Are you familiar with Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven?’ The song is about his son Conor, who died in a tragic case. It’s a ballad carried by Clapton’s sad guitar work and probably would not have the same feeling if it were not played on the classical guitar. Used in Spanish, flamenco, jazz and folk music, classical guitars have nylon strings, as opposed to the steel strings of an ‘acoustic’ guitar. According to John Huber in ‘The Development of the Modern Guitar,’ Albert Augustine first developed nylon strings in 1947 to replace the standard animal frame string. Nylon strings allow for easier, less painful learning, a distinct mellow tone and more expressive playing.
Proper guitar playing technique can only come from proper training and nylon strings make learning easier and more effective. Many schools and guitar teachers provide lessons for beginners with the help of nylon string classical guitars. Steel string players develop calluses from the stress the strings put on their fingers. Nylon strings are softer and lighter on the fingers. Not only will beginners be less likely to stop developing painful calluses, but it will allow them to more easily create chords, as the nylon strings are lighter and easier to push down. Nylon strings are also placed further apart on classical guitars. This prevents beginners from inadvertently touching and damping adjacent strings. According to Apple Valley Guitar Academy, it is easy to switch to steel strings after the classical guitar is mastered.
You can only use nylon strings on a classical guitar, but they can be used to play any style. Not only would high voltage steel bars damage the guitar’s bridge and sound plate, but only nylon strings could provide the round, soft sound needed for classical music styles such as Spanish and flamenco. Nylon strings are quieter and allow more attention to vocals and other instruments. According to a guitar center interview, country singer / songwriter Willie Nelson’s favorite guitar is in fact an acoustic nylon string called Trigger.
Nylon strings offer a more nuanced and expressive playing style. Fingerpicking is much easier on nylon strings. Muriel Anderson, one of the world’s foremost fingerstyle guitarists, switched from steel strings to nylon after reading lessons from classical guitarist Christopher Parkening. According to an interview she gave to ‘Guitar Magazine’, nylon strings on classical guitars are more sensitive to changes in right finger pressure. They respond better and can be played with more expression and tone variation. Nylon strings allow for more focus on melody and finger work, as opposed to the rhythmic strumming style of steel-string acoustic guitars.