So, you’ve already decided that you want to start playing the acoustic guitar, but how are you supposed to know what kind of acoustic guitar you want and which is actually the best to start learning with? In this here blog, we aim to offer all beginner guitarists a basic explanation of the differences between steel-string guitars and classical or Spanish guitars, to hopefully leave you fully equipped with the information you need to make the right decision. The first thing we’ll say is, maybe check out your favourite band or artist and see what they’re playing first. There’s a pretty big chance that they’re making the sound you want to hear and playing the kind of guitar that you want.

Which Acoustic Guitar Do You Need in Your Life? Steel-String or Classical?

The Steel-String Acoustic: When Things Need to Sound Bright

When you’ve got your heart set on a specific kind of guitar sound, like the one you hear on your favourite album by your favourite band, then of course you want a guitar that’s going to come as close as possible to that sound. Many singer-songwriters, folk musicians, pop bands, and artists that play an acoustic guitar will probably have a steel-string guitar in their hands (also known as an acoustic flat-top), simply because it produces such a bright sound that responds well to being played with a plectrum and really does give back exactly what you put in. If you play hard, the sound is louder and harder; if you play it more softly, the sound is quieter and softer. In other words, steel-string guitars have a naturally dynamic sound. This kind of guitar has been used on countless, timeless ballads, and has been plucked and strummed by the biggest rock bands. Just think of the iconic Unplugged albums from Eric Clapton or Nirvana, or pretty much any Ed Sheeran song, and you already have a clear idea of the sound a steel-string guitar makes. Tip: If you’ve already settled on getting a steel-string acoustic guitar but have no idea which one to go for, you can find some more help here.

Which Acoustic Guitar Do You Need in Your Life? Steel-String or Classical?

The Classical Guitar: A Sweeter Sound

If the bright sparkling sound of a steel-string guitar is a little sharp to your sensitive ears, then a classical guitar (also known as a Spanish guitar) might be more your thing. The tonal character of a classical guitar is usually a little warmer and the higher notes sound a little more ‘round’ and less bright or shrill. This is because classical and Spanish guitars have softer nylon strings that produce a very distinctive sound. You’ve probably probably heard this sound in classical guitar music; in the rich Spanish guitar music tradition, as well as in more modern Flamenco and Latin styles. While you’re unlikely to hear this instrument used on your favourite modern pop track, songwriting giants like Willie Nelson and Leonard Cohen were often seen with a nylon-stringed guitar in their grubby mitts. Tip: You can find a little help to choose just the right classical guitar here.
Which Acoustic Guitar Do You Need in Your Life? Steel-String or Classical?

Feel It In Your Fingers

If you have no real preference when it comes to sound and you’re just looking for the most comfortable and easy-to-play guitar, then there are few other points worth taking into account. For example, if you weren’t born with gigantic hands, or you’re still waiting for them to fully grow, then the thinner neck of a steel-string guitar might suit you best. That’s not to say that there aren’t a number of classical guitars out there that also have slimmer necks – these models can be recognised by their ‘Slim Neck’ or ‘Electric Neck’ – since they have been designed with a super-thin neck like that of an electric guitar. If your hands are a little larger but you find steel-strings are a little heavy and harder to press down (since the tension of steel strings is higher), or you just don’t like how they feel and find your fingertips are blistering all the time, then it’s maybe a good idea to start with the looser-feeling nylon strings of a classical guitar. It’s also worth noting that you should never try to put steel strings on a classical guitar, since this can actually cause damage to the instrument because the body and neck are not designed for the high tension that steel strings create. But, if you still haven’t settled on what you want, then there is another way to go …

Which Acoustic Guitar Do You Need in Your Life? Steel-String or Classical?

The Middleman: Experimenting with Strings

As we just mentioned, the tension of steel strings is much higher than that of nylon strings. This means that steel-string guitars need a little more finger strength so that the strings can be pressed down to make a clear note. So, if you want that steel-string sound but find the tension uncomfortable, you can always try swapping the strings for a thinner set to lower the tension a little. You don’t necessarily need to go for the thinnest set of strings available; just a step down from the ones you have will already make a big difference in the tension and feel. You can usually find the thickness (referred to as gauge) of the strings that came with your guitar on the manufacturer’s website and then find a set of strings that are a touch thinner. On the other hand, you might find the strings on a classical guitar feel too slack or loose. Most classical guitars will come with a set of ‘normal tension’ strings installed as standard so, if you want something that feels tighter, maybe upgrade to a set of ‘high tension’ strings (also sometimes referred to as ‘hard tension’). Tip: For more help in finding the right set of strings, check out our blog on that very subject here.

Which Acoustic Guitar Do You Need in Your Life? Steel-String or Classical?

But Looks Are Also Important …

Besides sounding and feeling just right, you also want your acoustic guitar to look great. It’s actually the best time ever to pick up a good looking acoustic guitar since, as well as the more conventional naturally finished guitars, you’ll now find an immense range of different finishes, more exotic woods, and colours ranging from sunburst to black or white and more. Even though classical and Spanish guitar builders tend to stick close to tradition, the range of looks available is also growing. Of course it all begins with the sound quality and the feel, but if you want to play a truly stylish instrument, then you can maybe get yourself a zebrano wood guitar, finished with complex zebra-style stripes. Or, if animal print is your design nightmare, then just keep things sleek and simple with a white guitar. Or why not go all out with a guitar printed with the colours of your favourite football team. These days, it’s all possible.

So, which one do you want to go for? Is the classical guitar inspiring you, or are you still a dedicated fan of that steel-string acoustic twang? Let us know in the comments below!

See Also …

» Acoustic or Electric Guitar? Where’s the Best Place to Start?
» How Do I Becomes a Guitarist?
» How to Choose the Right Steel-String Guitar
» How to Choose the Right Classical Guitar
» How to Choose the Right Electro-Acoustic Guitar
» Learn to Play with a Plectrum
» Laminated, Solid-Top or All-Solid Guitar?

» Steel-String Acoustic Guitars
» Electro-acoustic Steel-String Guitars
» Classical Guitars
» Electro-Acoustic Classical Guitars
» Classical Guitar Strings
» Steel-String Acoustic Guitar Strings

3 responses
  1. Juan varela says:

    I am looking for an acoustic guitar with a wide neck like a classical guitar with steel strings instead of nylon strings. Any suggestions?

  2. Michael Damico says:

    I’am love steel strings I need a great guitar, I’am 66 and just retired after working 2 jobs for 25 years, I sold my Martin D28 and Gibson j45 many years ago and I need help getting a great new guitar so I can start playing again. Maybe somebody reading this can help. I also lost my son he is a deceased NYPD police officer Michael Damico JR. 60TH PCT BROOKLYN and that broke my heart so playing again will help me. I using this forum looking for help thank you 17 poplar Street Cornwall NY 12518

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