How To Choose Classical Guitar Strings (Concert Guitarist Answers)


To change the sound of your classical guitar, try new guitar strings. You can try out various materials like nylon, carbon and titanium as also different tensions like low, medium and high. In fact, the number of variables when it comes to understanding strings is a lot and can be daunting.

So we asked an expert concert artist Colin Davin on how to go about this whole business. Colin Davin is a big name in the current international concert circuit of classical guitarists (www.colindavin.com) and he was happy to talk at length to Mark Cohen of NylonPlucks.

Let’s start with one of the most popular questions.

How frequently should you change your strings?

“Some pros say once a week,” says Colin Davin. “But it really depends on how much practice you put in. If I put in about 4 hours a day, I’d certainly be changing my strings every week. So it’s about 25 hours of solid play on a set of strings before I change them.”

What if you’re not a professional with no concerts or recordings on your calendar? The answer still depends on the practice hours you put in every day. A rough guide of 60 hours or thereabouts is a handy number to remember. It assumes you play about an hour every day and is a reasonable compromise between a good tone, the drudgery of changing strings and the cost. Read my article that covers this in more depth: How often to change strings for amateurs.

Even if you’re not giving concerts, Colin advises you to change your strings with some regularity. “There’s some evidence that an instrument will absorb the sounds you put into it over time. You want to be playing with a rich tone. And changing your strings regularly is essential to that.”

How to make new strings settle in faster

Everyone who has put on a new set of classical guitar strings knows that the strings go flat almost immediately after you fix them and get them up to tune. Colin offers his counterintuitive suggestion.

“The way to get them stable,” says Colin. “is to tune them down below pitch, sometimes substantially below pitch. Either by tuning them or by stretching out the strings and then bringing them back up to tune. If you do this a couple of times – take it to pitch, tune it down, bring it up to pitch, tune down again and back to pitch again – it kind of settles quickly.”

The trick is to tune down by as much as an octave before getting it up to pitch gradually. It’s a shortcut Colin uses when he needs to get in tune for a recording on the same day. At other times, when there is no particular urgency, he still stretches the strings and tunes them up. He leaves the guitar overnight with the strings tuned by a quarter or half step sharp. By morning the strings have settled down to a little below pitch and have to be brought up to pitch with a few turns of the pegs.

For more ideas on the subject that you can explore check out the article on this site: Settle your strings faster.

Do basses go out of tune faster? Should we use half-sets?

Certainly, the basses go dead faster, says Colin. Wound strings will definitely wear down quicker. He changes basses more frequently than trebles especially if a concert or a recording is upcoming. 

“I notice that my high E string tends to get scratchy around where I’m plucking it, so I find I want to change that string also – along with the basses.”

In normal course, where a player is training or teaching and not getting ready for a concert or recording, they will tend to change the whole set in one go as against half-sets, just for the sake of “inventory simplicity.” Although, these days, it is quite easy with most merchants – most notably stringsbymail.com – to buy half-sets or even individual strings of your favorite brand.

Colin warns against using motorized peg winders for it’s easy to be careless with them and cause string breaks and damages to the guitar.

Tips on string changing

Use a soft cloth on the body of the guitar while changing strings to protect it. Since breaking of a string is always a possibility, protecting the top from ‘string dings’ is a commonsense precaution. There are special products like string bibs that fit snugly around the bridge, but even a simple microfiber cloth will do.

Give your guitar strings a “haircut” right away to keep out unnecessary ends hanging loose and for overall neatness. Trim the excess. Many peg winders these days come with a tiny guillotine to clip the strings which is quite handy.

Colin emphasizes the need to change strings regularly. “There’s nothing like realizing that you’re a few days or a week late in changing your strings and you change your strings finally, you say, ‘I don’t sound terrible. Cool!’”

Now hear Colin and Mark in conversation in some detail.

Guitar string tensions – when to use high, medium and low

String tension is an interesting area to explore in classical guitar strings. One company’s medium tension is more or less similar to another’s most of the time. But you will have to feel your way through with your own experimentation of various tensions the different brands offer.

“I play medium-high and high tension as my typical approach,” says Colin. “A lot of professional players play with a heavier right hand. Often needing to project – a solo in a big concert hall unamplified, chamber music or a concerto. Most instruments are louder than a classical guitar.”

So professional players through their training look for putting out a bigger sound and that usually means a heavier right hand. High tension strings provide the needed resistance for a player to dig through. Normal tension strings will tend to be overdriven with a strong right hand technique.

Do you lose something when you go with high tension strings? “For certain players, higher tension strings may have little resonance after the initial attack. You’ll get good projection right up front but you won’t have much sustain afterward or evenness of sustain. That’s a potential loss. This doesn’t happen for me on my instrument but it can happen on others.”

Is vibrato affected for the worse with high tension? “Theoretically, it seems true,” concurs Colin. “It seems with lower tension strings you can move them more easily with the left hand (for a better vibrato).”

For beginners, Colin suggests that low tension – or even normal tension – strings will be the best bet. Having a lower tension string makes things easier for the left hand, he says. “Once you find your sound is starting to develop a little, you’re pushing it harder and the string is snapping or buzzing, not holding up to what you’re putting into it, it’s time to try a higher tension.”

Is there any advantage to combining different tension basses and trebles? It will vary from player to player, says Colin. “A number of companies already make these sets ready to go, you don’t even have to choose the separate halves. I’ve been happy with high tension on both halves.”

Nylon or carbon strings?

Although there are various other materials like rectified nylon, titanium and Aquila’s Nylgut, the main alternatives currently are nylon and carbon strings. “It’s the spruce and cedar of string conversations,” says Colin.

Carbon is more durable, so if you want to change your strings less often, carbon is a good choice. Nylon is Colin’s own preferred choice. “In my hands, on my guitar, everything sounds so plastic when I play with carbon. A lot of attack – loud and projecting – but not much depth. Doesn’t sustain too well for me.”

Although he does concede that he knows professionals who use carbon strings and bring out “amazing, beautiful sounds.” It’s not about being loud alone. These players bring a lot of nuance and color into their playing. In the end, therefore, nylon or carbon becomes a personal choice and whatever enables you to extract the best sounds you possibly can from the instrument is the right choice for you.

See the discussion followed by a live demonstration by Colin.

How to choose your guitar strings

“Basically, the things I’m looking for in a set of strings is balance across the instrument, the way the string just feels in my hands, and the way it sounds.”

Colin places a lot of emphasis on how the string feels to his right hand particularly. Before he plays a note, he places his right hand in position to get the tactile experience. “Carbons – the actual act of touching them doesn’t feel stable to me. Something about it feels slippery or plasticky or some quality about them that doesn’t feel right for my hands.” 

Even within just nylon options, Colin feels there are differences in thickness and other nuances that are evident to the touch. A thin string may feel like it can be broken during play and a thick string will seem too resisting to the touch. These are subjective, personal observations, of course, but according to Colin they are crucial to understanding what feels comfortable for you to play.

As you get ready to play, it’s good to observe also how the strings “push back” as you dig into them. You want the feeling you are making the effort to get the sound but without having to fight the strings. “All these aspects of feel are important because I can’t get past them if I don’t like how the strings feel. Sound is the ultimate outcome but I’m not going to be in a mental state to produce great sounds if I’m worried about the touch.”

Even as beginners, getting to know your touch is a good thing, advises Colin.

The next is the quality of the sound itself – is it projecting sufficiently? Is it warm? Does it have a range? How bright is it? Do you have clarity?

“If I’m testing for ‘warmth’, I’d go to the juiciest part of the instrument, mid-neck on the second and third string and play a riff or two.” (Watch the video to see Colin’s demo of this.)

On most guitars, the fourth string tends to be bright and “right next door” the third string tends to be tubby with not much clarity. Try playing a melody on these two strings to gauge how good the transition is between them. Also play a melody on the fourth and fifth strings to check the transition there.

Sometimes the first string gets too bright and you can check if it can be controlled from getting too loud in relation to the second string. You don’t want the first string to be disproportionately loud to the others.

You can compare unison notes on different strings, especially the trebles. You want them to sound as similar as possible. A simple chromatic scale played up and down the strings can reveal a lot about the consistency of sound across the fretboard.

For overall balance, it’s good to play arpeggios while listening carefully to the sounds. Note how different strings sustain. Play a four-string or a six-string chord and listen to how the different notes drop off. You want as long a sustain on them as possible.

Check the demo video by Colin where he provides audio examples of what we’ve been talking about.

Hopefully, you picked up a few hints from a pro player about classical guitar strings, especially the bit about how to choose your set. Colin Davin officially endorses Augustine strings, the pioneers who invented nylon strings. You can check out the set he himself uses for his playing: Augustine Regal Blues. Check out Augustine Regal Blues at Amazon. If you want to know about their variants, read my detailed article on the Legendary Augustine Strings.

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Happy stringing!

Narayan Kumar

Narayan Kumar is a passionate classical guitarist and an online research buff. He is also one half of the online classical guitar duo DuJu who put out guitar duets regularly on their YouTube channel. Read more about Narayan.

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