Choosing the right strings for your classical guitar can have a noteworthy (excuse the pun) impact on your guitar’s tone, playability and even durability.
The art of how to choose classical guitar strings comes down to 3 main factors.
- String material
- String Gauge
- String Tension
This page covers choosing Nylon strings for your classical style guitar. The process is slightly different for choosing steel strings for your acoustic guitar. To learn how to choose acoustic steel strings check out the page at the link below.
Who Uses Nylon Strings?
Nylon strings are used on classical guitars – steel string acoustic guitars are especially designed for steel strings and classical guitars are designed for nylon strings. Nylon strings produce far less tension (around 50% less) than steel strings so the construction of the guitars differs.
Though any style can make use of classical guitars/nylon strings, typically they are used for classical, flamenco and folk (folk sometimes steel, sometimes nylon).
How to Choose the Best Classical Strings for You?
As always some experimentation is necessary to find the very best strings that suit your playability, tone and style preferences. However, before experimenting it is a good idea to narrow down your options to get a good starting point.
The following 3 factors should help you narrow down a good starting point from where you can experiment to find just the right strings for you.
Often the material used for the treble strings (bottom E, B & G in standard tuning) are different than that used for the base strings (top E, A & D).
Most treble strings are made from the following materials – some others are used but these are the most common. Traditional gut and silk strings are also still made but are less common.
Clear Nylon: This is the most common material for treble nylon strings. Clear nylon offers a good balance of brightness and warmth in tone and are known for their projection and sustain qualities and easy vibrato.
They aren’t as loud or as powerful as other string materials like titanium or composite.
It is the smoothest material used for nylon strings, which can feel the best when playing finger style.
Black Nylon: This produces a warmer, more mellow tone with more treble overtones than clear nylon. It is a popular choice for folk.
Titanium: Titanium produces a brighter crisper sound. Strings made with titanium are often used to brighten up a darker sounding guitar. They also have good sustain and easy vibrato.
Carbon Fibre: Strings made using carbon produce a loud sound and tend to be longer lasting. They are characterized by a short sustain and can go beyond bright to a more ‘thin’ or ‘harsh’ sound. These can work well depending on the guitar.
If your guitar already has a bright sound, then carbon strings are likely to sound too bright but they can be good for a darker sounding guitar.
Composite: This material produces a very bright sound with strong projection. Composite is often used for G strings to make for a smoother transition in sound between the treble and bass strings.
Check out this info-graphic which illustrates some of the different tonal qualities of different classical string materials.
The bass strings tend to have a multi-filament nylon or multi-filament composite core and are wrapped with various materials. The most common winding materials are:
Bronze: Bronze windings are typically composed of 80% copper and 20% zinc. This material is sometimes known as 80/20 bronze, brass or gold. These strings produce a bright sound with good sustain.
Silver: Silver windings are typically made of copper with a silver coating. Silver coated windings help to produce a warmer tone.
Strings can also come coated or uncoated. Coated strings can help to prolong the life of the strings. Some people don’t like the sound of coated strings though manufacturing processes these days help to make the coated strings sound uncoated.
Nylon strings normally come without ball ends on the strings and are tied onto the bridge but there are some nylon strings that have ball ends.
Like steel string acoustic guitar strings, nylon strings come in different gauges (thicknesses essentially).
Unlike steel strings, which tend to go up in a linear fashion from the high E to the low E (i.e. high E has the smallest diameter and then they go up progressively from there), classical strings diameters are non-linear.
The treble strings tend to be a lot thicker than steel string trebles.
Some different nylon string gauges can be seen in the table below. Note how the gauges don’t differ too much.
Classical Strings Gauges
Compare those gauges with steel strings in the table below. The gauges vary quite a lot from light to heavy and they go up in a linear fashion from high E to Low E. Also note the high strings are a lot thinner than the high classical strings and the low E’s are mostly thicker than the classical nylon strings.
Steel String Gauges
|Extra-Light||Custom Light||Light||Light-Medium||Medium||Medium-Light *||Heavy-Medium **||Heavy|
Whilst nylon strings do have gauges, they aren’t designated by gauge like steel acoustic strings (which are designated by extra-light, light, medium, heavy gauge etc).
Instead they are designated by tension which is a more important factor for nylon strings.
Unlike with steel string acoustic guitar strings, nylon strings come in differing tensions.
The most common tensions are low (a.k.a light), normal (a.k.a. medium) and high (a.k.a. hard or strong).
Each tension has different qualities and what you choose will depend on your playing style, sound preference & your guitar.
Let’s take a look at some of the qualities of each type.
- Low Tension strings will produce the quietest volume of all the tensions
- They will also be the easiest on your guitar so are great for prolonging the life of your instrument and great for older/antique guitars.
- Easier to play – particularly when playing a guitar with a higher action
- Tone emphasizes the body of the note
- More prone to fret buzz
- Medium Tension strings are a great place to start. If you start with these then you can go higher or lower and make a call as to which ones you prefer
- They strike a great balance between the pluses and minuses of low and high tension strings
- More difficult to play (particularly on a guitar with a higher action)
- Produces more volume than lower tensions
- Less emphasis on the note of the body and more emphasis on the attack into the note when compared with lower tensions
- High tensions are popular with guitarists who often use their classical guitar for strumming ( a better sound & playability for strumming)
- Be careful with putting these on your guitar. They may have the sound and playability that you are looking for but may be causing damage to your neck & bridge if your guitar is not designed to take high tension strings.
The best way to know for sure is to check with the manufacturer of the guitar to see if it is able to handle high tension strings.
A good practice if you have high tension strings is to detune (loosen off the strings) after every playing session.
As with anything you choose for your guitar, choosing the right classical guitar strings comes down to your personal taste, and what you like to do with your instrument.
The best way to find out your preference is to experiment. Try to find your preference for one of the factors above to begin with then that can be your constant as you experiment with the other factors.
Hopefully this post has helped you to narrow down your choice so that you can find your ideal strings quicker.
Thanks for reading and if you have anything to add, any questions or comments they are very welcome in the comments section below.