Guitar String Question

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MaxTek's picture
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Joined: Dec 20 2003
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I have an acoustic guitar with steel strings. I used to play when I was young on a nylon string guitar.

Is there any reason I can't purchase nylon strings to replace the steel strings on my present guitar, like keeping the neck straight or the tonal quality etc., etc.?

Thanks

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catmistake's picture
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Joined: Dec 20 2003
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well... yes, but don't let it stop you

if a guitar is set up for steel strings, that's what will play correctly...

Just slapping on nylon strings becomes an issue because of the string tension, and because of how the string rests in the nut grooves, and the height of the bridge... the strings will buzz and the neck will be bowed slightly too much, ready to resist the tension of steel strings, but only having the tension of nylons.

However, it is not too difficult to set the guitar up for nylon. While you're at it, you may as well just replace the usually plastic nut and bridge with a nicer material. Ivory is hard to come by, expensive, politically incorrect, and, I think, illegal. Ebony is a classy choice, but I think its a little too soft. Many go with bone, but I think its too fragile and flakey. Graphite seems to be a popular choice, as it minimizes string friction, which helps keep them in tune, but many craftsmen I've met don't like working with it, as its slippery. I used Corion, the stuff your mom wishes her counter top was made out of (unless its already marble or something). It resonates well, its very durable, and not too hard to work with (I am told).

I think you can pick up a Corian nut and bridge for a few bucks online... But you may want to invest in the craftmanship of an experienced professional for the carving of the nut and bridge, and the initial set up of the guitar. You pay once, and then for the rest of the life of the guitar you do the normal maintenance yourself... just pay careful attention to how its correctly set up. Usually guitar shops will have "a guy" that does all the guitar work. Its not all that difficult, but seems arcane to the uninitiated (the shape of the grooves in the nut, the placement of where the string rests on the bridge, and the position to adjust the truss rod in the neck). I imagine a pro would charge maybe $20-$30 each for the carving of the nut & bridge, and maybe another $20-$50 for set up of the guitar, which means chasing down all the intonation troubles, buzzing (either due to the string bouncing around in the nut groove, or it being too close to the fingerboard), and the like. Its worth it, because its a total pain.

There are issues in this mod. For instance, if the guitar has been played a lot, there will be grooves dug in the frets. This is normal wear, and its usually seen on acoustic guitars, initially, on the third fret and 1st and 2nd strings espescially, but it can develop anywhere on any fret that gets a lot of use. Either the fret can be filed down slightly to minimize the problem, the neck adjusted, and the bridged raised slightly, all in concert or the frets can be replaced. If its a cheap guitar, this is very expensive. Get a new guitar. If its an old Martin, or an old Gibson, regardless of the actual value of the guitar which depends on the age and what shape the guitar is in; its worth it because of what it is, how it sounds, not what its worth.

Other annoyances appear at first as well. If you're use to steel strings, its likely you'll push too hard playing on nylons, and all your chords and notes will be randomly out of key. Developing a lighter touch will get the chords and notes back in key. Also, I've noticed most who play my steel w/ nylon strings complain about the action being too high (its not). Guitarists that are constantly lowering their action to make the play a little easier, and to artificially increase the speed at which they "tear" their rifs are totally wussies. When you lower action, I think, the guitar looses tone as the vibrations are more and more absorbed into the fret board and not as well resonated out of the sound hole.

Putting nylon strings on the made for steel key-posts is a little tricky. You need to put enough wrap on the posts, but not over do it. Nylon strings stretch, so its hard to get it right the very first time you do it and not have a post wrapped like a ball of yarn. The nice thing is, nylon strings last much longer than steel. They don't break as easily, but they also don't corrode (some nylon sets have (?brass) wrap on the bottom few strings that will lose its color, but doesn't rust like steel). Eventually the sustain will go, and the intonation will be off a bit and you might think you need an adjustment. Changing the strings will magically restore the guitar to perfect playing condition, after the new strings are stretched and not constantly going flat. Its amazing, really... I've gone months between string changes sometimes. Also, once you find a brand of nylons that you like, always using that brand/guage will help maintain the timbre that initially attracted you to nylon strings.

My guitar isn't very loud (it has a decent pickup for when I need it). If you have family members with very sensitive hearing and low tolerance for creativity, this is definately the way to go. If you romantically see yourself at a beach party with a campfire, the waves crashing alone will drown out the sound of the guitar. Even a group of more than just a few people becomes too loud for nylon strings set up on a steel string guitar.

When stereo miked properly with some decent large diaphram microphones, this guitar sounds like absolute titties on tape. Yeah, its quiet, but studio tricks allow for it to be able to be heard, and faithfully so, over drums and bass, or piano, whatever. The sustain gets lost a bit in a mix, but not when solo. Its a neat tone, and makes all the difference when it works for a piece.

I thought once about putting steel back on, as I missed having the dynamic range of steel some, but after pricing guitars I found a decent steel string from a well known maker for about $150... so that's the one I take down to the river, bang around with... and when I'm feeling subtle, I pick up my nylon (which was quite a bit more). Oh, yeah... another great thing about nylons on a steel string, with the neck width not being exaggerated as it is on true classical guitars, is that you can play literally for hours at a stretch — with no fatigue in your fingers — and less fatigue in the ears of those around you.

/edit/
If you ever have a chance to go to Spain, look around. Apparently, it is relatively easy to find hand made quality classical guitars for cheap (say... $50), that if you tried to match in the U.S. would easily push $1000.

MaxTek's picture
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Joined: Dec 20 2003
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Holy Crap!

Wow! Thanks for the education and your time. Very informative. The exact answer I was looking for.

MaxTek

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Joined: Jan 28 2005
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I recommend brass nuts and br

I recommend brass nuts and bridges for the same reasons you recommend corian.

catmistake's picture
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Brass one's

I've never used them... and I imagine that they might be good for sustain... but I just can't see them on a nylon stringed guitar. Maybe on a thrasher style electric. I use a graphite nut on my Surfcaster... I bet my strings don't break as often as yours (but still, you have to change electric strings often anyway depending on how much they are used).

I'll have to look into a brass bridge, though. That might look nicer than the craptastic Fender "put together in someones garage with some extra screws laying around" one that I have. I've been meaning to separate the strings on the bridge, anyway, as the 3 dual-string sub-bridges I have make setting intonation a toss up between one string or the other. 6 adjustable sub-bridges is ideal, but I really just need to separate the 6th string, as that's the only one that's problematic on that guitar.

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Joined: Dec 20 2003
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classical guitars have differ

classical guitars have different string spacing then steel string acustics so it may not solve your problem completely. classical guitars have much larger string spacing then most steel string guitars and if i remember right a slight concave curve to the neck.

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Joined: Jun 18 2005
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Strings

Some Excellent comments and suggestions.
However, you will not hurt anything by trying a set of nylon strings..
Go for it!!!
Anything is good if it gets you playing again.
David