In 1991, I decided to become a serious musician and set aside the electric guitar to focus on the classical. I needed to get a nylon-string guitar in a hurry. But I was a high school student at the time; and my budget was limited to a lifetime savings of $200 (about $359 in today’s money).
A local university teacher recommended an instrument whose maker escapes me. But I can clearly recall just how crappy the all-laminated-wood instrument was. The frets were haphazardly polished and sharp at their ends, and the action was uncomfortably high. The instrument was resistant to staying in tune; the ebonized fretboard quickly faded in places, revealing the light-colored wood underneath the surface. But worst of all, I hated playing it.
It’s striking just how superior today’s budget nylon-string options are compared to my lame starter guitar. There’s an abundance of options for both traditional-style instruments and modern variations with cutaways and electronics, made with high-quality materials, to surprisingly good standards. Whether you’re exploring the classical realm, looking to get an authentic bossa nova sound, or are just starting to grasp the wide palette of tonal colors available through the nylon string guitar, there’s something for you in this roundup.
At a glance, a traditional nylon-string or classical guitar looks pretty similar to its 12-fret steel-string counterpart. But structurally, the two instruments bear some critical differences. A classical guitar has a thinner soundboard, with smaller braces that are typically arranged in a fan pattern, as opposed to an X. Because a traditional nylon-string guitar involves much less tension than a steel-string—around 90 pounds versus as much as 180—it often doesn’t have a truss rod or other neck reinforcement.
A nylon-string guitar feels much different than a steel-string as well, owing not just to the strings and their tension but to the neck. A classical nut is 52mm (about 2.05 inches), compared to 1-11/16 or 1-3/4 inches on a steel-string. The scale length is also slightly longer, 650mm (25.6 inches), compared to 25.4, as on a dreadnought or orchestra model. And whereas a steel-string guitar has a radiused or curved fretboard, a fingerboard on a traditional nylon-string is usually flat.
For delving into the classical literature, it’s preferable to buy a traditional, non-cutaway model. Coming from a steel-string, it might take some time to get accustomed to the neck’s more generous quarters, but the wider nut (and the resulting string spacing) will give you plenty of room to articulate the contrapuntal lines found in the music of pretty much all eras and composers.
Go for a guitar with a solid top—as on a steel-string, this is the body part most important to the instrument’s sound, so no skimping here. The most common tonewoods for nylon-string soundboards are spruce and cedar, the former generally sounding more direct and projective and the latter warmer and mellower.