We have a steel string acoustic guitar but my wife has an old classical guitar that she was given many years ago (the one in the feature photo).
She is now interested in learning to play but wants to play songs that feature on a steel string acoustic guitar.
I did some research to find out if it is doable and what the limitations might be.
Can You Play Acoustic Guitar Songs (Steel String) On A Classical Guitar? Yes, however the songs won’t sound the same which may leave you disappointed. Classical guitars have nylon strings which produce a mellow sound while modern acoustic guitars have steel strings (harder on your fingers) which have a brighter tone.
So you can play the same songs on both guitar but there are other differences that will affect the sounds that you create, we explore these below.
Playing Acoustic Guitar Songs On A Classical Guitar
The first thing to clear up is that the steel string guitar and the classical guitar are both “acoustic” guitars. Each one creates sound through vibrating strings and a hollow chamber without electrical input.
The tuning and fingering (position of fingers on fretboard) is exactly the same on both guitars.
However, whilst you can play the same songs on both, there are some key differences which change the tone and the ability to create sounds that are specific to each guitar.
A classical guitar uses nylon strings which are softer on your fingers than steel strings on a steel string acoustic, and do not carry the high tension that steel strings are capable of.
Nylon strings are also much thicker than steel strings and produce a mellow soft sound. Whilst steel strings are much brighter and produce a ‘twangy’ sound that isn’t achievable on nylon.
Often beginners purchase a classical guitar because it is cheaper than a steel string acoustic but what they want to play is rock/pop music. If this is the case then you are better off purchasing the steel string guitar otherwise you will be disappointed in the sound difference.
Your favourite songs won’t sound the same as you hear and recognise them. Part of achieving your goals on guitar is staying motivated so it is important to have ‘small wins’.
Small wins could be when you might surprise yourself and play something you were previously struggling with or play along with a song and it sound the same.
If you have a classical guitar and are playing along with a rock / pop song, in this example, then you might not get the same satisfaction using a classical guitar.
A classical guitar has a flatter fretboard radius, so barring (making a barre chord) might feel a little different, but depending on your hand size and strength, this might even be an advantage.
PIf you fingerpick, the steel string acoustic strings are also closer together so that might be a slight adjustment as it will feel cramped.
The fretboard on a classical guitar is also wider so it can feel a bit more ‘roomy’ which if you have larger hands might appeal. However you can get steel string acoustic guitars with wider necks that may suit you better.
For example Seagull (Canadian company who make fantastic handmade guitars) make the S6 which has a wider neck and is an excellent guitar.
Bending, Pulling, Pushing
“Bending”, “Pulling” and “Pushing” strings to create changes in pitch in the string without moving to a higher fret won’t be possible using a classical guitar as it has nylon strings.
This technique, most associated with blues, country and rock, and which you do hear from acoustic players, even though the technique is more associated with electric guitars, can’t be done until you go steel-string.
Can You Put Steel Strings On A Classical Guitar?
Steel string guitars can handle a lot more tension than a classical guitar because it has a truss rod and is built to use steel strings.
A truss rod is a steel bar or rod that runs under the fretboard, through the neck of the guitar. This enables the guitar to deal with high tension placed on it when using ‘steel’ strings.
Some classical guitars may have a truss rod but they aren’t built for the tension that steel strings bring.
A typical set of regular-gauge steel acoustic guitar strings puts 179 lbs (81.3kg) of tension on a guitar.
A typical set of nylon strings puts 83.6 lbs (37.9kg) of tension on a guitar.
Therefore if you put steel strings on a classical guitar, you are more than doubling the amount of tension and strain that the classical guitar has been built to handle.
Damage may not be immediate when you do this but overtime the neck will likely bend and warp and the bridge could eventually rip loose from where it is glued which could take some of the rest of the guitar with it.
This would permanently damage your guitar and it wouldn’t be reusable.
Should I Buy A Classical Guitar First?
One of the main issues steel string acoustic guitar beginners complain about is the finger pain that they get from practicing. Your fingers will take time to build up calluses, so you have to start by playing a little at a time but often until this happens. This pain puts a lot of people off at the early stages of learning.
Classical guitar strings are softer, no doubt about it so you will not get the same level of finger pain whilst you learn.
However, if you are interested in pop/rock/jazz/blues/folk to name a few then the sound on a classical guitar just won’t do it for you.
The key is to choose the guitar best suited to the style you want to play the most. Otherwise songs won’t sound the same and it will likely put you off learning any further.
That being said, Willie Nelson has been playing country, blues and jazz for many years on ‘Trigger’ his Martin N-20 which is a nylon stringed classical/folk guitar. He certainly hasn’t any issue making it work for him!
Can You Play Classical Guitar With A Pick?
Yes you can but classical guitar is meant to be played with fingerstyle. If you are playing rock / pop / jazz / blues etc there is no reason you cannot use a pick on a classical guitar. Without a pick guard though it may scratch up the guitar, trying using a thinner pick in order to minimise the damage it may cause.
Are Classical Guitars Smaller And Cheaper Than Steel String Acoustics?
Yes in general they are. They also don’t have fret markers and have nylon strings which makes a different sound to Steel String Guitars. They tend to be cheaper but you can pay as much as you want to, Ervin Somogyi’s models are probably the most expensive which start from US$35,000.