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What Should I Know About Classical Guitar Strings?

Classical guitar strings shape your instrument's voice, offering a palette of tonal colors. Nylon strings are traditional, providing a warm, rich sound, while newer materials like carbon fiber offer brighter tones and increased durability. Tension levels also affect playability and sound. Discovering the right strings can elevate your playing experience. What might your guitar reveal with a fresh set of strings?
R. Kayne
R. Kayne

Classical guitars are wide-necked, acoustic, hollow-bodied guitars used for playing classical music, flamenco, Spanish, Mariachi, jazz and ballads. They can also be used for fill-work to add flavor to songs created in other genres. One example is Madonna’s La Isla Bonita, a dance tune featuring Spanish guitar runs throughout.

Most classical guitar strings today are made from nylon for a warm, full, melodic sound. Bass strings utilize either a silver-plated or bronze wrap surrounding a multi-threaded nylon core. Silver strings have a tendency to tarnish and should be wiped with a cotton cloth after playing. Preference as to silver or bronze bass strings is subjective, with silver creating a brilliant tone, and bronze a warmer timbre.

Silk cocoons. Some guitar strings are made with silk.
Silk cocoons. Some guitar strings are made with silk.

Classical guitar strings include either clear treble strings, black trebles (sometimes red) or rectified trebles. Clear treble strings produce a traditional classical sound, while black/red trebles produce higher overtones and are more distinctive. Rectified trebles are engineered to have a highly consistent diameter along the length of the entire string and are generally considered to be warmer sounding.

Using steel-cored guitar strings can damage a classical guitar.
Using steel-cored guitar strings can damage a classical guitar.

Classical guitar strings come in different tensions to suit different playing styles. Tensions range from super light tension (SLT), to light tension (LT), medium tension (MT), high tension (HT) and super high tension (SHT). The greater the tension the greater force on the neck of the guitar. Higher tension strings are louder, fuller sounding, stiffer, and require more finger strength, comparatively speaking. Experiment to find the correct tension for your playing style.

Most classical guitar strings are made of nylon.
Most classical guitar strings are made of nylon.

Originally, classical guitar strings were made of catgut (commonly sheep’s intestines), but few string makers sell catgut strings today. Catgut does not hold its pitch long and has a tendency to break. Because of these problems some retailers will not guarantee catgut strings.

Sometimes it happens that a hobbyist with a classical guitar wants to play rock-style music and hopes to get a rockier sound by replacing classical guitar strings with steel-core strings, saving the expense of buying a different guitar. A classical guitar does not have a supporting truss rod in the neck because the tension exerted from nylon strings is not great enough to require one. Guitar strings made with a steel core, as used on steel-stringed acoustic guitars, should not be used on a classical guitar because they will warp or break the neck. Classical tuning keys are also not engineered for the extra tension required for steel-core strings, and may not be able to pull the strings to pitch.

A compromise can be light-tension silk and steel guitar strings. These are steel core strings with silk fibers wrapped around them, which are then covered by silver-coated copper. While they exert more tension on the neck than classical guitar strings, it is considerably less than that required by steel-core strings. Bear in mind however, these strings might still cause the neck to bow, depending on the instrument, and over time they can cut into nuts and saddles designed to support less abrasive nylon strings. Furthermore, the neck of a classical guitar is wider than its acoustic cousin, making it less than ideal for playing genres outside those it was designed for.

Classical guitars produce uncompromising sound from invigorating staccato rhythms of classical pieces to irresistible, romantic riffs that bring to mind rich, blue Mediterranean seas and passionate love shared between dark-haired lovers. If you haven’t treated your classical guitar to new strings lately, maybe it’s time to rekindle your love of this beautiful, traditional guitar. Some excellent manufacturers of classical guitar strings include LaBella, Augustine, Aranjuez, Martin, D’Addario and Hannabach, among many others.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the different types of classical guitar strings?

Classical guitar strings come in three main types: nylon, carbon fiber, and gut. Nylon strings, which are the most common, offer a warm, mellow tone and are easier on the fingers. Carbon fiber strings are known for their bright sound and increased projection. Gut strings, which are less common today, provide a rich, authentic tone favored in historically informed performances but require more maintenance and are sensitive to changes in humidity and temperature.

How often should I replace my classical guitar strings?

The frequency of string replacement can vary based on how often you play, but a general guideline is every three months or 100 hours of playing time. Signs that it's time to change strings include visible wear, a dull or flat sound, difficulty tuning, or the strings becoming unresponsive. Regularly changing strings ensures the best sound quality and playability of your instrument.

What tension strings should I use for my classical guitar?

Classical guitar strings come in different tensions: low, medium, and high. Medium tension strings are a good starting point for most players, offering a balance between ease of play and sound projection. High tension strings provide more volume and a brighter tone but require more finger pressure, while low tension strings are easier to play but may produce less volume. The choice depends on your playing style and the desired sound.

How do I prevent my classical guitar strings from breaking?

To prevent string breakage, ensure proper installation without over-tightening, regularly clean your strings to remove oils and dirt, and check for any sharp edges on the nut, bridge, or tuning pegs that could wear down the string. Also, be mindful of your playing technique; excessive force or aggressive strumming can contribute to premature string breakage.

Can I mix different brands or types of strings on my classical guitar?

While it's possible to mix different brands or types of strings, it's generally not recommended as it can lead to an unbalanced sound and tension across the guitar. For a cohesive sound and consistent feel, it's best to use a matched set of strings designed to work together. If you're experimenting with your sound, try changing one set at a time to understand the impact on tone and playability.

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Discussion Comments

anon289154

@anon104472: Putting nylons on a steel string instrument would be so wrong. Extra light folk strings won't compensate for the wider classical neck, but they might provide ease and tension you need. I am switching to classical to adopt fingerstyle because steels have been too rough on my hands. I just replaced them with Martin Silk and Steel Folk strings. I will adapt to the wider neck later.

anon133370

Yes, you can, but it will affect the sound and playability of your instrument and you will need to readjust the truss-rod for the new nylon set. Good luck!

anon104472

I have a steel string guitar and want to start playing classical guitar, but I'd like to get started without investing in a new guitar. Can I put on nylon strings? And will the strings stay tensioned on a rock acoustic guitar?

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    • Silk cocoons. Some guitar strings are made with silk.
      By: phiseksit
      Silk cocoons. Some guitar strings are made with silk.
    • Using steel-cored guitar strings can damage a classical guitar.
      By: schankz
      Using steel-cored guitar strings can damage a classical guitar.
    • Most classical guitar strings are made of nylon.
      By: Brian Jackson
      Most classical guitar strings are made of nylon.