Other than the obvious, what are the differences in a steel string guitar versus a nylon string guitar? Or more to the point, WHY are they different? Tonally? My local guitar chains don't carry much in the way of nylon string guitars, so it's difficult for me to tell.

I'm not really interested in learning to play classical style, but for some reason I've become fascinated with the prospect of buying a nylon string guitar. Given I play mostly folk and rock on my current acoustic, is it a silly proposition? I know Willie Nelson rather famously uses a nylon string guitar for strumming chords (with interesting consequences).

Plus (and I know this might seem a bit silly), it seems to be easier to get 3/4 size nylon string guitars. And I'm interested in a smaller, lighter guitar for travelling purposes.
alright nylon strings, they seem to be a bit quieter, the neck is wider so the strings are spread further apart, and it's not really a high pitch e as steel. the nylon strings seem to be a lower ring kinda of thing. it kind of is lighter than a steel string too. as far as i can tell. i have a yamaha classical that was given to me, and i like it and use it jsut as much as steel string.
There's really a tremendous difference in the sound quality of the two. Personally I really prefer a classical stringed guitar to a steel string guitar. You'll notice when you play them that they are truly designed for finger picking as a classical guitar strings are softer, thicker and more well rounded. They also produce a softer, more mellow sound than the standard steel stringed acoustic guitars.

If you are looking to play your standard run of the mill Willie Nelson it would probably sound a lot better on a steel string than a classical, but I find that you can really do it on both without much trouble. The only difference is that it might be hard to finger pick a steel stringed guitar but not too challenging on a classical, so if you ever plan on playing any Bach or Spanish classical guitar music like Albeniz, better get a classical. However, if you are looking to stick with the pick for good, you're safe with a steel stringed guitar so long as you don't mind that it is a bit sharper and louder sounding than a classical. Hope that helps a bit!
A steel string offers more sustain, a "shimmer" to the sound, and richer harmonics and overtones (from my experience. I'm sure a VERY well-built classical would have a lot of that going on as well).

A classical offers "less painful" playability, a very mellow tone, wider string spacing for fingerstyle/classical playing, and great response to vibrato.

I play fingerstyle and prefer the sound of a steel string, but the feel of a classical. If I'm ever rich and have the chance to get a guitar commissioned through a luthier, I'm going for a very wide neck.
Last edited by i_don't_know at Jul 4, 2009,
as far as I know, the nylon strings have a bit of a softer sound (hard to describe), and the bass notes are slightly accentuated, so that when playing some songs that alternate quickly between lower and higher notes, you can still distinguish the lower notes, which is a little harder with a steel string guitar
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Nylon stringed guitars are much lower tension than Steel stringed guitars. That's why Nylon stringed guitars sound softer and quieter. Also, the material(steel and nylon) difference makes a huge difference tonally.
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Steel strings have a bright, trebley kinda sound. Chords sound great on them, but finger picking sounds good on them too, albiet its a bit harder to fingerpick on a steel string than it would on an acoustic.

Nylon strings (Classicals) have a mellow tone to them, kinda hard to describe. Pretty much built for finger picking (though you can still play chords on them). Very wide neck.
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