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October 13, 2007

Guitar Question

Given that I prefer how classical guitars sound, is there any particularly convincing reason I should be using a steel string guitar, rather than a nylon one? And being a lefty, I can just string a cheapo classical backwards, right?

October 13, 2007 | Permalink


"And being a lefty, I can just string a cheapo classical backwards, right?"

Only if you're going to encode the MP3 at at least 192 kbps VBR.

If you're going to use a lower bit rate than that, you'll need to use steel strings and to not string them backwards.

Posted by: Petey | Oct 13, 2007 6:37:56 PM

"Given that I prefer how classical guitars sound, is there any particularly convincing reason I should be using a steel string guitar, rather than a nylon one?"

In general, folk guitars have tapered necks, while classical guitar fretboards are the same width throughout. You should try both and decide which you prefer. This can make a big difference if you like to fret the low E string with your thumb. You can certainly put nylon strings on a folk guitar. (Steel strings on a classical guitar might not be a good idea, depending on how strong the neck is.)

"And being a lefty, I can just string a cheapo classical backwards, right?"

Yes, as long as you always play in front of a mirror.

Posted by: BobN | Oct 13, 2007 6:56:08 PM

Play the instrument you like. (And don't listen to Petey :-)

Just as an example, most of the important Brazilian musicians of the previous generation played nylon strings: Gilberto Gil (who's now a cabinet minister in the Lula administration), his friend and collaborator Caetano Veloso, the late Joao Gilberto, etc. And the tradition largely persists among the up and coming songwriters. Indeed, Brazilian Portuguese uses a different word, "violao," for the nylon string guitar, as opposed to all the other guitars.

Posted by: Michael Bloom | Oct 13, 2007 7:00:13 PM

There's no reason to use a steel string if that's not what you want.

Another minor difference between classical and steel string acoustic guitars is that classical fretboards are flat with a wide string spacing compared to standard acoustics which have a more rounded fretboard with narrower string spacing.

As for stringing in reverse, it can be done but a left handed guitar would be optimal. This is because there are minor adjustments made at the neck and bridge to accommodate the differences in string thicknesses. Stringing the reverse way may affect the intonation making chords played higher up the neck sound more out of tune.

If you have any questions I'd be glad to help. Just send an email. I'm qualified in this area since I have a degree in classical guitar performance. A lot of good that degree has done me....

Posted by: gonzoknife | Oct 13, 2007 7:09:08 PM

What gonzoknife said: flipping the strings to play lefty can mess up the intonation. An angled saddle also complicates things. Get a guitar that allows you to adjust the bridge, and get a pro to set it up for you.

Flipping can also potentially warp the neck, because of relative string tensions and the strengthening built in to compensate, though that's more of a problem with steel strings than nylon. (Oh, for a left-handed mandolin.)

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Oct 13, 2007 7:53:46 PM

Ezra - You may run into problems with the nut - they are usually notched for right-handed playing.

Any self-respecting guitar shop will be able to flip the nut around and re-string it for you for a minimal cost.

Posted by: Stranger | Oct 13, 2007 8:04:38 PM

Also consider learning to play righty, even as a lefty (blogger -- j/k). There's no genetic, organic or religious reason why you can't finger rather than strum with your left hand. Double amputees learn to read and cook with their feet, after all. Picking and fretwork both require highly granular coordination, so I don't know why people feel like they need their dominant hand to do one rather than the other. Both are tough to learn right.

If you decide to go the Hendrix route, I agree with the commenters who have counseled you to get a real lefty guitar and have a professional look it over. Standard tuning is hard enough to do and maintain on a guitar -- people take this for granted -- and intonation problems on top of that will just frustrate you into casting the instrument, and your musical goals, aside.

Posted by: John-Paul Pagano | Oct 13, 2007 8:04:40 PM

Also, stay with nylon if you like nylon. Personally I think all guitarists should study vibrato technique on nylon guitars and then, if they desire, carry that over to steel strings. Rock guitarists rarely use violinists' vibrato, and that's a shame because it's a simple and beautiful arrow to add to your technical quiver.

Posted by: John-Paul Pagano | Oct 13, 2007 8:08:10 PM

Steel strings are under much more tension than nylon strings. Steel-string guitars have stiffer necks than classical guitars do. If you take an old cheapo classical guitar and put steel strings on it you will warp the neck - not immediately but pretty quickly. When the neck bends the distance between the strings and the frets will increase and you won't be able to press the strings down without buzz.

Posted by: bloix | Oct 13, 2007 8:10:42 PM

no & yes

Posted by: noyesman | Oct 13, 2007 8:21:11 PM

If you like how classical guitars sound, get one. Other than trying out as many as you can, get the one you like and don't be afraid to pay more to get a better-sounding instrument. Other than that, take gonzoknife up on his kind offer!

Posted by: David W. | Oct 13, 2007 8:58:18 PM

if nylon feels good and fits the type of style you want to play, by all means, stick with nylon. it has a warm and variable sound. things like attack and release matter a whole lot more.

as far as the stringing goes, either a guitar specifically built for left hand, or set up that way by a professional would be the best route to go. the capstans of the tuning machines are different from side to side to cope with the differing thicknesses of the strings, and the bridge setup would need to be changed around for the same reason.

flipping and playing a guitar set up for righties worked great for jimi. no one else springs to mind. although if you have any threads of ambidexterousness you might consider playing right handed. i came to the guitar after years of playing cello. and there simply isn't any such thing as a left handed player in the orchestra. i learned to finger the strings and handle the bow the way everyone else did. when i added the guitar to my gig bag i just kept playing the way i always had. what i've discovered is that my dominant hand is capable of doing some pretty amazing stuff on the fingerboard, it's stronger and more dexterous. my right hand hasn't suffered any from it either.

i also learned that i'm in some pretty good company when it comes to the writes left/ plays right league.

eric clapton and nils lofgren are both proud members.

Posted by: minstrel boy | Oct 13, 2007 9:02:22 PM

Used to work at a guitar store and do all this type of stuff a lot (including giving this exact advice to a lot of customers).

Basically, i would say

a) don't go with a cheapy guitar anyway. If you get a $100 guitar it will not last very long, will have literally no resale value, and will make playing very annoying if you decide you like the guitar and want to play for more than a few months. If you suck at guitar or hate it, then when you're done you'll be out $100, and will have nothing to show for it.

If you get a moderate $300 guitar, then if you like it you can play it for a year or two until you become too good for it and are ready to upgrade. If you don't like it, it will have resale value of at least $150 or so, or you can keep it in your closet for the next half decade and it won't warp or fall apart like your cheapo would.

If you really don't like it, and want to resell it, you'll only be out $100-$150, which is about what you would have been out with the crap guitar.

b) just recognize that playing classical and playing steel string are going to be totally different. If you want to finger pick & hear the pretty little sounds of that type of plucking music, or you want to learn flamenco, then a classical is for you. But if you want to play simple chords & learn classic rock & play the stuff on the radio like death cab or whathave you, then it's going to sound a lot better on steel string. Also, eventually, if you make the switch to playing electric, that switch will be easier from a traditional steel string guitar.

But whichever you go with, best of luck.

Posted by: NebraskaJohn | Oct 13, 2007 9:52:51 PM

eric clapton and nils lofgren are both proud members. As is Mark Knopfler, apparently. That would be enough to make me play right-handed if I has a lefty, to leverage my stronger hand ;-)

Posted by: paul beard | Oct 13, 2007 10:08:02 PM

Ha! I was going to suggest you contact my friend Minstrel Boy for the final word on all Matters Stringed, but I see he's already stopped by, proving that great minds hang out in the same areas. :-)

My middle lad is a lefty, too, but he's showing serious drum chops at the moment. The guitar, she will have to wait.

(Interesting aside: Southpaws have a higher percentage of intelligent, creative types in their midst, according to writer/researcher Chris McManus of University College, London.)

Posted by: litbrit | Oct 13, 2007 10:32:53 PM

You could go the Albert King route, and just flip a rightie guitar without restringing, which enabled him to bring those five-fret bends by pulling down instead of pushing up. Of course, he had a secret tuning system, and I'm not sure if nylon string guitars come in the Flying V...

Posted by: M. Duss | Oct 13, 2007 11:30:44 PM

It's probably a bit easier to fit a steel-stringed instrument into a group, and I've never liked the way slide sounds like on nylon, but other than that not much, I'd say go with nylon.

Posted by: Senescent | Oct 13, 2007 11:31:39 PM

Also consider learning to play righty, even as a lefty (blogger -- j/k). There's no genetic, organic or religious reason why you can't finger rather than strum with your left hand.

If the choice is between being a crappy guitar player and having a wide range of instruments to sample and buy, or being a less crappy guitar player and having to bring your own instruments and pine for the selection available to righties, I'll take the latter.

I did take the latter: I tried and failed miserably to learn as a righty, but learned on a flipped folk guitar. (I write right-handed, throw left-handed, bat right-handed. I blame the nuns and their ruler-smacks of discipline.)

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Oct 13, 2007 11:52:32 PM

In some respects, it's a bit like the "what wine should I drink with fish?" question: ultimately, whichever one you like.

That said, a lot depends on what kinds of music you want to play, in what context. Steel string guitars typically create more volume, and are simpler (because of the narrower neck) to play with a right hand strum/left hand chord style. If you're playing in any kind of band, or a small group of friends jamming together, steel strings are the more common choice.

If your tastes go more to flowing classical etudes, or you're playing for your own pleasure alone, no reason not to have a nice nylon strung guitar.

And if flamenco is your thing, you may invent a whole new version if you choose steel over nylon. In any case, I'm sure we'll all want to hear how you're doing a year from now. Best of luck.

Posted by: Andrew | Oct 14, 2007 9:13:17 AM

I learned to play guitar back in 1969. I am a lefty and when my teacher came for my first lesson, he took the guitar and put it into my hands as a righty and told me this is how you play.
Then I discovered Hendrix.
I still play righty, but these days you can buy a guitar that has been manufactured for lefties, so go get one.
As for strings, steel gives you sharper intonation and a more vibrant sound. Nylon will give you the opposite which is not a bad thing as many of the classical pieces were written on nylon, or cat gut, or whatever, and sound just fine.
Bottom line is to enjoy yourself and just play

Posted by: marcus | Oct 14, 2007 1:14:47 PM

I would suggest getting the best brand-name guitar you can afford. It will make you sound better immediately, which makes practicing more fun. It will keep its value. And musicians are very status conscious- I found things really changed when I went from a Silvertone to a Gibson.

I use steel strings to keep my hands strong and tough. Naturally, if you can afford it, have two guitars- one strung with metal strings, the other with gut.

And, indeed, I am wondering for the first time why my non-dominant is doing all the fretting.

Posted by: serial catowner | Oct 14, 2007 3:18:59 PM

Uh, maybe it's not obvious- you can always go from steel strings to nylon, but going the other direction can cause some serious pain to your fingertips.

Posted by: serial catowner | Oct 14, 2007 3:21:21 PM

You'll be fine with nylon strings, for sure. It's about preference.

I prefer steel strings, but that's because, for me, I find them more versatile. Nylon strings don't lend themselves to different sounds as easily.

But, again, it's preference...

Posted by: Dylan | Oct 14, 2007 3:48:54 PM

This is because there are minor adjustments made at the neck and bridge to accommodate the differences in string thicknesses. Stringing the reverse way may affect the intonation making chords played higher up the neck sound more out of tune.

This is correct. I was trying to fix the intonation just tonight on my upside-down electric, and I couldn't figure out why the hell the screw thingamajobs at the bridge wouldn't go far enough back to get the intonation right. Thanks for solving that puzzle for me. I guess the best answer is to reverse the bridge, too. (which I was going to do anyway, but it's nice to know that there's a rational answer as to why the damn bridge was on backwards, as opposed to assuming the world had gone crazy around me.)

Posted by: jpe | Oct 14, 2007 10:20:00 PM

p.s. don't forget to post results and progress. you can easily see that there is a pretty solid base of guitar slingers out here always ready to welcome a new face to our crowd.

Posted by: minstrel boy | Oct 15, 2007 11:06:15 AM

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