What do we call it ?
The nylon string guitar comes with a variety of names. It is sometimes called a classical guitar, because classical guitar music is invariably played on nylon strings; it can also be called a Spanish guitar, because nylon string guitars are very popular in Spain and the Spanish-speaking world; it might also be called a flamenco guitar, because flamenco is one of its many uses. But nylon string guitars can also be used in jazz, pop, latin, and folk music, and in all parts of the world. So, no one name really does the trick.
What distinguishes it
What we do know is that it is acoustic, in that it does not have to be amplified to be audible (although it is a relatively quiet instrument, so would have to be mic’d to project to a larger audience), it has six strings and these are made of nylon (although the lower three strings are wound with metal) rather than the steel strings used for other acoustic and electric guitars.
Why nylon? Well, nylon strings produce a richer, more mellow tone, which sounds great in the right context. The strings are softer on the fingers, which is good for beginners whose fingers have not yet hardened. On the other hand, the strings require more regular tuning, and the sound does not cut through a mix as readily as steel string guitars.
Physically, the guitars are a little different from steel string acoustics: the neck is a little wider, so there is more of a gap between the strings, and you won’t usually find any fret markers on the neck. The body starts at the 12th fret rather than the normal 14th and there is not normally a cutaway (although my guitar does have one), so it is awkward and unusual to play above the 12th fret.
The six strings of a nylon string guitar are tuned as follows:
Sixth (lowest) – E (the same pitch as E2 on a piano)
Fifth – A
Fourth – D
Third – G
Second – B (middle C, the equivalent of C4 on a piano, can be found on the second string first fret)
First – E
Alternate tunings are rare on nylon string guitars.
Interestingly, at least when used for classical music, nylon string guitars are held differently. The guitarist is seated with the guitar resting on their left leg and their foot raised by a stool, as you can see here …
However, in all other contexts, there are no rules and nylon guitars can be played like any other – from a strap around the neck or on the right leg.
My nylon string guitar
This year (2020), I bought myself a secondhand Martin 000C Nylon Guitar. The fact that this comes from Martin, perhaps the most famous maker of steel string acoustic guitars, that it has a cutaway and is fitted with electrics, shows that I’m not a purist nylon string guitar player. However, this is a lovely instrument and it has inspired me to try all sorts of different styles of playing, as you will see below …
I set myself the challenge of composing three pieces which would show off different ways in which the nylon string guitar could be used and which, importantly, considering I am not a specialist classical guitarist, I would be able to play. The notation and tablature for all three of these are available for download below if you’d like to try them out yourself.
The first piece is Almuruna, which has a rather obvious Spanish feel and is played in A minor. Here is a recording of me playing the piece on my Martin 000C:
If you’re not a guitarist or you don’t have access to a good nylon string guitar, you could create a very similar effect with a sample library. Here I have used the Evolution Modern Nylon library from Orange Tree Samples, running in the Kontakt sampler in Cubase 11. While the result is slightly less expressive than my own playing, it is a lot tighter!
This second example is in 3/4 time, hence the name. It’s in the key of E major.
And here’s the same piece with sampled nylon guitar …
Lastly, Ladders has jazz overtones. It’s in the key of A major.
And you’ll no doubt want to compare that with the sampled version …
But why stop there? This piece is crying out for some support from a band, so I added double bass, drums and a vintage organ. Have a listen …
In case you’re interested, I used the following sample libraries for the band:
Bass: UJAM VB-Mellow instrument
Drums: Kick n Brush library for Kontakt
Organ: NI Vintage Organs library for Kontakt
Notation / tablature
The following PDF file includes notation and tablature for all three nylon guitar pieces:
The scores were created using Steinberg’s Dorico Pro app.