This article will discuss the possibility of playing classical guitar on a steel-string instrument.
Some beginners may ask if studying the classical repertoire on a steel-string is possible. Others may want to apply classical techniques to that type of guitar. In both cases, the question of whether it’s possible and recommended always arises.
But can I play classical guitar on a steel-string?
You can play classical guitar on a steel-string, but that isn’t recommended. That’s because of some technical difficulties and the specific timbre of the instrument, which is different. The steel-string sounds much stronger in the treble frequencies, contrary to the “smoothness” of the classical, for example.
Since the classical repertoire and its proper techniques were developed considering these particularities of the instrument, playing it on another type will be strange and difficult. But on the other hand, if you only have a steel-string at home, it’s much better to start practicing with it, instead of waiting to buy a classical one.
What is it like to play classical guitar on a steel-string?
Playing classical guitar on a steel-string will be a challenging task. You’ll have your nails harmed much faster, and they will “catch” on the strings. The left-hand movement will be awkward because the neck is different. Attacks, glissandi, and vibrato will be much more difficult to do, etc.
That’s not only because of the strings themselves but also because of the entire instrument, which is different from the classical. Since there are these differences, some techniques that apply to the classical won’t apply well to the steel-string, and vice-versa. Below, you can see all the differences and their respective technical difficulties presented:
The neck is thinner
The thumb appears at the upside of the neck and the correct hand movement becomes more difficult.
The strings are harder
The nails catch on the strings while playing; Glissando and vibrato techniques get almost impossible to play well.
The body shape is different (longer)
It feels weird when playing in the correct classical position, the instrument doesn’t fit well between the legs.
The strings are all metallic
There’s much more noise while moving the left hand on the neck; The notes last longer.
The strings are less spaced
It’s easier to play accidental sounds with the right and left hands.
What happens if you put nylon strings on a steel-string guitar?
That doesn’t work well. That’s because the nylon strings were made to be played spaced apart from the other and from the neck. The outer E strings will slip off the neck while playing certain chords, since the neck is thinner. Since there’s less distance to the neck, the strings will produce noise.
Putting nylon strings on a steel-string guitar may seem a good solution at first, but it isn’t. That’s because these strings are thicker than the steel ones, producing noise when played and also constantly getting detuned. Apart from that, they tend to be less durable, since the level of tension is higher.
Another problem is the intonation difference between parts of the neck. That means that even if you tune the guitar perfectly, the notes closer to the 12th fret and beyond will sound untuned. That’s not a problem that can be solved tuning again or even by a work of luthier, as the entire body of the guitar interferes with it.
What happens if you put steel strings on a nylon string guitar?
That will harm your instrument and cause health problems for your hand. Apart from the inevitable bending of the neck (about guitar set-up) caused by excessive tension, you will have extreme technical difficulties. An enormous amount of pressure will be necessary to play only a chord.
Bar chords will become extremely hard to play and some classical pieces will be almost impossible. That’s because the natural tension of the steel strings gets combined to a greater distance to the neck. If you are a beginner, that will make your technical development much more difficult.
This combination of string-to-the-neck distance and excessive tension will certainly hurt your fingers, which will get accustomed to unnecessary tension. That can lead to serious health problems in your hand, like tendinitis. Some of these injuries can even make you unable to practice music later.
We can certainly say that putting steel strings on a nylon string guitar is even worse than playing a steel-string using nylon. While the second will only imply technical difficulties and sonority problems, the second one will harm your instrument and you severely.
Steel or nylon strings for beginners?
The nylon strings are certainly better for beginners. That’s because the pain before acquiring calluses, in the beginning, will be less. We know that this pain can be a strong discouraging factor to beginners, and it’s better to avoid it to a greater degree. Below, you can see some of the nylon strings advantages:
- A nylon-string guitar is more versatile
You can play a variety of styles using a classical guitar, more than you are able to play using a steel-string. Unless you already know exactly what you want to play, and it’s only rock, blues and fingerstyle (in this case, a steel-string is preferable), it’s better to buy a classical guitar.
- Playing with steel strings may discourage you:
A nylon-string guitar feels much softer for a beginner. After some time, when you’ve already acquired calluses on your fingers, steel strings won’t hurt at all. But going straight to the steel-string instrument may discourage and frustrate you, since it will hurt in the beginning.
- The spacing of the strings is higher on a classical guitar:
That will make it easier to learn the first right-hand movements. Since you’ll use directly your fingers, and not a pick, coordinating them to play the correct string is essential.
But if you only have a steel-string guitar at your home and want to start playing classical, don’t worry! Even if it’s not the most appropriate, it will be much better than just waiting to buy a nylon string. Just don’t get accustomed to it too much, to the point of denying the nylon strings later.
Steel or nylon strings for fingerstyle?
To play fingerstyle guitar, steel strings are certainly better. That’s because, at the same that the classical technique was developed using nylon strings, the fingerstyle technique was developed using steel strings. It will be weird to play it using nylon.
So there is a great difference between fingerstyle and classical techniques. It may seem the same for some people, since both are essentially instrumental solo, with the guitarist playing harmony and melody. But you must know that they are essentially different.
The confusion is mainly because the two styles are recognized as solo guitar. In both styles, we hear melody and harmony at the same time using one single instrument. But the classical is a result of centuries of technical experimentation and repertoire on the guitar, while the fingerstyle came only in the 20th century. That doesn’t make the fingerstyle less important or inferior, but we must know that it’s a much more recent tradition. It doesn’t have the repertoire of the classical nor its level of technical sophistication and has a different aesthetic/technique proposal. Below, you can see some particularities of the fingerstyle:
- The fingerstyle technique requires more sound response by the strings
A fingerstyle guitarist will constantly tap the strings with the right hand to make it sound (that’s called tambora). Although it also happens in the classical tradition, the guitar doesn’t sound as much as the steel-string. If a fingerstyle guitarist tries to do that using a classical guitar, it won’t happen the way he wants.
- The sound of the steel strings should last more
The nylon strings are almost “percussive”, since their sound decreases much faster than on the steel strings. The fingerstyle needs more durable sounds, which can be done only using a steel-string guitar.
- You must be able to produce sound only using the left hand
That’s a technique called tapping, which is frequently used in fingerstyle. It means producing sound using only the left hand, tapping the strings on the neck. When you try to do that on the classical guitar, there won’t be almost any sound, making it necessary to use a steel-string.
In this article, you’ve seen that even if you can play classical guitar repertoire on a steel-string, you must know that this isn’t the most recommended. That’s because of numerous reasons, from the thickness of the neck to the quality of the strings themselves. At the same time, if you have only a steel-string by now, you can (and must) practice using it.
You’ve also seen several technical implications in playing guitar on a steel-string. They can vary from the hardness of the string to the form of the instrument’s body, which doesn’t fit well in the classical leg position. There are timbre problems too, and some expected classical sonorities won’t happen or will even happen weirdly.
We must highlight that, even if it’s highly recommended to use nylon strings, you must not put them on a steel-string guitar. That will imply various technical and sound problems, which will be impossible to solve. Apart from that, using steel-strings on a classical guitar is even worse and will harm you and your instrument.
You’ve also seen that nylon strings are more recommended to a beginner, especially if he wants to play classical guitar. That’s especially because of the high tension and hardness of the steel strings, which are painful for a beginner. It won’t be the most recommended only if he just wants to play blues, jazz and rock, in which the steel-string guitar is much more suitable. In this case, the pleasure of the desired sound will be greater than the pain.
It’s also important to highlight that, at the same time that the nylon strings are desirable to playing classical, the steel strings are desirable to play fingerstyle. Don’t forget that these two playing styles have different techniques, which require different types of instruments.
I hope you’ve enjoyed it and see you next time!
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Luiz Hauck is a composer, guitarist and music teacher based in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Being in the final phase of the bachelor’s degree in musical composition, from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, his artistic work concerns mainly concert music, which is his main interest.