Once a student of the classical guitar gets basic technique under control, he or she becomes consciously aware of the tone their instrument is putting out. Breaking into the early intermediate level, a student starts thinking about guitar strings deeply and researches various options that can help improve their tone.
Nylon vs carbon strings. Which is better? Do carbon strings guarantee a higher level of sound quality than nylon strings? Many intermediate and advanced players prefer carbon trebles for getting a louder and brighter sound from their classical guitar. As also better clarity and sustain of notes than they get from conventional nylon strings.
You may have already read about carbon strings but you may not have seen anything compelling to want to try them.
We’ll look at carbon strings in some detail, the pros and the cons. Why you should seriously consider them and why you may not like them after playing them! You won’t be alone in this. There are enough debates on the carbon vs nylon strings issue and each side has valid points. Let’s jump in – so that you can make an informed decision.
So what are carbon strings, anyway?
Carbon strings are not made of carbon. If you really want to know, they are polyvinylidene fluoride (PVFD) also known as fluorocarbon. String manufacturers taught us to call them “carbon” for short.
What makes carbon strings special is they have physical qualities that closely resemble gut strings. Gut strings are the original, the real thing used by Sor, Giuliani, Tarrega and even the early Segovia. Gut strings set the standard for sound quality although they were extremely sensitive to temperature and humidity changes. Gut strings frayed or chafed easily (fingernail action was especially hard on them).
Carbon strings, like gut, are very dense and hard and produce an extremely bright sound for live performances. They hold up the quality standard of the original gut and project well in concert halls. Unlike gut strings, however, carbons promise homogeneity and durability and are fairly weather-proof. This makes carbon a valuable item because it offers consistency.
Further, carbon strings need less time to stretch and adjust to the guitar. You will find a new set of carbon strings settling in quicker than you’ve ever known with nylon.
Fluorocarbon polymers are an exciting alternative to nylon treble strings. The sound is preferred by some luthiers and players, especially for the smooth transition provided by the G string from treble to bass. In theory at least. Not everyone is convinced about carbon strings on their guitars.
Compared to nylons, carbons can be harder on the fingers. They are slim and rigid and require more effort from the player to get the most out of them sound-wise. To some players, this is well worth the effort because of the gain in sound quality that suits their personal taste.
Nylon and fluorocarbon in a chemical sense are both synthetic polymers. Nylon is less dense than water so it floats. Fluorocarbon is denser than water so it sinks and is used as fishing line. Although heavier, fluorocarbon strings are smaller in diameter compared to nylon and brighter in tone.
What differences do carbon strings bring to your playing?
As noted, carbon guitar strings, and carbon strings for other instruments too, are favored by players for their loud bright sound. They are made of harder and more durable material than traditional nylon guitar strings.
In most players’ experience, carbon strings have better sustain than nylon strings. Even the detractors who don’t care for the “metallic sound” of carbon strings concede their longer sustain and overall clarity.
Like them or not, what’s indisputable is that carbon strings are very different in feel and sound from traditional nylon classical guitar strings: higher tension, louder and brighter. They give extra bite to a dark voiced instrument or a nailless (flesh stroke) player. The brightness and sustain of the trebles set them apart. Even as texture, carbons feel different to the touch – they are slightly smaller in diameter than nylons.
This brighter edge in sound can be a good or bad thing depending on your guitar. And this is the key point. The sound quality that carbons bring to you depends entirely on your guitar. Because everyone’s guitar is different, carbons will be either loved or hated!
Also, it must be said that carbon is less prone to wear from fingernail scratches, retaining a smooth surface two or more times longer than nylon.
Of course, just like many brands of popular nylon strings (Savarez, D’Addario, La Bella, Hannabach and the like) have different tonal characteristics, so do the carbon variants from all the major manufacturers have differing responses. I may prefer Savarez Alliance trebles (carbon) while you may swear by D’Addario carbons.
Yet, as an overall category, it’s safe to say that carbon classical strings provide a brighter tone color than the category of nylon guitars strings. And the only way to know what is best for you and your guitar is to experience them on your own instrument.
What will it be for you: nylon or carbon strings?
How do you choose?
Carbons are considered great for the stage for their power and projection, while nylons are best for the studio for their warmth and sensitive tones. Carbons are harder on the hands. If this matters to you and you end up with fatigue, stick with nylon.
The stiffer consistency of a carbon guitar string makes it harder to attain vibrato when compared to nylon guitar strings. As a result, carbons are not as “expressive” as nylon strings. However, the more forceful attack they provide gives them the reputation of being louder and considered more “powerful”.
Nylon sounds smoother and more mellow. Carbon has longer sustain and is brighter. But in the end it will come down to the guitar you own and whether it “loves” carbon.
On almost every guitar, when you install new carbons, you will hear a radical shift of tonal character—no longer sweet and dark. The strings will be bright, maybe even too bright for your taste. On my guitar, for instance, a carbon first string (regardless of the brand) sounds screechy and shrill. The notes are long sustaining though and can take a lot of heavy playing before buzzing. My vibrato technique becomes difficult: great left hand effort is required for tiny vibrato results.
A word of caution. Carbon fiber treble strings are prone to slip at the tie block, so needs careful to the knotting.
Take a look at guitar virtuoso and pro audio engineer Uros Baric demo nylon strings vs carbon strings.
Carbon vs nylon strings: Uros Baric compares
In defense of nylon strings
I think that people who grew up on steel string acoustic guitars and electric guitars might have a greater tolerance of or even a strong preference for the sound that carbon strings produce. If you’ve been on nylon all or most of your life, it is hard to adapt to the rasping twang. If nylon was good enough for the likes Segovia, Bream, Williams & others who got me hooked into the instrument, then why change it now?
What is “powerful, bright and sustaining” to one player can be “metallic, tinny and banjo-like” to another. Concert artist and today’s reigning champion of the classical guitar David Russell (reportedly) said something like carbon strings make bad guitars sound good and good guitars sound bad.
So you’ve seen the video above and heard out both sides. I will say it again: It all depends on your guitar. Till you try, you don’t know.
That’s how on my other guitar (Alhambra 7p) I ended up with a carbon 3rd string (G) alone instead of an entire carbon trebles set. I kept the nylon 1st and 2nd intact for the best overall tonal balance. With this trick, in one go, I avoided the “screechiness” of carbon on the first string as well as the “tubbiness” of nylon on the third. All because I kept an open mind and tried!
Some popular carbon options
D’Addario Pro Arte EJ45FF Normal Tension & EJ46FF High Tension
These variants from the popular D’Addario name pairs their Pro-Arte Carbon trebles with Dynacore basses. These sets have a very warm tone compared to other carbon strings, so may not be too unacceptably bright on your guitar. These are excellent for ensemble playing with their bright cut-through sound, better intonation and projection than nylons. Well worth a try. Available in normal and hard tensions.
Augustine Paragon Blue HT Carbons
This set delivers a bright, crisp, sound with brilliant projection. Paired with Augustine Classic basses, Paragon represents “a modern fusion that rings out with both timelessness and authenticity.”
Check on Amazon: Paragon Blue HT Carbons
My buddy and fellow classical guitar player Mark Cohen talks about carbon strings in general, Augustine Paragon Blue HT set in particular and demos it on his guitar:
Hannabach 725 MHT Goldin
Medium-Hard tension. Features Hannabach’s Super Carbon Trebles and Gold Plated Basses. The gold plated basses give a darker tone and the new super carbon trebles have good projection and clarity. The trebles have a yellowish tint. This set is available in Medium-Hard tension only.
Check on Amazon: 725 MHT Goldin
La Bella Vivace Carbon HT
These are the first carbon strings from La Bella. They offer the brightness of carbon trebles with an “unprecedented beauty of sound.”
Check on Sweetwater: La Bella Vivace HT
Savarez 500 Corum Series
500AJ High Tension & 500AR Normal Tension pair the brand’s own Corum Basses with trebles from their Alliance line (carbon). Well worth a closer look as any string set from Savarez tends to be.
Savarez 510 Cantiga Series
The 510AJ, 510AR & 510AJH variants combine their Cantiga basses with their Alliance (carbon) treble lines. While the first two are high tension and medium tension variants, the 510AJH High Tension additionally comes with polished basses for reduced squeaks.
Savarez New Cristal Creation
510MJ & 510MR: These sets are a combination of carbon and nylon trebles, the kind I tried (successfully) on my Alhambra 7p. The Creation set offers clear nylon B and E with Alliance (carbon) G along with Cantiga basses. High quality. These are very legato and smooth sounding strings. The first two treble strings in the set are plain nylon, the 3rd string is carbon, and the basses are silver-plated copper wound. Brilliant! The best of all possible worlds. (For those of you who have wondered about your nylon third string sounding tubby or weak, read my article Why the G String Sounds So Bad and what you can do about it.)
Remember the cost of strings, in relation to what you paid for your guitar, is small. And yet, strings have such a big say in what your guitar sounds like.
Experimenting with new sets of strings is an exciting process in your artistic journey, a way to find and craft ‘your own sound.’ Go slow and listen carefully. Like many players (though not all), you will fall in love with the sound of carbon strings. So brave on.
If you’re unclear or need some help about string tensions and which set may be right for you, read my article Normal vs High Tension Classical Guitar Strings. I also have a related article Why Use High Tension Strings? that explores the subject in more detail.
For a comprehensive dive into the world of guitar strings in general – not just carbon – I recommend my article 5 Step Guide to Finding Your Perfect Strings. For choosing your bass strings specifically read my article Bronze or Silver-coated Basses? to help you decide.