Way back in the early 1960s when I first began playing I bought into this premise for a couple reasons. My first guitar was a Stella – a plywood beast with a rounded, narrow neck that had resided in my grandfather’s attic for some amount of time and was barely playable up to about the third fret; beyond there the warped neck made pressing down on the strings a lost cause. Those old Stellas and their close cousins, Silvertones, were sold by Sears and Montgomery Ward and cost about $25 and were all many young aspiring guitarists could afford. Even when brand new they featured sharp fret edges, horrible intonation and sounded little better than a cigar box with strings. (Footnote here: for reasons that entirely escape me, examples of these clunkers that have survived are now actually being sold on EBay and Craigslist as “vintage” instruments. Amazing. They were little better than firewood then and my guess is that they’re worse now. But I digress…)
Basically, if you could survive learning a few chords on those awful things, you were a guitar player! So the only alternative in inexpensive guitars were nylon string classical guitars, and yes, they were easier to play even if they didn’t sound very good. From my perspective, my first hero’s – Peter, Paul and Mary – played nylon string guitars so I was pretty sure that was the right choice for me. My first decent (i.e., playable) guitar was a cheap classical made by Harmony. It was not great but I played it for a couple years in junior high and I managed to learn lots of PP&M and Dylan songs on it. But then my friend Barry bought a Martin 00-18.
Yes, the steel strings were harder to press down than the nylon ones on my Harmony – but not that much harder. And the narrower neck more than made up for temporary discomfort. I wanted one!
So here’s the take-away. Yes, steel strings require more strength to press down than nylon but when you factor in the narrower neck (classical guitars are typically 2 inches wide at the nut, or more; steel string guitars are usually 1 11/16 or 1 ¾ inches) and most of all the sound, your choice is clear if you’re playing almost any form of popular music. Someone playing pure classical style needs that wider neck because of technique demands – he or she play with fingernails, sometimes with great force, and strings closer together just won’t work. With nylon however, it is very difficult to replicate the tonality of guitars used in most forms of popular music.
There are exceptions of course. In jazz, many famous players such as Charlie Byrd have used nylon string guitars, and in bossa nova the nylon string sound is essential to be authentic. Many manufacturers make “crossover” nylon string guitars with on-board electronics, narrower necks and cutaway bodies that sound just great for certain styles of pop music and jazz. But all things considered, it just makes more sense to go with a steel string guitar if you’re going to play popular music and you are going to own just one guitar. Sore fingers are easier to get over than an unsatisfying sound.
Having said that, I try to keep one nylon string guitar (usually a crossover) on hand because there is something very warm and inviting about the sound of nylon strings when finger picked. If you can afford it, consider having a good quality steel string as your primary instrument and a good nylon string for a back up. I really believe that playing a couple different guitars on a regular basis can be inspirational and will improve your technique.
Peace & good music,