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I'm an acoustic guitar player but have recently developed an interest in classical guitar.

I'm not quite at liberty to buy a classical guitar (with nylon strings and what not) and the stool thingy, and was wondering whether it was 'inadvisable' to play pieces intended for classic guitar, on an acoustic, steel-stringed guitar?

At the moment, I'm learning Las Abejas (Barrios) on my steel-stringed guitar, and I think I'm progressing well, but I'm worried that not using nylon strings will pose a limit to the speed at which I can play the piece.

At faster speeds, I notice my fingers tend to 'slide over' than 'pluck' the strings (sliding down the string, still producing a tone, but with it a somewhat annoying sliding noise), which I imagine a problem specific to steel strings.

So; is it unheard of to play classical guitar with steel strings? Is there a general methodology for plucking one should use? Are there any examples of classical guitarists using steel strings? Am I wasting my time?

Thanks!

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    I switch interchangeably between my acoustic and classical guitars. Playing classical songs on an acoustic is certainly more tiring and requires more precision, but it's very doable. You might need to use nail polish to avoid breaking your nails, though, and of course there will be a difference in sound.
    – user28
    Oct 8 '13 at 14:44
  • So I should grow out my nails? At the moment, they're nowhere near long enough to pluck the string. Perhaps I should just buy a classical guitar
    – Anti Earth
    Oct 12 '13 at 2:06
  • If you are using your fingers on a steel string be prepared for some pain. Steel strings give a totally different sound than a nylon string. It will probably still sound good just not Spanish.
    – Neil Meyer
    Oct 20 '13 at 11:53
  • I think this was answered well enough below, but I'll add my experience here: I play folk music on a steel-string guitar using my fingernails. My guitar teacher is a classical guitar player, and he has me using classical hand position (see Dr Mayhem's answer). Among other things, I don't anchor my hand on the top or the bridge. My nails are pretty typical of classical guitar players, and they do take some maintenance, but there's no extreme wear on them (though your milage may vary). Importantly, I don't strum with my fingernails. Even on nylon strings, that does a lot of damage. Mar 9 '15 at 23:37
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    I give my students several classical piece as part of their curriculum regardless of the type of guitar they are playing, steel string acoustic, electric.
    – user50691
    Apr 20 at 0:20
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I don't think you are wasting your time, but as you mention it might be harder to pluck the strings with your right hand fingers since the tendency will be for the fingers to slip off the strings. One option is to use "silk and steel" strings. Several companies make this type of string specifically for finger-picking players. One of my guitar students has started using them and they sound really good. They have a bright sound but they are much easier on the hands (right as well as left).

Another option would be to experiment with growing out your right hand fingernails. If you play with standard steel strings you'll have a lot of wear and tear on your nails, but you won't have your right hand fingers fall off of the string as often. Combined with the silk and steel strings, you may be pleased with the results. If you do use your nails to play, keep the nails pretty short, so that at the most you have a few millimeters of nail extending past the flesh of the fingertip. The longer that I play, the shorter I keep my nails. Even if you use nails to help you pluck the strings, you want to make sure that you continue to place the fleshy part of the finger on the string when you pluck a note. If you only use the fingernail to make contact with the string, then you are going to get a thin, quiet sound and you will really destroy your nails fast.

For a piece like "The Bees" by Augustin Barrios, since you are playing so many notes I think it may help to plant the right hand fingers on the strings whenever possible. Planting the right hand fingers involves putting a group of fingers down on the strings all at the same time, and then peeling off the fingers one at a time. You can use this technique when you are going "forward" (towards the floor), but not really when going backward, or playing the strings towards the ceiling. You do want to make sure that you are always "handing off" when plucking the strings. What I mean by that is that the same instant you flick off of a string to play it, you immediately place the next right hand finger on the next string that you are going to play, even if the left hand is isn't ready and/or it's not time to play the next note. This is a good habit for all guitar players, but it should especially help you, to prevent the fingers from sliding off of the strings when you're playing.

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It's harder to play classical music on a steel-string mainly because the strings are stiffer and closer together on steel acoustics, nylons' are very soft and widely spaced. Also classical guitar strings do not bend notes easily, so the vibrato technique is more like a violin. Some fingerings (in classical arrangements) make it hard not to bend the strings slightly, but that's ok on a classical guitar because the pitch won't change much ; on an steel acoustics however, it would sound dissonant.

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If you are playing classical or flamenco you really do not want your hand resting on the bridge, or indeed anywhere. This will severely limit your speed and accuracy, and also is contributing to what you describe as sliding.

Your hand should be over the strings, with your fingers curving down to touch the strings perpendicularly so you pluck or brush each string across it, with no lengthwise movement.

These pics from thisisclassicalguitar.com shows what I mean:

enter image description here

enter image description here

You will find that although you can play classical or flamenco style with steel strings, it may hurt a lot, and some energetic movements will cut your fingers (I'm thinking Rasgueado, specifically)

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Because the strings on a steel-string are closer, you will have to curl (claw) your left hand fingers more to place them accurately. In the long run I found this aids playing (classical) on a nylon string guitar where you are exhorted to curl your left hand fingers. So, playing on a steel-string now and then helps to develop this practice.

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  • Very good point. Welcome to the site! Jun 30 '16 at 8:21
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Additionally some techniques involving nails will be not possible or you will destroy your nails. But I think that a specific technique to interpret classical on steel is perfectly possible, probably fitting better some works than others.

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I know I'm writing this WAY late, but anyway, I think I have something to share because I do play classical guitar on an acoustic steel-stringed instrument, and I have been doing routinely for years (to be honest, I haven't ever played classical pieces on a classical guitar!) — roughly 9 years of daily practice, to be more precise. I can play the staples of repertoire this way, like some of the Villa-Lobos studies or Torroba's Sonatina. It's definitely perfectly doable, and contrary to the other answers, I can say it does not hurt at all (after you overcome the initial inconveniences). There is also no sacrifice of speed (I'm definitely not the fastest player out there, but that's the matter of me not needing to play blazingly fast and hence not practicing, not of the steel strings).

And not only that, I would actually argue that using a steel-stringed guitar is better, for one simple reason: you can get far bigger dynamic range out of it. The classical guitar has pretty much only two dynamic levels: "quiet" and "even quieter". On the other hand, an acoustic steel-stringed instrument can be actually quite loud. In this regard, you only gain, because you can play arbitrarily softly on the steel-stringed guitar as well.

I use the steel-stringed guitar for everything, but it is especially fitting in some pieces. For instance, when I started playing Villa-Lobos, all the recordings of his pieces started to sound dull in comparison to what I can play myself on my guitar. I'd say that HVL in particular has to be played on steel strings, there's just the problem that nobody realizes that.

The price you have to pay is threefold:

  • The tone is just sharper (I mean tone quality, not pitch). It is possible to get very mellow sounds out of the steel-stringed guitar (playing in high positions, on lower strings, plucking over the fretboard (sul tasto) and using flesh of your fingers (thumb, mostly) instead of nails — these all help with that and you can combine those), however in comparison it just will have a sharper tone. I have never found that to be a problem though.
  • You might need to have good nails for this (I'm fortunate to have them durable enough). I also have longer nails than I think would be normal for classical guitar (I have them 6-7 mm long, i. e. something like a 1/4 inch). Various nail defects (little cracks, dents etc.) that negatively affect the tone will obviously be more common than with the classical guitar. (In my experience, if such a defect appears, you need to trim the nail immediately and quite aggressively; otherwise the cracks will spread, leading to far more damage.) I personally don't like when the flesh of the right hand fingers comes into contact with the strings too much, but your opinions may differ (and then you will need shorter nails but the playing will be a bit uncomfortable for some time). Even the most forceful rasgueados etc. are totally fine in my experience, and they do not hurt at all, but if you have shorter nails, it may be different; I don't know that.
  • As mentioned in the previous answers, the left hand technique is a bit more difficult and the hand will need to get used to it. First, you need to push the strings with a little more force, second, it will hurt for some time, especially legatos and glissandos, and third, you will really need to make sure that in more complicated situations, your fingers are more or less perpendicular to the neck, because there is much less space. However, many people are playing acoustic steel-stringed guitars and they all made it somehow, so there is no reason why a classical guitarist shouldn't.

I hope that this helps someone despite the fact that I'm posting it 8 years late (!) :—).

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    Good answer. Some other ways to achieve a mellower tone: playing in a higher position on a lower string, switching to flatwound strings. Btw, there's no problem with posting a late answer. It shows up in the review queue, but there's nothing inherently wrong. Apr 20 at 1:54
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    Very interested to hear about playing steel-string with nails (even though I'm 8 years older now ;) ), thanks very much!
    – Anti Earth
    Apr 28 at 11:59

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