Nylon string guitars hearken back to classical guitars that have been used since the fifteenth century. Steel string guitars are used by… well, pretty much every modern acoustic guitarist that you can think of. The choice between nylon string and steel string guitars isn’t cut-and-dried, though; there are plenty of variables at play that make this an essential read before you jump into buying an acoustic guitar.
Deciding between a steel and nylon string guitar is crucial because nylon string guitars aren’t designed to support steel strings and vice versa. That’s why we’re going over all of the details that put these guitars into two entirely separate categories.
By the time you’re done with this article, you’ll have all of the information you’ll need to feel confident in the type of guitar you shell out for — or maybe you’ll find yourself wanting another for your collection.
The strings are the part of the guitar that you interface with the most. Constantly underneath your fingertips, you’ll be (literally) in touch with the strings the entire time you’re playing. There are pros and cons to both nylon and steel options, so it all comes down to preference.
Nylon string sets come with three strings made fully of nylon filament, akin to fishing wire, for the three thinner strings (G, B, and the high e). The strings for the thickest strings (low E, A, and D) are made of a nylon core wrapped with steel plating. The feel of nylon strings are generally softer and easier on the fingers, which makes them a common recommendation for beginners or those concerned with finger pain. Our Mason Nylon Cedar comes equipped with Savarez Cristal Corum High Tension, which have a notably soft and smooth feel.
Steel string sets are instead made of a metallic plating wrapped around a steel wire, meaning metal makes up the entirety of its composition. This gives it a more rigid feel that is a bit tougher on the fingers and can often be difficult for beginners to fret (to push down to sound a note) consistently. However, this makes steel strings the best way to build finger strength. Determined players should start with steel strings, develop calluses, and think to themselves, “Wow, this feels incredibly easy” any time they play lighter strings.
Our steel string guitars, like the Mason Torrefied Spruce, for example, are loaded with Ernie Ball Earthwood Medium Lights, which have a textured feel due to the metallic wrapping.
See the typical steel string headstock, like on our Mason Torrefied Spruce, in comparison to Mason Nylon's slotted headstock.
When it comes to buying an acoustic guitar, there’s no decision more impactful on the sound you’ll be getting than nylon versus steel. Sure, tone wood might make a slight difference to the experienced players, but even an untrained ear can immediately recognize the difference between steel and nylon in a snap.
Nylon strings generally have a gentler, warmer, “round” sonic quality. This makes them the first pick for many fingerstyle guitarists and the ideal choice for most solo guitarists. Their warmth gives them a fullness that allows them to fill out an aural landscape by themselves, but nylon string guitars tend to be drowned out by a full band.
Steel strings are pretty much your quintessential acoustic guitar sound. Bright and vibrant, steel has a shimmer that most guitar players tend to gravitate towards. Steel strings also stand out well in a mix, making them a great choice for full band scenarios.
It’s worth noting that these are just general rules of thumb; nylon and steel guitars are versatile enough to find themselves used in any scenario. But because of the differences in tonal quality and specifications, you’ll often find that these guitars work well in their specific niches.
Nylon strings are favored by classical, folk, and jazz players because of their aforementioned delicate, gentle sound. Picks are not initially recommended as nylon strings really come to life when plucked by something softer, like nails or the pad of a finger. But, if you find yourself needing some bite in the nylon strings, using a pick will get you closer to a sound found often in corridos and gypsy jazz.
Steel string guitars are best suited for those flatpicking and big strumming genres. You’ll find them to be ubiquitous in country, blues, and pop music for their huge presence and blistering shine in comparison to the more subtle nylon sound. Overall, because they have been tested in so many different styles, the steel strings may be a more versatile option for new guitarists.
Settle the Debate: Should You Choose a Nylon or Steel String Guitar?
There’s no rules in guitar. If you want to strum a country ballad on a nylon string, or play an etude on a steel string, go for it! The beauty of creating music is finding your own sound.
With that said, there are still a few key points to remember before deciding on buying your next instrument. Looking for something gentler on your fingers? Nylon string. Looking for a go-to guitar to strum some pop tunes? Grab the steel string. Both options will get you started on your journey, so take a listen to our demo videos for a sneak peek at what’s possible.