If you’ve spent most of your time playing steel string acoustics, or you’re a beginner starting with a nylon string guitar, choosing the right string can be a bit overwhelming. There’s just so many options to choose from, all of which have a drastic effect on both your tone and the feel of your instrument.
Thankfully, if you’ve struggled with figuring out how to choose the best classical guitar strings for your needs you’ve come to the right place. This article will give you all the information that you need in order to make an informed decision, as well as give you five great recommendations to help aid you in your search.
What Are Classical Guitar Strings?
Up until WWII, classical guitar strings (some people say nylon strings, and some people say classical guitar strings. They both refer to the same thing) were made out of intestine and silk. The process used then is actually similar to how nylon guitar strings are made today. The three thinnest strings were plain, while the three thickest strings were wrapped in silk.
Today guitar strings are made from nylon as opposed to gut and silk for a variety of reasons, though cost is definitely the chief among them. This type of string is traditionally used on a classical guitar for two main reasons. The first is purely tradition. Gut was all that was available up until recently, so the majority of classical guitar works have been composed or arranged with gut (and now nylon, which does a good job of approximating the tone of gut) so in order to get what’s generally thought of as the “classical guitar sound” you need to use a traditional string. The second is that nylon strings are physically easier to play because they’re under less tension than steel strings, which makes complicated fingering or fast passages easier for the musicians playing them.
What Are The Different Types of Classical Guitar Strings?
While nylon strings do come in different gauges, the most important factor is tension. Nylon strings come in low, normal, and high tension varieties. Low tension strings are easier to fret, have a bit less volume, and are generally considered to be a tad more “complex” sounding. High tension strings are the opposite of low tension strings, and normal tension strings strike a happy balance between the two extremes.
When considering what type of string you should get, first you need to really be aware of the current sound of your guitar. Some guitars emphasize treble frequencies, so a high tensions set of strings that has some dampening effect might do a good job of taming high end frequencies that are a tad too piercing. The inverse is also true for low tension strings.
Unfortunately, there isn’t really a clear cut answer here. In order to find the best match for your guitar you’re going to have to experiment. Thankfully, strings really are pretty cheap all things considered. And it’s worth the extra investment and effort to ensure that you get a set of strings that make your guitar sound as good as it possibly can.
Ball End vs. Tied Classical Guitar Strings
While the majority of nylon strings generally come unadorned, some do come with a ball end similar to what you’d find with a regular steel string guitar. Structurally, there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s not going to destroy your guitar, and you’re probably not going to notice a difference between a ball end string and a plain end string provided they come from the same manufacturer.
Unfortunately, some ball end strings aren’t made to same level of quality that you’d find with high quality nylon guitar strings. The reason is that the companies who make ball end nylon guitar strings are trying to capitalize on beginner’s not knowing how to properly tie a nylon string, so they cut corners because they can get away with it. Ball end strings have the capability to sound just as good as a plain end string, just make sure you go with reputable manufacturers like the ones mentioned below to make sure they are not trying to take any shortcuts.
Top Five Classical Guitar Strings
D'Addario EJ45 Pro-Arte Nylon Classical Guitar Strings
Established in 1974, D’Addario is one of the leading manufacturers of instrument strings (though primarily guitar strings) and instrument accessories currently on the market. Currently based on Farmingdale, Long Island, D’Addario is still a family owned and operated company. This means that while they’re business has grown to impressive heights they still retain the values and dedication to quality that made them such an impressive force when they were first established.
A fact that may surprise many of you is that the brand actually got their start producing classical strings, first made from sheep or hog cut and then nylon following the material’s invention by DuPont during WWII. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the company first stepped into the world of steel strings.
Given the fact that the company built their reputation on producing classical guitar strings, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the D’Addario EJ45 Pro-Arte Nylon Classical Guitar Strings are a quality product.
The most important thing to note about these strings is that they’re a normal tension, and when the company states that they mean it in a way that’s more in line with the industry standard. Other companies have a tendency to market their strings as normal or high tension without really qualifying it compared to more popular brands, resulting in a string that disappoints some musicians because the set is not of the tension that they were expecting.
To reiterate on a principle that was previously stated elsewhere in the article, normal tension (or medium tension, depending on the brand) is the middle ground between high or low tensions. This offers the benefits of both types of strings, with plenty of warmth, volume, and clarity. We’re going to go more in-depth with this later in the article.
These strings are also plain ended nylon, meaning that to put them on your guitar you are going to have to tie them. While this can be a bit intimidating if you’ve never done it before it’s really not that much harder than putting on standard ball end strings. There are a wealth of resources available online which give you a step-by-step guide with pictures to help you accomplish this, so as long as you’re willing to research how to put on nylon strings you should be able to accomplish it fairly easily. If you’ve never done it before it’s probably going to be worth it to buy two sets of strings in case you make a mistake with putting on your first set.
For the price the strings are very responsive and offer a pleasing dynamic range. They also have a clarity and articulation lacking in other budget strings, which is a plus for those of you who want to play “proper” classical arrangements. They obviously aren’t going to be quite on par with significantly more expensive strings, but considering that they’re significantly more affordable that really isn’t an objective con.
Some do state that they don’t have a lot of volume on hand, which may be a problem if you want to play un-amplified in an ensemble setting. However, for solo play (whether you’re playing through a mic or not) these strings should still have enough projection and volume.
For the price the D’Addario EJ45 Pro-Arte Nylon Guitar Strings are a very reasonable purchase. They’re a good fit for beginning classical guitarists, because while they may not have the dynamic range or volume of a more expensive string they are pleasant sounding and articulate in their own right.
Ernie Ball Earthwood Folk Nylon Guitar Strings
Founded in 1962 in California, Ernie Ball is easily one of the most notable manufacturers of guitar strings ever. While producing a lighter-gauge string seems like common sense, at the time it was completely unheard of. Beginning musicians were forced to suffer through a process of building callouses that was many times more painful than it is for the majority of beginning musicians in modern times because light gauge strings just weren’t available. Heavy gauge strings also limited professional musicians, making bends and fast passages harder to play because heavy gauge strings don’t facilitate these playing techniques as well as thinner strings.
Though the company’s claim to fame was producing strings that were much lighter than those of their counterparts Ernie Ball has gone on to produce a variety of different string to appeal to different sections of the market. A perfect example of which is the Ernie ball Earthwood Folk Nylon Guitar Strings.
The first thing to know about these strings is that the wire wrapping is made from 80/20 bronze, sometimes known as brass (guitar strings generally denote the composition, even though in other situations this alloy is what’s commonly known as brass). This results in a brighter string, which we’ll go over in greater detail in the sections below.
The strings are medium tension, which is the middle ground between low and high tension classical guitar strings. High tension strings have a brighter voice and a great amount of volume, though they tend to lose some warmth. They’re also harder to play when compared to low tension strings, though this difference is less notable when compared to high and low gauges of steel strings.
From the description on the storefront it appears like these strings are ball end, meaning that you shouldn’t have to wrap them. This isn’t completely clear, because while they do specifically say that the first through third strings are ball ended they don’t state whether or not the fourth through sixth are.
The reason that the tone of these strings are so divisive is that they are made from bronze as opposed to a more traditional material. These strings are a great fit for musicians who primarily play steel string instruments because they have a more familiar tone, but odds are that those of you who are dedicated finger-style guitar players who focus on nylon string instruments.
The main difference between these strings and others is that they’re warmer. They also don’t have quite the projection of higher-end classical guitar strings, but to be fair they are also significantly cheaper. They are great for slower, more melodic passage but they may not be the best fit for lively or highly technical classical passages. The main reason for this is that because they have this warmth they have less clarity and articulation, which can make faster passages sound muddier than they would otherwise. Of course this is also going to depend on your technique and the instrument you use, because these two factors are just as important as your strings in regards to your final tone.
Due to the materials utilized nylon strings just require a longer amount of time to settle in, so this isn’t a flaw in the strings it’s just a factor of the design.
While they don’t have the traditional nylon string sound, Ernie Ball Earthwood Folk Nylon Guitar Strings offer a great option for musicians who primarily play steel string guitars but are looking to get into playing nylon string instruments.
Savarez 500CJ Corum Cristal Classical Guitar Strings
Founded in 1770, Savarez is arguably one of the most prestigious producers of classical guitar strings on the market who offer products that are both affordable and widely available. The company has had a place in the industry almost since the inception of the guitar, and has been providing musicians with quality examples of a variety of different guitar strings (everything from gut to the Argentina strings famously used by Django Rheinardt). Considering the company’s history, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Savarez 500CJ Corum Cristal Classical Guitar Strings are a quality option for any musician.
The key thing to note about these strings is that they’re intended to be an affordable option for those of you looking for a higher fidelity of sound. These are “proper” classical guitar strings, and are designed with the needs of classical guitar players in mind. We’re going to get into the sound of these strings more in the section below, but just be sure to keep this in mind while you’re considering different strings.
Savarez nylon strings are available in low, medium/normal, and high tension. Tensions for classical guitar strings are the equivalent of gauges for an electric guitar string (nylon strings are still available in different gauges, but the impact of nylon string gauges are less dramatic when compared to the impact that gauge has on the feel of electric strings). Low tension strings have more warmth and bass response, but high tension strings are generally capable of producing more volume and on average are more articulate than low tension strings. Normal or medium tension strings are obviously going to combine elements of both.
These strings are also subject to very precise production, with the tension of the nylon strings all being balanced to one another. While D’Addario or Ernie Ball nylon strings are perfectly acceptable for a lot of situations the balance of these strings is going to benefit those of you who focus on the classical guitar as your primary instrument.
We also shouldn’t ignore the fact that Savarez also focuses on classical strings to a much higher degree than D’Addario and Ernie Ball, so they benefit from decades worth of experience designing these strings as well as being able to focus more exclusively on their production of nylon strings. Products from bigger companies are more widely available but they generally don’t perform as well because the attention of these companies are split between a variety of different products as opposed to focusing almost entirely on one type.
As we previously stated, these strings are intended for classical guitar. The benefit of this is that they are very articulate without sounding thin. They also have a lot of warmth (though when compared to other strings that use different materials they are a bit more sterile) and a pleasing amount of overtones.
Just as importantly these strings are also capable of producing an amount of volume that’s very reasonable for the price. They’re a good step-up from cheaper nylon strings though they obviously aren’t going to perform as well as those that are many times more expensive.
For whatever reason, those who aren’t experienced in nylon strings have a hard time believing that they require a longer break-in period than steel strings. This means that the tuning instability common to new sets of strings is going to be worse here because nylon is a more flexible material overall. This isn’t a flaw, it’s just a component of the design.
The general consensus of these strings is that they’re one of the cheaper options available if you’re looking for a traditional sounding nylon guitar string. They’re very well suited to playing traditional arrangements of classical music.
Savarez 500CJ Corum Cristal Classical Guitar Strings offer a great value to any musician looking for a traditional sounding nylon guitar string.
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Martin M160 Silverplated Ball End Classical Guitar Strings
C&F Martin & Company, founded in 1833, is easily one of the most prolific manufacturers of acoustic guitars in the world. They were the first company to launch x-braced guitars that were suited to the added tension of steel guitar strings (while many believe that Martin was the first company to use the design, there were a variety of German immigrants who also utilized the design), and the guitars they’ve made have been used to great effect by musicians who have literally defined Western music.
Though they’re mostly known for their guitars, Martin has also produced a variety of different instruments and products. They’ve made ukuleles, acoustic archtops, mandolins, electric guitars, electric basses, and even a variety of different guitar strings.
While the company’s guitar strings may not have the glowing reception of their guitars, they actually do produce a few interesting additions to the market. They’re one of the few companies who make Monel guitar strings (used by Tony Rice) and high-quality ball end nylon guitar strings.
A perfect example of Martin’s nylon string offerings is the Martin M160 Silverplated Ball End Classical Guitar Strings.
They feature ball ends, as opposed to the plain nylon strings more commonly produced. The benefit of this is that it’s going to be much easier for those of you not accustomed to tying nylon strings. The only thing to keep in mind is that while these strings are well made the ball ends do have an effect on the sound, which we’re going to get into more in the section below.
These strings are silver-plated, which is nice for those of you looking for a more traditional sound. 80/20 or phosphor bronze coatings on nylon guitar strings do add warmth to your sound, they don’t have the articulation you get with silver-plated strings. Volume is going to vary from string to string depending on how they are designed as well as the tension they come in.
Lastly, the silver-plated coating is also considered to be more resistant to corrosion from the oils present on your fingers. The difference between this effect on silver-plated strings vs. bronze plated isn’t overly dramatic, though it is widely acknowledged nonetheless.
So ball end vs. plain end nylon strings are subject to a pretty hefty amount of debate in guitar playing circles. Some say that the difference between the two is negligible, while others say that it’s incredibly dramatic. Basically, the most common opinion is that ball end guitar strings is that they have less volume and a lower presence of overtones than plain ended nylon strings. Of course your experience with this going to depend on what you’re looking for from your string as well as who made them. Another thing to note is that because ball end strings change the angle of the string compared to the bridge many find that ball end strings are more easily picked up by piezo pickups.
The general consensus of these strings is that for the price they offer a pleasing fidelity of tone, even if they don’t hold up quite as well to more expensive strings. The strings are stated to have a clear and articulate voicing, though they do lack some warmth when compared to other types of strings (such as those made from 80/20 or phosphor bronze).
Martin M160 Silverplated Ball End Classical Guitar Strings offer a good value to musicians who are looking for reasonably proficient sounding ball end guitar strings.
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Albert Augustine 525A Gut Classical Guitar Strings
Founded by Albert Augustine (1900-1967) in the mid-1940s, Albert Augustine Ltd. Is literally the company who pioneered nylon guitar strings. They were the first company to utilize nylon, a material created by the DuPont family, in guitar strings.
Albert Augustine was an immigrant from Denmark who, after arriving in the country, resided in New York. He moved to America to pursue a career as a luthier. The advent of nylon guitar strings was actually spurred on by a conversation that Agustine’s partner Andres Segovia had with General Lindman of the British Embassy. Segovia mentioned that there was a shortage of good guitar strings available, and because of this comment Lindeman later presented Segovia with nylon strings (in a guitar gauge, though not the strings we know today). Segovia wasn’t impressed with the tone of the strings, and it wasn’t until he was introduced to Augustine by their mutual friend (and the editor of Guitar Review) Vladimir Bobri that nylon strings became the product we know today.
Given the impact that Augustine has had on the industry it isn’t surprising that these strings are a very good product. To learn more about how they compare to their competition be sure to check out the specifications below.
So right off the bat, these strings are made from gut. They aren’t made from nylon. With that being said, the formulation of these strings is intended to approximate the tone of original gut strings. This does result in a tone that is different from your standard nylon guitar string. We’re going to get into this in more depth in the section below.
These strings in particular are high tension, as opposed to low or medium/normal. High tension strings are noted for their clear highs, articulation, and volume. It should be noted that while nylon strings are significantly easier to play than steel strings, high tension strings are still going to be notably more difficult to play than low tension strings. If you’re a beginner you may find that low tension strings will make the period where you’re developing your callouses significantly easier.
Lastly, keep in mind that these are plain end nylon strings. While tying nylon strings does take a bit of practice it is a skill that can be easily mastered so long as you take your time. Thankfully, there are a wide variety of resources available to help you with this.
When compared to similar nylon strings (high tension) this set has a lot of warmth while still maintaining great clarity, projection, and volume. They’re a very robust sounding string, with a pleasing amount of overtones present.
The general consensus is that while these strings are expensive when compared to more widely produced strings they are an affordable option for musicians looking for a proper nylon guitar string. They have the response and articulation that’s suited to playing classical guitar arrangements without lacking the warmth or low end response that cheaper strings tend to have.
Albert Augustine 525A Gut Classical Guitar Strings have a traditional gut string sound at a price that’s pretty hard to beat.