From Nylon to Steel and Back

Well, peeps we have our first guest post today from the very talented Rick Alexander (you may remember his name from a post back in September last year. If you want to recap head here). So, without further ado, over to Rick…..

From Nylon to Steel and Back  by Rick Alexander 

A few weeks ago Nicole posted about how to get back into classical guitar after a long break. That day I emailed her with an idea for a similar topic:  How about a post about  “how to change back and forth between playing steel string and nylon string guitar?”   So I was pleasantly surprised when Nicole suggested I write a post myself about this topic.  Thank you Nicole!

I wonder if there are a few of you out there like me. For almost 20 years now nylon string guitar has been my first love. But I’ve been fickle; there have also been long periods where I’ve mostly played steel string. When I came back to nylon string I used to find it took me quite a while to get used to it again. The guitar felt pretty unresponsive in my hands and my left hand fingers would sometimes miss the strings.  But lately I’ve felt better when changing guitars so I thought I’d share what I’ve been doing so that I can enjoy playing both types of guitar.

Some ideas:

Don’t play steel string, always play nylon string!  This would be nice, I agree, but there are good reasons to also play steel string guitar. There is fantastic fingerstyle steel string music to play (think Tommy Emmanuel). Steel string guitar has great sustain and that fantastic “zing” on the trebles, especially with new strings.  Another plus is the beautiful contrast in sound between steel string and nylon string guitars in a duet. So, given that we also want to play steel string guitar, what then?

Change back and forth between guitars frequently.   I’ve found it much better when I change guitar type more often. I start getting used to both guitars and I find that without me thinking too much my left hand fingers know where to go on both guitars.

Guitar hanger
Guitar hanger

To help changing guitars I suggest investing in wall hangers for your guitars.  Hang your guitars on the wall so they’re easy to access.  A bonus is that it’s cool being able to see your guitars up there.

I used to keep my guitars in their cases and I found it’s too easy to leave one in its case for too long. When they’re on the wall they’re so much more accessible. They do get dusty but I can live with that. Your guitars are meant for playing.  They should be out and ready to go.

Please be careful to securely mount the hangers. (I mean really securely.) I have hollow plasterboard walls and used spring toggles. If you’re not sure of your DIY skills please get help!  Also – if you have dogs or small children around the house I’d hang the guitars out of their reach.

Have a steel string guitar with wider fingerboard.   My two classical guitars measure about 45 mm from E string to E string at the nut while my Maton steel string with a 1 and 11/16” wide fingerboard at the nut measures 37mm  E to E. (The finger board width at the nut for steel string guitars is often expressed in round

Hang your guitars on the wall for easier access
Hang your guitars on the wall for easier access

numbers in inches. 1 and 11/16” is standard and 1 and 3/4” is a wider finger board.)   Maton and other manufacturers such as Taylor also make steel string guitars intended for fingerstyle playing and these guitars have the wider 1 and 3/4” fingerboards.  For example, my Taylor has a string pitch of 39mm  E to E. I find that the extra 2mm is noticeable. Using one of these wider necked steel string guitars makes it a bit easier to change from steel to nylon.

What about my nails!?  If you’re using a pick with steel string there’s no problem of course but what if you’re playing fingerstyle and using nails?

It’s true that your nails can get damaged playing steel string guitar.  But it depends on your playing style. Years ago I attended a pre-show talk by the great Australian fingerstyle player, Tommy Emmanuel.  Tommy told us he plays steel string guitar using callouses on his right hand finger tips, not nails.  He said he can’t use nails because they break. But Tommy plays hundreds of concerts a year and has a very energetic style.  What about the rest of us?

Around that time I was trying to use nails to play his music, while playing fairly vigorously, and I found that over a few weeks of playing an hour or so a day my nails would weaken and break.  But for the past several years I’ve been playing with a more classical guitar style on steel string and I find my nails can handle it. I just need to be careful not to play too hard and for too long.

So my advice would be to work on how you’re using your nails when playing steel string. It will depend on how you play, and on the strength of your nails, but it is possible to play steel string guitar without wrecking your nails.  You will need to experiment to find out how long and hard you can play.


14 thoughts on “From Nylon to Steel and Back

    1. Thank you for your feedback Chad. It’s really appreciated.

      And I second Nicole’s comment about guitarfromspain’s point. There *is* a guitar for everything. It’s great we can all get so much from them, isn’t it!


  1. Hi Rick, I’m really impressed by the level of detail in your post, and the advice you give seems to be quite sensible and relevant. I hope we can see more of your writing here in the future.

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