Supposing a classical guitar is the only guitar you have, it is understandable that you wonder if you can put steel strings on it. It is alright if you’re curious about it, but I hope you didn’t actually proceed with it because…
You should never try to put steel strings on a classical guitar. Classical guitars use nylon strings and are constructed in a manner to only be able to handle the much lower tension exerted by them. On the other hand, steel strings put the guitar and its components, especially the bridge, soundboard, and the neck, under much more tension than they could handle, which will most likely result in permanent damage to the classical guitar.
If you want to know why exactly it is so, read on.
Will Steel Strings Damage a Classical Guitar?
Yes, steel strings which exert a lot more tension than nylon strings, will damage a classical guitar. A classical guitar is designed to be strung with nylon strings and does not have a construction that can hold steel strings in standard tuning without getting damaged. Therefore, always put nylon strings on a classical guitar. If you want the sound of steel strings, there is no other choice than to get yourself an acoustic guitar.
You can, however, put nylon strings on an acoustic guitar, though the sound and tone wouldn’t be optimal. Different instruments are designed to fit different components. Although you can, in many cases, use electric and acoustic guitar strings interchangeably, you can’t do it with classical guitars.
Some of the newer full-sized classical guitars may have truss rods (a steel rod inside the neck that supports it against the strings’ tension), but other components like the tuning heads and the bridge certainly aren’t made to withstand the additional tension of steel strings.
Are There Steel Strings for Classical Guitar?
No, there are no steel strings available for classical guitars. Though, the three bass strings (E-A-D) are wound with metal wire and look metallic since the nylon core is hidden.
Classical guitars are used for a different music style than the other guitars. The nylon strings produce a different tone and are usually used in classical and folk music. They are also popular in Latin music. Nylon strings not only sound different but also have a different feel to them. On the other hand, steel strings are used in both acoustic and electric guitars, which are very popular instruments and are used in a variety of genres and music styles.
Steel Strings vs. Nylon Strings
A set of acoustic guitar strings has 4 wound and 2 plain or unwound strings. Electric guitars have 3 wound and an equal number of plain strings.
On the other hand, a set of classical guitar strings have 3 wound and 3 unwound strings. Since nylon and metal are very different materials they exert very different tension as well. Nylon is much more stretchable and as such, the strings are generally thicker than steel strings. Despite this, nylon strings put much less tension on the neck and bridge of the guitar. For example, a set of light gauge acoustic strings in standard tuning exerts about 173 pounds of tension, while nylon strings apply about 80 pounds.
The 3 nylon bass strings have metal wire winding and have a core consisting of nylon strands much like cotton threads or electrical wires that consists of hundreds of thin strands. These bass strings are wound with either silver-plated bronze or, less commonly, copper wire. The other three (unwound) treble strings are single strands or nylon filaments, and have a translucent look.
Steel string sets also have wound and unwound strings – the difference is that all the strings are made of metal. The plain strings are just metal wires, while the wound strings have a metal wire core wound with again a metal wire. Since the core of the wire is what causes the tension, the nylon strings wound with metal wires are still only under the lower tension of the actual nylon core.
Standard Guitar vs. Classical Guitar: Differences in Construction
Classical and standard guitars are built differently, mainly because nylon strings put much less tension compared to steel strings. Let’s discuss some of the differences in construction.
Lack of a Truss Rod
A truss rod is a metal rod inserted inside the guitar’s neck to counteract the tension from the strings and prevent the strings from bending the neck. Most of the guitars, including almost all electric and a vast majority of acoustic guitars, have a truss rod. A nut also allows you to adjust the truss rod to modify the bow of the neck and hence the string action to an extent.
Most classical guitars do not have a truss rod because they simply don’t need it. Nylon strings exert far less (less than half the) tension compared to steel strings, and the wooden neck is sturdy enough to be able to handle that.
Therefore, it is pretty obvious that a classical guitar wouldn’t be able to handle steel strings that might either snap the neck off of the body or bow it, permanently damaging the guitar.
Lighter Soundboard and Bracing
For the same reason that acoustic and electric guitars have a truss rod, the soundboard (top) is much better braced in acoustic guitars, to be able to handle the tension exerted by the strings. And not only is the top braced more robustly it is also considerably thicker than the top of classical guitars.
As we know the bridge is secured to the guitar’s soundboard. In the case of electric guitars where there is no top, but rather the whole body is made of solid wood that makes securing the bridge much easier, resulting in a sturdier fit. On the other hand, owing to the hollow body, acoustic and classical guitars need the guitar’s top to be strong enough to keep the bridge in place under the strings’ tension.
The soundboard of a classical guitar is made considering the tension the nylon strings put them under, and putting it under almost double the tension, in the case of steel strings, most likely will tear either the bridge off of the soundboard or the top itself off.
What Damage Will Result from Putting Steel Strings on a Classical Guitar?
Once you start tuning the guitar to standard tuning after having out on steel strings on a classical guitar, you can expect one or more of the following to happen quite immediately:
- The bridge might come off the guitar’s soundboard (top)
- The soundboard itself might get ripped off
- The tuning heads may get damaged
If you’re very lucky and the above didn’t happen right away, the longer the steel strings are on the classical guitar, the more there is a chance of the following happening:
- The neck might either start bending or break off the body
- The bridge might get lifted or start coming off
It is abundantly clear that you should never, under no circumstances, put steel strings (even thinner gauge ones) on a classical guitar unless you’re trying to ruin a perfectly good guitar. If you wish to play steel strings, why not get yourself a steel-string acoustic guitar?
While I wouldn’t suggest going for extremely cheap acoustic guitars as they’re a pain to play and might end up being a deterrent for your goals. I would suggest going for a used guitar if your budget doesn’t permit a new one.