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There are no hard and fast rules as to whether you should start playing guitar on a nylon or steel string guitar.
There are arguments for both, and there are reasons why one person might be better starting on a nylon string guitar (aka classical guitar) and another person better off on a steel string guitar (aka acoustic guitar).
What Are the Pros and Cons
Let’s see what the pros and cons are for each.
Nylon String Guitar Pros
The following are the pros for starting out with a nylon string guitars:
Pro #1: The strings are softer and therefore it is easier on the fingers.
When you first start playing guitar, your fingers aren’t used to the pressure from guitar strings. They can become very painful and raw – and sometimes even bleed if you are able to force yourself to play that long.
This is less of a problem with nylon strings for two reasons.
Firstly, nylon strings are softer than steel strings so naturally cause less friction on your fingers.
Secondly, nylon strings are under a lot less tension (about half as much) than steel strings. This means that you aren’t having to exert as much force onto the strings.
Steel String Solution: This doesn’t mean that you’re destined for super sore finger tips if you opt to go with a steel string acoustic guitar.
To make a steel string easier on your fingers there are a couple of things you can do.
Firstly, use silk and steel strings – at least until you develop callouses on your fingers. Silk and steel strings are softer on your fingers and are under less tension than standard steel strings.
Secondly, get a smaller guitar with a shorter scale length. The shorter scale length reduces the tension that’s on the strings so you can get even more reduced tension.
Pro #2: The Strings are Under Less Tension
As we saw above this makes it nicer on the fingers. But it also makes the guitar technically easier to play. It makes it easier to get a clear sound when you are starting out.
Steel String Solution: As per above, getting a guitar with a shorter scale length and using silk and steel strings will mean that you can play a steel string acoustic with less tension.
Pro #3: Classical Guitars are Smaller, Therefore Easier to Hold
When you are learning it can sometimes be a struggle to handle a large guitar and try to learn everything at once.
Also, the shape of a classical guitar sits nicely on your knee so playing sitting down is nice and easy.
Steel String Solution: Whilst this is an advantage of classical guitars over larger acoustic guitars like dreadnought acoustics, there are smaller steel strung instruments that you can get too – which also usually have the shorter scale length that we were talking about earlier.
Pro #4: The string spacing is larger
Classical guitars have a wider neck. This is because nylon strings need more room to vibrate, and the treble (higher sounding) strings are thicker than on steel string acoustics.
This means that the strings are further apart which can make it easier to be more accurate. It also makes it easier to learn finger style guitar (using all of your fingers in your right hand instead of a pick or just one finger/thumb).
Steel String Solution: You can get steel string acoustics with wider necks – however, they are more specialized so I wouldn’t recommend it for your first guitar. There are also pros to having a narrower neck (see below) so if you go with a steel string you get the benefits of a narrower neck.
Steel String Guitar Pros
O.k. so now we’ve seen some of the pros of starting with a classical (nylon string) guitar.
Now let’s take a look at why you might want to start with an acoustic (steel string) guitar.
Pro #1: The Neck is Narrower
The average width of a classical nylon string guitar is around 2″ (51mm) whereas the most common widths for steel string acoustics are 1 3/4″ (44mm) and 1 11/16″ (43mm).
This narrower neck has a couple of advantages.
First of all, it makes it easier for those with smaller hands to reach notes on different strings. The strings aren’t as far apart, so the stretch isn’t as much. This is particularly the case when playing the likes of bar chords – which can be difficult on a classical guitar.
Secondly, because the strings are closer together it makes it faster to transition – even if it is a bit harder at first to be accurate with your fingering.
Pro #2: For most of the disadvantages there is a work around
As you’ll see under the nylon string pros, there are solutions which you can go for when buying a steel string acoustic to negate the disadvantages – such as going with a smaller acoustic, with a shorter scale length – and using silk and steel strings in the beginning.
Pro #3: The Style of Music you play is likely to be more suited to a steel string acoustic
This will only be a pro to those who it actually applies to – but more and more guitarists nowadays are wanting to play styles of music that are better suited to steel string guitars.
Blues, bluegrass, country, rock and pop to name a few are better suited to steel string instruments and are more widely played than other styles.
Nylon strings are great for classical, flamenco, gypsy jazz etc. – which are awesome (IMHO) and have their place but if you aren’t interested in those styles then you probably won’t benefit from starting on a nylon string instrument.
Can I put Nylon Strings on my steel string guitar?
That’s a negative!
If you put nylon strings on a guitar that’s made for steel strings then they will sound lifeless. Same goes for idea that mixing nylon and steel strings won’t matter. It will! Nylon strings on a steel string guitar won’t put enough tension to make sound proper.
Can I put Steel strings on my nylon string guitar?
Nylon and steel string on a nylon string guitar? An even bigger NO!
You won’t be putting steel string on a classical guitar, unless you want to wreck it. All that extra tension is too much for a nylon stringed guitars. There is no choosing between nylon or steel string in this case. Nylon string guitar has to have all nylon strings.
Which you Should Go With
In my opinion your decision shouldn’t be based on which one is “easier” to learn on. Choosing between nylon string or steel string guitar shouldn’t be without thinking trough all the possibilities. If you get the right guitar, then it will be just as easy to learn on a nylon string guitar. It could actually be easier depending on the things you are going to use it for.
Therefore, your decision should be based on what kind of music you want to be playing. If you want to learn classical technique or you really want to play gypsy jazz or flamenco style music, then go with the nylon string guitar. It will be easier and better to learn these styles on a classical guitar.
If you are more interested in playing pop, rock, country, blues, bluegrass etc, then start with a steel string guitar. It will be easier and better to learn these styles on a steel string guitar.
Get Your Guitar Setup
Whether you decide to start with a classical nylon string guitar or a steel string acoustic guitar, make sure to get it set up right.
So many beginners, because they are understandably none the wiser, buy a guitar and never get it set up right. Ofc, they don’t know what’s the best acoustic guitars for beginners.
The problem with this is that many acoustic guitars come off the shelf with a high action (meaning that the strings are too high off the fingerboard). This can make learning the guitar very difficult.
It’s not too expensive to get a guitar setup – so definitely do this. It will make a big difference.
Thanks for reading
I hope you now have a better idea of what the best start guitar is for you – nylon or steel string.
I haven’t done any classical guitar reviews as yet on this site and this isn’t really my area of expertise. But if you do decide to go with a steel string guitar, then my list of what I consider the top 6 beginner acoustic guitars – is a great place to start!
FAQs Should I Start on a Nylon or Steel String Guitar
In some senses, yes. Nylon strings are easier to learn guitar on, because they tend to be softer on the fingertips, especially for those who have yet to develop the kind of buff callouses that come about as the result of years of hard guitar practice. Though these strings are inherently made from Nylon (hence the name), the action on these kinds of guitars tends to be higher, so though it does not necessarily balance it out, it is certainly worth considering that it will not all be peaches and gravy, so to speak.
This will depend on whether your guitar is a classical guitar or an acoustic guitar; true enough, they can look very similar to an undiscerning eye, though there are a few key differences you will want to look out for. A full-size acoustic guitar will, for example, be inherently larger than a full-size classical guitar – not only that, but it will also be a slightly different shape, the former coming in a more domineering shape that is commonly referred to as a ‘dreadnought’. Another difference that might be of use to consider is the fact that classical guitars will rarely have a cutaway on the underside of the guitar to allow for access to the upper echelons of the frets; this is generally much more the domain of acoustic guitars.
Neither sounds inherently better and, in fact, both are suited to different things. Steel strings are inherently louder and so will cut through the mix more, whereas nylon strings are softer and provide a more mellow timbre. Though this has come to mean that they are traditionally suited to different styles, I would argue that to constrict the usage of certain instruments to certain styles is only playing into the kind of structural stereotypes and assumptions that seek to limit the free expression of musicians and the expansion of the vocabulary of music.
This is something I had never really stopped to ask myself, despite the fact that I have known of classical guitarists using nylon strings for most of my time as a guitarist. In essence, the reason they do so boils down to personal preferences: the nylon strings are thicker and offer a more mellow timbral response which, for some reason, is deemed preferable for classical guitar work.