Whoever mapped out the steel-string acoustic guitar’s route to global dominance should be commended. Now there’s a plan that worked. But don’t let the wire-and-wood axe’s ubiquity fool you. Not everyone worships at the steel-string guitar altar. In fact, a surprising number of guitarists prefer an instrument strung with nylon. Many of us just love the warm, delicate tone of these guitars and the supple feel of thicker, looser strings. Now if we could just figure how amplify them properly…
We’ll do that right here. But let’s ease into the subject with a brief history lesson and a nugget of wisdom that may serve you well at the next pub quiz.
It all began with gut strings, often sourced from sheep.
Catgut is the stuff of urban legends. Consider the size of a cat’s intestine compared to a goat’s, pig’s or cow’s.
Then consider how many cats it would take to satisfy demand for all those guitars, violins, and all manner of stringed instruments.
What prairies did these vast herds of cats roam?
And why haven’t we heard tales of kitty wranglers who rounded up droves of feral felines?
So let’s put that particular alternative fact where it belongs – in the dustbin of imagined history.
The invention of nylon strings
Gut strings sound great, but their downsides can be a killjoy. They’re as weather-sensitive as grandpa’s trick elbow; they break as easily as a tear-soaked tissue rips.
How fortunate for us, then, that the US company DuPont stumbled upon nylon in 1935.
Guitar-toting Spanish fishermen soon started stringing up their axes with cheap nylon filament rather than expensive ‘catgut’.
Nylon guitar strings were developed a few years later, apparently with some choice input from the notoriously critical virtuoso Andrés Segovia.
These synthetic strings suffer from none of the failings of the natural materials.
Even so, I believe no guitarist should go to their grave without having tried genuine gut strings. On the right guitar, they can be truly magical.
The gateway guitar
Most guitarists have played an instrument strung with nylon.
It was the starter guitar for many of us who learned from a young age. The soft strings are kind on kids’ fingers.
The wide fretboard is also a little more forgiving as you learn your way around the notes.
For many guitarists, though, that nylon-stringed strummer is just a gateway to an electric guitar, or a steel-string acoustic, or both.
But others remain beholden to nylon for a lifetime. And it’s not just classical musicians who keep the faith.
Getting yourself heard with nylon strings
But our core question today is this: how do you get your musical message heard in a live situation with nylon strings? What is the best nylon-string guitar amplifier?
Well, we can borrow from the steel-string guitar and capture their sound with a microphone or their vibrations with a piezo-based contact pickup.
The magnetic pickups often used for steel strings won’t work with non-magnetic nylon. Even the three low strings, which look and feel like they’re made of metal, have a core made of nylon fibers.
And string-makers usually coat them with silver-plated copper wire – which is also non-magnetic.
Microphones and pickups
If authenticity is what you want, a microphone is the tool of choice for amplifying all acoustic instruments, including nylon-string guitars.
However, we rarely get to enjoy the luxury of that option in concert conditions. Most of the time we have to compete with other musicians for sonic space, and their instruments can get very loud.
Taking a microphone to these gigs is like to showing up to a gunfight carrying a can opener. And even if you give it a try, the feedback is going to drive everyone nuts.
The second choice, a pickup, is really your only choice here.
Microphones mounted inside a guitar are said to be less prone to feedback, but the sound of most of these systems will tickle few fancies.
And if you believe the promise about feedback not being an issue, let me put you in touch with my cousin, a Nigerian prince who’s having trouble transferring money out of the country.
The usual answer to all this is an undersaddle transducer pickup. These come in many guises – coaxial cable, electret film, piezoelectric sensor – and are marketed under many brand names, but they all work pretty much along the same lines.
The medium picks up vibrations, which are then converted into electrical voltages in a more or (usually) less linear fashion.
These pickups sit right under the saddle, so that’s pretty much all they ‘see’. Their ‘view’ is extremely limited, and they’re blind to body resonances and the difference between tone woods.
If these pickups all sound a bit samey, it’s because they all deliver an ultra-direct signal with very little spatial depth.
On top of that, they color the signal in a way that no tone control on earth can truly fix. That added but unwanted flavoring is particularly perceptible with soft-sounding nylon strings.
These pickups are the bottleneck of amplified guitar tone – no acoustic sound passes through without getting the squeeze. This is why the real challenge for an acoustic guitar amp is not to deliver the most linear response that physics will allow; instead, it is to restore at least some of the gorgeous tone mangled by that pickup.
Convenience over excellence and acoustic amplifiers
Their drawbacks notwithstanding, these systems have become the standard simply because they are so wonderfully easy to use. Plug and play all your cares away.
But a good cook makes do with what’s at hand. And a good acoustic amp can help you cook up a tastier sonic treat by providing a tone control designed specifically to spice up the sound of nylon-string guitars.
There aren’t many of those around. And even fewer are able to jazz up that sterile piezo tone. The era amps are certainly among this rare breed.
Getting the perfect live acoustic tone with an amp
Dialing in a sweet sound on stage is simple – but not easy.
The first the thing to do when you take the stage is aim the amp towards your head by setting it at an angle, or better yet, on a stand.
After all, you want your fellow musicians and the audience to reap the rewards of the 10,000 hours you spent practicing while your friends played Pac-Man.
The mids are where it’s at
A nylon-string guitar usually sits easier in the mix than a steel-string because it serves up a powerful midrange.
Do not – and I repeat – do not dial those mids out. You want your guitar to carve out its slice of the band’s sonic pie.
Those midrange frequencies cut through the mix to help your instrument stand out in the soundscape.
Back off the bass, though, as reinforced nylon strings tend to be boomier than their steel counterparts. The 12 o’clock position for tone controls and a slightly lower bass setting is a good starting point – that is, if you have a good amp built up a savvy designer with a sensible plan.
Tone fine-tuning for purists…
That’s pretty much it.
Effects like chorus usually need the shimmering top end of steel strings to shine. More often than not, the result with nylon strings is disappointing.
If you want a modulation effect, try a phaser. You may have to dial down the bass even further, as some filter sweeps will bring more low frequencies to the fore.
…and for avant-gardists
Those tips only apply if you’re aiming for a sweet, reasonably natural sound for song accompaniment, fingerpicking and chord work.
If you wish to stray far from the beaten sonic path, than feel free to plug into any kind of signal processor you care to explore.
Here’s an unorthodox tip for the very bold: plug a nylon-string guitar with a built-in piezo pickup into an electric guitar amp, preferably in crunch or high-gain mode.
You’ll be surprised at how close this gets to an actual electric guitar sound – certainly far closer than with a steel-string acoustic!
You’ll have to find a way to deal with the feedback, though. But then Ted Nugent made a career of that with his Gibson ES-175s, didn’t he?
We hope this blog gave you a pieces of inspiration the next time you’re plugging in! But what about you? Have you had good or bad experiences amplifying your nylon-string guitar? Let us know in the comments!
First published: June 22 2018. Most recent update: June 22 2018.