fueled by the string

How nylon strings changed the sound of music forever!

How nylon strings changed the sound of music forever!

Next time you’re watching someone play the guitar, take a closer look at the strings they’re plucking. There should be six of them. Can you tell if they’re made out of steel, or does it look like the bottom three strings are too transparent to be metallic? If so, you’re most likely looking at a classical — or Spanish — guitar. If it has a humongous body and short neck and is being played by someone in a traditional mariachi outfit, it’s probably a guitarrón Mexicano. But if you count seven strings, you’re either looking at a Russian or Brazilian guitar. Of course, if the instrument seems incredibly small and there are only four strings, you’re most likely looking at a Hawaiian ukulele. These are just some of the stringed instruments you can find around the world that rely on petroleum to bring their sound to life.

Up until the Second World War, all of these instruments were strung with strings made from a combination of animal guts and silk.

As the story goes, an instrument maker from New York couldn’t secure source materials to make strings due to war restrictions, but he found some nylon line in an army surplus store that he thought might work. He contacted the plastics company who manufactured the material and convinced them to start manufacturing nylon guitar strings after staging a blind test, pitting one guitar strung with the old school materials up against a guitar string with nylon strings.

Nylon strings were first played in front of a live audience in New York in January 1944, and the first commercially manufactured nylon guitar strings were produced for classical guitar players in 1948.

But don’t be mistaken. You can be a rocker and still play classical guitar. In fact, the guitarist for one of indie rock’s biggest bands told Salon that his classical training has helped inform his approach to making modern music.

Nylon strings reverberate to make sweet, fat and brilliant tones. There is a richer quality to the treble strings on a nylon-string acoustic that can’t be produced on a tinny steel-string guitar. Their bass strings can often produce deeper notes than their steely counterparts. That’s because nylon strings utilize much less tension than steel strings. They’re also easier on the fingers.

As for those metallic top three strings? They’re usually composed of either silver-plated copper or a blend of 80% copper and 20% zinc (referred to as brass strings) wound around a nylon core.

Today, we still hear nylon strings in classical, jazz and Latin music, as well as in North American country and folk.