You’re never too old to learn to play the guitar, so don’t hesitate to pick up the guitar that makes your fingers itch and your spine tingle when you see it. But first, you’ll have to decide between playing a nylon-string classical guitar or a steel-string acoustic guitar. How do you differentiate one from the other, aside from the strings on them?
Knowing the key differences between the two types of acoustic guitars will also help you in determining which one would be a better fit for you. From there, you can choose from among the best classical guitar models or steel-string acoustic guitars to get you started.
Here’s an overview of the differences between nylon- and steel-stringed acoustic guitars.
The strings on a steel-string guitar are under a greater amount of tension, which means you would need to exert a higher amount of force or pressure down on them to fret notes properly. On the other hand, the string tension on a classical guitar is not as high. Nylon strings are also softer, making them easier on the fingers.
Classical guitars have a wider neck fingerboard and nut than steel-string acoustic guitars. And because they have a wider fretboard, the strings are placed a little bit farther from each other. The greater string spacing allows for more room to ensure accurate finger placement on the fretboard, as well as a more precise fingerstyle playing. The wider fretboard also better accommodates the thicker treble strings.
Classical guitars also don’t usually have fretboard markers, or the dots and inlays found on the fretboards of acoustic guitars. The fingerboard on a classical guitar is also flat, though some crossover or hybrid models have incorporated a radiused fingerboard like that of a steel-string acoustic.
A slotted headstock with in-line tuning machines is more common among classical guitars. Acoustic guitars usually have a solid headstock with individual tuning machines.
Construction and shape
Acoustic guitars come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with some models having cutaways for easier upper-fret access. Classical guitars don’t have as much variety in terms of shape and size, but generally they’re smaller than an acoustic dreadnought and shape-wise, are closer to that of a parlor guitar. They rarely have cutaways either.
There is also a difference in the internal bracing. Steel-string guitars have a solid bracing to counter the higher string tension while nylon-string guitars have a lighter bracing, making classical guitars more lightweight overall. The solid bracing on steel-string acoustics also contribute to a better resonance and projection.
The truss rod also works to counteract the string tension on steel-string guitars and to keep the neck straight. Because the nylon strings on a classical guitar don’t put as much tension on the neck, a classical guitar often doesn’t have a truss rod.
In a classical guitar, the neck traditionally joins the body at the 12th fret, while the neck-to-body joint in a steel-string acoustic is usually at the 14th fret.
Tone and sound
Because of their body construction, size, shape and strings, classical guitars have a warmer, softer and more mellow tone than those with steel strings. This tonal quality makes them suitable for classical, Spanish, flamenco, Latin and some folk music.
Steel-string guitars have a crisp, bright and twangy sound with a greater resonance and projection, making them ideal for those who want to play folk, rock and country music.
Those are the main differences between nylon-string guitars and steel-string guitars. Classical guitars are most often recommended for beginners because they are easier to play and they can really help you in building musical knowledge and mastering fingerpicking styles involved in playing the guitar. Going from a classical guitar to a steel-string acoustic is a natural progression among many players, so if you learn with a good classical guitar, you’re already off to a great start!