In 1991, I decided to become a serious musician and set aside the electric guitar to focus on the classical. I needed to get a nylon-string guitar in a hurry. But I was a high school student at the time; and my budget was limited to a lifetime savings of $200 (about $359 in today’s money).
A local university teacher recommended an instrument whose maker escapes me. But I can clearly recall just how crappy the all-laminated-wood instrument was. The frets were haphazardly polished and sharp at their ends, and the action was uncomfortably high. The instrument was resistant to staying in tune; the ebonized fretboard quickly faded in places, revealing the light-colored wood underneath the surface. But worst of all, I hated playing it.
It’s striking just how superior today’s budget nylon-string options are compared to my lame starter guitar. There’s an abundance of options for both traditional-style instruments and modern variations with cutaways and electronics, made with high-quality materials, to surprisingly good standards. Whether you’re exploring the classical realm, looking to get an authentic bossa nova sound, or are just starting to grasp the wide palette of tonal colors available through the nylon string guitar, there’s something for you in this roundup.
Here’s a list of guitars in this roundup with links to each description:
- Takamine GC3
- Yamaha CG192S
- Cordoba C7
- Fender CN-60S
- Cordoba C4-CE
- Breedlove Pursuit Nylon
- La Patrie Arena CW QIT
The Bottom Line
A fine nylon-string guitar can easily set you back four or five figures. That’s a considerable price for even a seasoned classical musician, let alone a steel-string guitarist with a curiosity about the nylon-string. If you fall in the latter camp, one of the nicely made and affordable—and, most important, highly playable and good-sounding—guitars featured here should help you make the transition and stick with it.
At a glance, a traditional nylon-string or classical guitar looks pretty similar to its 12-fret steel-string counterpart. But structurally, the two instruments bear some critical differences. A classical guitar has a thinner soundboard, with smaller braces that are typically arranged in a fan pattern, as opposed to an X. Because a traditional nylon-string guitar involves much less tension than a steel-string—around 90 pounds versus as much as 180—it often doesn’t have a truss rod or other neck reinforcement.
A nylon-string guitar feels much different than a steel-string as well, owing not just to the strings and their tension but to the neck. A classical nut is 52mm (about 2.05 inches), compared to 1-11/16 or 1-3/4 inches on a steel-string. The scale length is also slightly longer, 650mm (25.6 inches), compared to 25.4, as on a dreadnought or orchestra model. And whereas a steel-string guitar has a radiused or curved fretboard, a fingerboard on a traditional nylon-string is usually flat.
For delving into the classical literature, it’s preferable to buy a traditional, non-cutaway model. Coming from a steel-string, it might take some time to get accustomed to the neck’s more generous quarters, but the wider nut (and the resulting string spacing) will give you plenty of room to articulate the contrapuntal lines found in the music of pretty much all eras and composers.
Go for a guitar with a solid top—as on a steel-string, this is the body part most important to the instrument’s sound, so no skimping here. The most common tonewoods for nylon-string soundboards are spruce and cedar, the former generally sounding more direct and projective and the latter warmer and mellower.
Takamine is known for its steel-string acoustic-electrics, but the company got started in the 1950s with nylon-string guitars, which it continues to produce. Among its other smart budget offerings, the GC3 ($359 street) incorporates a fan-braced solid spruce top with laminated mahogany back and sides, and it has an easy-playing mahogany neck with rosewood fretboard: just what you need to get into the door for classical playing.
A strong contender among Yamaha’s high-quality budget offerings is the CG192S ($499), which boasts a solid European spruce top paired with laminated rosewood back and sides. As on a steel-string guitar, rosewood generally offers a richer, deeper sound than mahogany, well suited to classical repertoire in general. The Yamaha’s full-scale mahogany neck is capped with a genuine ebony—not ebonized—fretboard, and the guitar is also available for the same price with a cedar top (CG192C, $399).
Cordoba has long been a leading maker of nylon-strings at all price points, and the company’s C7 is a good example of the bang for the buck you can get with one of its less expensive guitars. Like the Yamaha example, the Cordoba C7 ($499) is available with either a European spruce or cedar soundboard (C7 CD). Each model has a 650mm rosewood fretboard, as well as luxurious rosewood body binding. While the C7 is a traditional classical guitar, it does include a two-way adjustable truss rod.
If you’re not a classical purist, consider a nylon-string that departs from traditional construction—one that has a streamlined neck, a cutaway, electronics, or any combination of these contemporary features borrowing from steel-string designs. These are sometimes referred to as crossover guitars, for obvious reasons.
Fender’s new CN-60S ($229) is a good and inexpensive choice for a steel-string player who hasn’t gotten comfortable with the classical guitar’s relatively wide neck. The CN-60S has a scalloped X-braced solid spruce soundboard and laminated mahogany back and sides. Its nut is a narrow 1.69 inches, and the scale length is 25.3 inches; rolled fingerboard edges add to the playing comfort. The guitar is available in a natural finish, or for those who’d like to make a visual statement, black.
A new budget offering from Cordoba, the C4-CE ($329) is an interesting update of the traditional classical guitar. Its concert-sized body is made all from African mahogany and has a soft cutaway. At 50mm, the neck is slightly narrower than standard. Classy appointments like maple binding, abalone rosette, and an Edgeburst give this guitar a distinctive look, and the included Fishman Sonitone active pickup system makes it ready for the studio or the stage.
Breedlove Pursuit Nylon
More radical is Breedlove’s Pursuit Nylon ($499). Like a number of contemporary nylon-strings, the Pursuit, with its 1.875-inch nut and radiused fretboard, is designed to appeal to the steel-string player looking to cross over to the nylon-string. The guitar comes standard with a solid Western red cedar top and sapele back and sides. Breedlove’s trademark asymmetric headstock gives it a bold modern look, and the guitar has updated functionality as well: A Fishman pickup and built-in USB port make it easy to interface with recording software.
La Patrie Arena CW QIT
While most of the guitars in this roundup are made in Asia, La Patrie’s new Arena CW QIT ($499) is built in Canada. This guitar has a shallow body (2.75 inches, compared to around four inches at the lower bout of a traditional guitar) and a deep Venetian cutaway. The top is pressure-tested spruce and the back and sides are flamed wild cherry. The radiused rosewood fretboard pairs a relatively short scale (24.84 inches) with a generous nut (two inches), making the guitar very easy to play. QIT electronics by Godin, including an undersaddle pickup, custom-voiced preamp, and built-in tuner, make this a great plug-in-and-play option.
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