If you’ve never tried putting nylon strings on a steel string guitar, you’d probably assume the two string-types are readily interchangeable; that’s what I thought, at any rate. As it turns out, I was wrong. There are significant differences between nylon and steel strings and using the “wrong” type can put undue stress on your guitar and even effect its playability.
That said, stringing steel string guitars with nylon isn’t impossible or even unheard of; guitarists as popular as the iconic Willie Nelson have done so with impressive effect.
So, at this point you may be asking–can I use nylon strings on my steel string acoustic guitar? The short answer is yes, you can. Be aware, though, that a steel string acoustic guitar with nylon strings will likely need far more maintenance than properly strung guitars.
Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re considering using nylon strings on your standard acoustic.
Nylon And Steel Strings: An Overview
Made from various alloys of Bronze, aluminum, and phosphor, steel guitar strings vary widely in composition ratios, core materials, and gauge. A steel guitar string’s composition ratio–the ratio of metals used in its alloy– significantly affects the tone the strings produce.
Bronze strings, for example, produce a bright, crisp tone. These strings work beautifully on larger acoustic guitars that can provide a natural bass tonal counterbalance. There are benefits and drawbacks to every string type, though, as illustrated by bronze strings being prone to oxidation.
Sets of steel guitar strings are generally identified by the gauge, or thickness, of the high E string. Eleven and twelve gauge are the most commonly used acoustic guitar string sizes.
An inexpensive and longer-lasting alternative to old-fashioned gut strings, nylon strings produce warm tones similar to those of gut. Nylon strings produce softer tones with less clarity than those produced by steel strings.
Unlike steel strings, which are available in varying gauges, nylon strings are generally differentiated by hardness. Most nylon strings are available in either hard, medium-hard, and extra-hard styles.
Problems With Nylon Strings On Steel String Acoustics
As touched on earlier, you’re likely to run into some mechanical and technical issues should you decide to string one of your steel string acoustic guitars with nylon.
In the best case scenario, your guitar will need far more regular maintenance just to keep it playable. Think of your steel string guitar as your regular car; with a bit of maintenance every so often, it’s generally reliable. String that same guitar with nylon, and now it’s more akin to a piece of farm equipment like a tractor, that will almost daily care to maintain.
Should you take the plunge and string your acoustic guitar with nylon, here are some of the potential problems you’ll need to be aware of. Careful attention to your guitar may help mitigate some of them; others you’ll find you can do little to nothing about. Still, it’s best to know all the facts before possibly damaging your guitar.
Variation In Neck Tension
Steel guitar strings require a good deal of tension to bring to tune, and standard acoustic guitars are built to accommodate that high tension. Nylon strings, on the other hand, require far less tension to tune.
When you string a standard acoustic guitar with nylon strings, you’re drastically decreasing the pressure on the guitar’s neck. This can cause the neck to bow, affecting the guitar’s action and causing what may prove irreparable damage to the instrument.
You may be tempted to try and get around this issue by using a hybrid of steel and nylon strings, using the former type for the lower three and the latter for the high. This would, after all, provide added tension for the neck. As it turns out, though, significantly uneven pressure on a guitar’s neck can be just as bad–or worse–than not enough pressure.
Unless you play for hours a day, or have a particularly strong picking/strumming hand, you probably won’t find yourself having to tune your standard acoustic every day. Aside from a slight adjustment here and there, once steel strings are broken in, you’re usually good to grab and play. This will no longer be the case when your standard acoustic is strung with nylon.
Nylon strings are naturally less stable as regards tuning than their alloy counterparts, and this isn’t only the case when they’re strung on standard acoustic guitars. Even on classical guitars, they require more frequent tuning. Part of the reason is nylon is more sensitive to changes in humidity and temperature than steel strings.
Stringing a standard acoustic with nylon only makes the problem worse, and you’re likely to find yourself tuning your nylon-strung acoustic far more often than you’d like. Now, you have to deal not only with the natural, but the myriad potential tuning issues brought on by lack of neck-tension.
There’s one significant difference between steel and nylon strings we haven’t mentioned yet, and its likely to cause you some difficulty if you’re still thinking of stringing your acoustic with nylon.
Steel strings come equipped with what’s called a ball end. This circular loop at one end of the string holds the string to the bridge, even under the high tensions necessary to bring the string to tune.
Nylon guitar strings are generally not ball end strings. When stringing a classical nylon string guitar, the strings are tied to the bridge, rather than being held in place with pins. To put standard nylon strings on a guitar designed for ball end acoustic strings, you’ll have to get a bit creative.
The easiest way to string your steel string acoustic guitar with nylon is to use ball end nylon strings. Though nowhere near as common as standard nylon strings, ball end nylon strings, such as Martin’s CLASSICAL 260, are the perfect solution to this problem. You may not be able to find niche strings such as these at your local music shop, but they and many other options are readily available online.
Strumming Becomes Problematic
If you’ve ever seen classical guitars, you’ve probably noticed they don’t have pickguards. There’s a reason for this; namely, classical guitar strings aren’t designed to be picked. Generally, classical guitar strings are fingerpicked, though there are strumming techniques you can learn and apply.
Nylon guitar strings will go out of tune even more often and wear out more quickly when played with a pick. If you string your steel string acoustic guitar with nylon, think hard before experimenting with a pick.
Benefits Of Switching To Nylon Strings
Knowing all the potential problems associated with stringing steel string acoustic guitars with nylon, you might be wondering why anyone would do it. Or you might be wondering if you should do it, knowing what we now do about nylon strings.
Well, there are benefits to stringing steel string acoustic guitars with nylon strings. The tone is beautiful, for one thing; in the right hands they can sound truly amazing, Also, nylon strings force you to pay closer attention to certain aspects of your playing, aspects that may translate into more competent steel string acoustic playing too.
Ultimately, whether or not you should string your steel string acoustic guitar with nylon is, of course, up to you. If the idea of swapping strings really gets your creative juices flowing, by all means, do it; just remember the potential trade-off you’ll be making in terms of potential damage to your guitar.
Some Helpful Tips
If you remain undeterred, if the allure of a nylon-strung standard acoustic guitar cannot be denied and you’re willing to risk possible damage to your guitar, here are a few tips that might help:
Use A Dedicated Guitar
If you’re going to string one of your steel string acoustic guitars with nylon strings, don’t make it the showpiece of your guitar collection. You don’t want to damage say, a vintage Martin acoustic or an instrument that holds sentimental value to you.
Also, choose one and only one guitar to swap strings on; there’s no need to risk damaging more than one of your guitars.
Once steel string acoustic guitars have been strung with nylon for a time, restringing them with steel strings is likely to result in further damage. Variable stress on a guitar’s neck is a recipe for disaster, so once you’ve made the change to nylon, it’s best to avoid trying to re-cross that particular Rubicon.
Use The Best Strings For You
There are many nylon strings on the market today, and choosing the right ones for your project and budget is important. Are you thinking of converting an old beginner guitar, or a more expensive model?
If the former, you may not worry too much about ball ends, as modifying the bridge won’t be so risky; if the latter, you’ll probably want to look into using ball end strings.
As far as string heaviness, it’s best to get a feel for the three different standard types before making the plunge. Each variety sounds and plays differently in subtle, yet significant ways.
Consider A Hybrid/Crossover Guitar
Before you transform one of your steel string acoustics, perhaps permanently, into a nylon string guitar, consider one final option. If your budget allows, you might be best served to buy a hybrid or crossover guitar.
Hybrid, or crossover guitars bridge many of the gaps between traditional classical guitars and steel string acoustics. A nylon string crossover guitar offers playability similar to a steel string guitar, while delivering warmer tones closer to those produced by nylon string guitars.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it easier to play nylon than steel strings?
Yes, nylon strings are softer and more gentle on players’ fingers, so beginners generally won’t have to worry about finger pain or developing the callouses that will help them practice pain-free. Steel strings, on the other hand, are under a higher amount of tension and therefore need a greater amount of force to fret notes properly.
In general, nylon strings are easier to play than steel strings because they require less tension. However, many acoustic players prefer the sound of steel-strings.
Can you string a nylon or classical guitar with steel strings?
No, you cannot string a nylon or classical guitar with steel strings. Nylon guitars are not designed for the additional tension and vibrations produced by steel strings. Steel strings have substantially higher (100 lbs more) string-load tension and require a stronger guitar structure to withstand them.
Steel strings would cause the top of the guitar to warp upward, or “belly up” and eventually the bridge would rip loose from the top. This would destroy your guitar.
Before You Go . . .
Choosing the right strings for your steel-string acoustic guitar is crucial. Even with high-quality nylon strings, it’s essential to ensure they are suitable for your instrument. Discover more about the best strings for your acoustic guitar and how to enhance your playing experience in my next article. It will guide you in selecting the perfect strings for your needs.
About the Author
Gustavo is a music teacher and classical guitar player from Brazil, currently residing in Dublin, Ireland. He holds a graduate degree in Classical Guitar Performance from the Federal University of Pelotas. In 2020, Gustavo successfully completed a Master's degree in Sound Engineering from the Academy of Sound in Ireland.