I’ve been playing the guitar since 2003.
And although I prefer the steel string guitar, I’m very familiar with both the nylon and steel string acoustic guitar.
If you’re like me when I first started playing guitar, you probably thought all nylon string guitars were the same.
But there are actually two broad categories of nylon string guitars: classical and flamenco, and there are several types of steel string guitars.
I’ll first address the general differences between nylon and steel string guitars.
Then, I’ll discuss the differences between the two types of nylon string guitars: classical and flamenco.
So how are the nylon and steel string guitar different?
I’ve put together a chart of some of their differences below.
Nylon String Guitar
Steel String Guitar
Nylon and wire wound nylon (easier on your fingers)
Steel and wrapped steel (harder on your fingers)
No (meaning there isn’t a metal rod in the neck and the instrument can’t support the tension of steel strings)
For Use In
Classical or Flamenco (depending on whether you have a classical or flamenco guitar)
Everything else (rock, jazz, blues, folk, etc.)
Stuck through the head stock
Secures strings with a loop
Secures strings with bridge pins
In light of these differences, which instrument should you learn?
Beginner guitarists often start with a nylon string guitar and move to the acoustic.
However, if you’re really passionate about either classical or flamenco, you may want to start and stick with a classical or flamenco guitar.
Conversely, if you aren’t that interested in classical or flamenco, and you can deal with strings that are harder to press down, you may want to start and stick with a steel string guitar.
Nylon Vs. Steel Strings
The top three strings on a classical or flamenco guitar are typically single filament nylon.
The bottom three heavier strings on a classical or flamenco guitar are typically nylon wound with wire.
In addition to being easier to press down, nylon guitar strings put much less tension on the instrument than steel strings.
As a result, nylon and steel string guitars are manufactured differently with steel string guitars needing more structural support for the tension of steel strings.
Although an instrument will function best when strung with whatever strings it was designed for, you can put nylon strings on a steel string guitar.
However, you should NOT put steel strings on nylon string guitars.
Check out the next section to find out!
Nylon Vs. Steel String Guitar Neck Differences
Steel string guitar necks are reinforced with a truss rod (a metal rod running through the neck) to provide the support necessary to withstand the tension of steel strings.
Nylon guitar strings put less tension on the neck, and therefore nylon string guitars typically don’t have truss rods in their necks.
This usually makes nylon string guitars lighter than steel string guitars.
Because nylon string guitars don’t have the truss rod to support the added tension of steel strings, putting steel strings on a nylon string guitar could snap its neck or otherwise severely damage the instrument.
Classical or flamenco guitar necks are also typically wider than steel string guitar necks.
This makes the neck slightly more difficult to wrap your hand around than a steel string guitar.
However, remember that most people find nylon guitar strings easier to press down than steel strings.
So while the classical or flamenco guitar neck may be wider and more difficult to wrap your hand around, guitarists typically think nylon string guitars are easier to play than steel string guitars.
Nylon string guitar necks’ width has other implications that I’ll address in the next section.
Nylon Vs. Steel String Fret Boards
The radius of a guitar fretboard refers to the curvature of the fretboard.
If a guitar has a fret board with a larger curve, it will have a larger radius and vice versa.
Nylon string guitars typically don’t have a radius at all.
In other words, the fingerboard on a classical or flamenco guitar is usually totally flat.
A flat fingerboard makes bending notes slightly easier.
On the other hand, the more radiused the fretboard, the easier it is to play bar and standard chord shapes as the radius imitates the natural shape of the fingers across the strings.
Thus, guitarists looking to play lead often try to find a guitar with a smaller radius, and rhythm guitarists typically prefer more radiused fretboards.
Because nylon string guitars have wider necks and fret boards with no radius, a capo for a steel string guitar probably won’t work as well (or at all) on a classical or flamenco guitar.
However, there are great capo options for the classical or flamenco guitarist like this one.
Lastly, a nylon string guitar fret board typically lacks the fret markers present on a steel string guitar.
Steel string guitars usually have dots on the fret board and neck that mark the frets and help the guitarist know where he is along the fret board.
Nylon string guitars usually don’t have these fret markers.
You might think these fret markers don’t help you that much, especially if you are an intermediate or advanced guitarist.
However, you may be surprised to find how much you rely on those fret markers when you try playing an instrument without them like a classical guitar.
How Nylon And Steel String Instrument Bridges Differ
Nylon guitar strings usually have loops on the end to attach to the bridge, whereas steel strings have a ball-end.
These string designs are due to the way the instrument bridges are made.
On nylon string guitars, the strings are essentially tied to the bridge.
On the steel string guitar, bridge pins hold down the ball-end of the string in the bridge.
This makes the experience of changing strings different on a nylon versus steel string instrument.
Head Stock and Tuning Peg Differences on a Steel String and Nylon String Guitar
Just like there are differences where the strings are secured on the instrument near the sound hole, there are also differences where the strings are secured on the head stock of nylon and steel string guitars.
Classical and flamenco guitars usually feature slotted head stocks with in-line tuning machines.
Steel string guitars typically have solid headstocks with their tuning machines sticking through them.
Again this is one of many differences between the instruments that contribute to their different sound.
But it also means that the experience changing strings will be different.
Other Differences Between the Steel String and Classical Guitar
Because these instruments are used for different purposes, the bodies of the guitars have different features.
For instance, most steel string and flamenco guitars have pick guards.
But classical guitarists almost exclusively finger pick, and thus classical guitars don’t pick guards.
Also, classical guitars are almost never cutaways whereas the cutaway is common on steel string and flamenco guitars.
The reason for the lack of cutaway is both traditional and practical.
The cutaway feature on guitars is somewhat modern with the popularity of cutaway guitars heightening in the 20th century.
Thus, classical guitarists have used a standard guitar body for hundreds of years.
Furthermore, the cutaway design removes a part of the instrument in which sound can resonate, and therefore reduces the volume and arguably the quality of sound.
Classical guitars are already generally quieter than steel string guitars, so many luthiers regard the cutaway as an inferior design feature for the classical guitar.
Crossover Guitars: Putting Modern Features on a Classical Design
It is possible to get a nylon-string guitar with a radiused fret board, a cutaway body, and other modern features typically associated with a steel string guitar like this one.
Of course, because this is such a specific instrument there, aren’t as many purchasing options as either classical or standard acoustic guitars.
However, instruments like these can offer a nylon turned steel string guitarist (or vice versa) some familiar elements to a new playing experience.
Classical Vs. Flamenco Guitar: How They Differ & Which to Learn
Now that we’ve discussed the differences between nylon and steel string instruments generally, let’s discuss the differences between the two nylon instruments, classical and flamenco guitar.
I’ve laid out some of their differences in the table below:
Top Wood Type
Spruce or Cedar
Back & Side Wood Type
Cyprus or Sycamore
Neck Wood Type
Cedar or Mahogany
Moderate with Plenty of Sustain
Loud with Little Sustain
Almost Never Cutaway
Almost Never Has a Pick Guard
Frequently Has a Pick Guard
Almost Exclusively Finger-picked
Finger-picked or Strummed
I’ll explain these differences in greater detail below.
Classical Guitar Sound
In the video above, you can see and hear the stylistic difference between the classical and flamenco guitar.
She sits with the instrument more upright so she can be closer to the neck since classical guitar mainly involves finger-picking.
Also, her instrument is larger with a deeper body than most flamenco guitars.
And the sound she is producing has a lot of sustain, emphasizing her fingerpicking.
Flamenco Guitar Sound
Ben Woods starts out strumming his flamenco guitar in keeping with the style.
He’s also holding the guitar differently than the classical guitarist above, and you can see this guitar’s cutaway design.
Though it’s not quite as obvious comparing these two videos, there is a distinct difference in sound between this guitar and the classical guitar.
The flamenco guitar produces a loud sound and trails off quickly.
You can hear this feature of the flamenco guitar more clearly in many of Rodrigo y Gabriella’s pieces like Tamacun.
Blanca Vs Negra Flamenco Guitar Differences
Flamenco guitars are typically Blanca or Negra.
Blanca flamenco guitars are made of lighter woods that I mentioned in the table above like spruce, cypress, and cedar.
Negra guitars are made of denser woods like rosewood for greater volume and projection.
Choosing between a blanca and negra flamenco guitar is a matter of preference.
You can hear the subtle differences between these instruments in the video above.