HomePractical AdviceGuitarsA classical guitarist's relationship with steel strings

A classical guitarist's relationship with steel strings

I recently bought my first steel string acoustic guitar.
At face value, this statement may have less inherent strangeness than it perhaps has as an opener. It becomes more interesting, however, when combined with the fact that I’ve already played guitar (the “classical” variant) for over ten years.
Why the gestation period? What stopped me from obtaining one of the most popular variants of my chosen instrument group? And what’s it like owning one this far into my life as a guitarist?

Harmonious co-existence
My new acoustic guitar and veteran classical

When I first started playing, I didn’t want to just strum or play arpeggios around chord shapes. I wanted to play the guitar “properly”. Thus, to my eyes, my best bet was to start with classical. My dad gave me his old beaten up nylon string guitar, and soon enough I was taking lessons. In the beginning, I didn’t want to get a steel string because I was worried that I would prefer playing that and stop progressing on the road to classical guitar mastery, so I delayed.
At the same time, I was drawn by the cult of the acoustic guitar. I was young, and the classical guitar world was then, and still seems to be, somehow defined by its magazine namesake: staid and stuffy. This in stark contrast to the wonderful UK magazine which caters to acoustic guitar fans: vibrant, entertaining and fresh. (Apologies if said staid and stuffy magazine has upped its game since I stopped reading it).
Torn, I regularly visited music shops and played as many acoustics as I could. I’m sure the shop owners must have been sick of the sight of me. My growing proficiency on classical guitar, combined with an unhealthy habit of playing guitars way out of my price range compounded to give me an ear and feel for a fine guitar. This presented another problem. I couldn’t make do with an average steel string guitar, even if I could get over my reluctance to buy one in the first place.
The years passed. I stopped taking lessons but continued to play classical, which I loved despite my persistent niggling desire to diversify. I also continued to play as many acoustic guitars as I could. The most memorable of these was at the 2011 London Acoustic Guitar Show; a stunning instrument made by Mike Baranik with an equally stunning price tag of £10,000.
This served at least as a reality check. Aiming that high, I was never going to get my own steel string acoustic.  It also served to show that I could get 95% of that sound and build quality for 25% of the price: I had been almost as impressed by a Martin J40 I had played in a Norwich music shop.
Musicians talk about an instrument providing the “sound in your head”. I had played plenty of instruments which had shaped this ultimate “sound sample” which I carried around with me. I knew I liked rosewood as a back-and-sides wood for its cultured and complex tonal qualities. I wasn’t as concerned about the top, although I preferred spruce as it provided the bright sound I wanted from a steel string acoustic.
The beautiful Baranik guitar at the London Acoustic Guitar Show 2011

I was not expecting this “sound in my head” to be matched by an instrument with maple back and sides, a tone wood by which I had previously only been disappointed. Thus it was with amazement that, on a casual visit to my local store, I played a Guild GAD-F40 – with maple back and sides – and completely fell in love. I like the look of maple, even if I’d previously never liked the sound, but this guitar sounded as good as it looked. The price was less than a tenth of the halo Baranik’s too. Two days and a Take it Away finance form later, it was mine.
Then came the real test. Would my fear of abandoning classical be realised? Any seasoned guitarist knows the answer: It was a baseless fear. I revelled in the sound of my new guitar but I also began to appreciate qualities and nuances unique to my classical guitar which I hadn’t noticed fully before.
The steel strings provided a sound dripping in sympathetic harmony which sprung from the sound hole at the first touch, whether light pluck or enthusiastic strum. I found myself repeating a G chord simply to hear the intricate variations produced depending on the force with which it was played. I immersed myself in the sound – endowed with a warmth and sparkling complexity like beams of sunlight hitting the waves off a boat’s prow and shattering into infinite glinting, shimmering shards of light which meet your eyes and entrance you. It is a sound which lends itself to resonant playing, harnessing harmony and dissonance and ringing open strings.
I then played some of my favourite pieces on my classical guitar and, to my surprise, the experience was only improved. I noticed afresh the tonal variation obtained depending on where the string was plucked; a sharper sound at the bridge, a mellower sound closer to the fretboard. I experimented with the capacity to make a note grow in volume instead of diminish, by holding it for long enough that, as the primary note faded, other strings started to resonate in sympathy. I appreciated again the ability to play more melodic pieces, afforded by the rounder, fuller sound characteristic of nylon strings.
A pleasantly amateur (I think) recording of my new Guild

In defiance of the foolish preconception I had held onto for so many years, the acquisition of a steel string acoustic guitar produced the opposite effect to the one I had originally expected. Instead of taking something away from my playing, something was added. I appreciated the old anew, and simultaneously added something fresh to savour and enjoy.
If my years of indecision and relentless guitar-sampling had one benefit, it is this: I didn’t buy many guitars before I found “the one”. My pocket benefited, even if my playing didn’t.

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