There are two main types of acoustic guitar: classical with nylon strings, and non-classical with steel strings. Many guitarists wonder if they can put nylon strings on their steel string acoustic guitar, so in this article I’ll be answering the question.
In a rush? Here’s the quick answer…
Nylon strings can be used on a steel string acoustic guitar, however it can cause tuning instability and be harder to play as the strings will be closer together. Nylon strings create less tension so the truss rod must be adjusted to compensate, and only ball-end nylon strings are suitable.
- Nylon vs steel strings
- Nylon vs steel string acoustic guitars
- Problems with using nylon strings on a steel string acoustic
- Tips if you want to use nylon strings on your acoustic
- Can you put steel strings on a classical nylon string guitar?
Nylon vs Steel Strings
Nylon and steel strings look and sound different.
The advantage of nylon strings is that they are under less tension and softer compared to steel strings so feel easier to fret and bend, especially for beginners. Nylon strings also have a larger diameter which helps to minimise the pressure points on the fingertips when the calluses are still forming.
Nylon and steel steel strings also sound different from one another.
Steel string acoustic guitars are louder than nylon string classical guitars which is why they were first invented. Steel strings also sound much brighter will a lot more treble response compared to nylon strings which sound more mellow and warm.
Nylon strings are usually used for classical and Spanish music styles. Whereas steel strings are used for other genres such as rock, pop and country.
Check out this YouTube video comparing the sound of nylon and steel strings.
Nylon vs Steel String Acoustic Guitars
There are also several differences between guitars designed to be strung with nylon strings, and those designed to be string with steel strings.
- Typically the neck on nylon-string acoustic guitars is much thicker than on steel-string acoustic guitars.
- Nylon string acoustics also usually have a wider nut so the strings are spaced further apart compared to steel string acoustics.
- Nylon-string acoustic guitars generally have slots/holes in the headstock, whereas steel-string acoustic guitars have a solid headstock.
- The tuning pegs usually face backwards on a nylon-string acoustic compared to on a steel-string acoustic where they face outwards.
- The strings are strung differently on the bridge of the guitar.
- The bracing pattern is different on nylon and steel string acoustics.
- Nylon string acoustic guitars usually have a flatter fretboard compared to steel string acoustics.
- Usually only steel-string acoustic guitars have fretboard inlays.
Problems with Nylon Strings on a Steel String Acoustic
There are several issues with using nylon strings on a steel-string acoustic guitar:
- It is difficult to string an acoustic guitar with nylon strings
- The neck tension will be reduced and the truss rod will need loosening
- The tuning stability will be signficantly reduced
- The strings will be spaced very closely together on the fingerboard
- You can’t use a pick with nylon strings
- The volume and brightness of the guitar will be reduced
- Magnetic pickups will not work if you are using an electro-acoustic guitar
Difficulty When Stringing the Guitar
It is harder to actually put nylon strings on a steel string acoustic guitar and the nut fillings, tuners and bridge are also designed to fit steel strings.
Nylon strings have a larger diameter and you’ll need to make sure you use ball-end, rather than loop-end nylon strings but even then it can be difficult to secure them on a steel-string acoustic guitar.
String Tension Differences
As I mentioned previously, steel strings create more tension than nylon strings.
- Nylon strings are typically set to a tension of 80-85 lbs
- Steel strings are typically set to a tension of 150-160 lbs
Steel-string acoustics are designed to deal with the higher string tension.
If you put nylon strings on an acoustic guitar which is designed for steel strings then the action will become very low as there will be less tension created. To compensate, it is possible to adjust the truss rod.
If the truss rod is not adjusted then it can lead to neck warping over top.
The bracing pattern on a steel-string acoustic is also different compared to a classical guitar and is designed to deal with the tension of steel strings.
Using nylon strings on a steel-string acoustic will cause tuning instability problems. This is because nylon strings have a wider diameter than steel strings, so the nut fillings are not large enough to properly seat the strings. The result being that the strings slip out of the nut more easily and do not stay in tune.
Some players compensate by using a lighter gauge of nylon strings but the problem here is that they will sound very quiet and the tension will be even more greatly reduced.
Nylon strings themselves are also more prone to tuning instability compared to steel strings because the softer material is more susceptible to humidity and temperature fluctuations.
It Can Be Harder to Play
Although nylon strings are softer and under less tension than steel strings, they can be harder to play when placed on a steel-string acoustic guitar.
The reason again relates the the wider diameter of the nylon strings.
Steel string acoustics usually have a nut width of 1.65-1.73″, whereas classic guitars have a much wider nut measuring 2″.
Since classical guitars have a wider fretboard, they are capable of accommodating this wide diameter, however on a steel-string acoustic, the fretboard is narrower so the strings are too close to each other. This means you’re more likely to hit a wrong string when playing.
They Can’t Be Used with a Pick
Nylon strings are typically used on classical guitars where they are fingerpicked, rather than strummed using a pick.
Since nylon strings are much softer than steel strings, they also wear out more quickly. For this reason, a pick (plectrum) should not be used to pluck nylon strings as they will wear out very fast.
They Sound Different
Another issue with putting nylon strings on a steel-string acoustic is that it will completely change the sound.
The effects are:
- Lower volume
- Mellow tone with less brightness and articulation
Some players do prefer the sound of nylon strings, especially for classical music. However, for rock and pop, nylon strings are not really suitable.
Magnetic Pickups Won’t Work
If your acoustic guitar uses a magnetic pickup then the nylon strings will not be amplified when the guitar is plugged in. This is because nylon strings do not have any magnetic field for the pickup to detect, unlike steel strings.
However, if you are using a microphone or piezo pickup, the nylon strings will be amplified without any issues.
Tips for Using Nylon Strings on an Acoustic Guitar
Although using nylon strings on an acoustic guitar is not ideal, I wanted to highlight some things you’ll need to consider if you plan on swapping out your steel strings for nylon ones:
- Use ball-end (rather than loop-end) nylon strings
- Use a lighter gauge of nylon strings to ensure they are better seated in the nut
- Loosen the truss rod to compensate for the lower string tension
- Do not mix nylon and steel strings on a guitar as the different tensions can twist the neck
- Do not change between nylon and steel strings frequently as the tension difference can damage the instrument
Can You Put Steel Strings on a Nylon String Guitar?
Steel strings should not be used on a nylon string classical guitar. This is because the steel strings will put the guitar under too much tension and can cause the bridge, nut, neck and even the top of the guitar to break.
Unlike steel-string acoustics which have an adjustable truss rod to provide more/ less neck relief, the vast majority of nylon strings don’t have this, so there’s no way to cope with the extra tension caused by the steel strings.