose a guitar to convert and then keep it with the nylon strings. Switching back and forth simply isn’t practical in the long run.
If you’re committed to the idea and have some extra money, you might be interested in “crossover” guitars. These instruments effectively combine the characteristics of steel and nylon strings. They have nylon strings, but they also have many of the playability features of steel-string guitars.
Can You Put Steel Strings on a Nylon-String Guitar?
If you have a classical guitar, you might wonder what it would sound like with steel strings. However, this is not a good idea. We mentioned above that the tension on most nylon-strings is relatively low. Thanks to that low tension, traditional classical guitars do not have truss rods. There’s no way to get the neck to balance out the extreme pull from the steel strings. If you do put on steel strings and tune up, your neck is likely to bow or even break.
Of course, some nylon-string guitars (like those used in flamenco music) do have truss rods. That’s because most flamenco players use high-tension nylon strings for lower action and a snappier sound. Even though these guitars have truss rods, they still aren’t built to handle the extreme tension you get with a steel-string guitar. In short, putting steel strings on a nylon-string guitar isn’t a good idea.
Some guitarists love the mellow sound of nylon guitar strings on a steel-string acoustic guitar. Others say it causes string buzz and dampened sound. And still others would rather not risk damage to the neck. The choice is yours. But if you do choose to use nylon strings on steel-string instruments, remember that the guitar’s setup needs to change — both to protect it from damage and to make it sound great.