The guitar is simple enough to understand. Some strings, some wood, and voilá—you can produce sound! Okay, maybe it’s a bit more complicated than that. As you dig down into the details, you’ll see that not every guitar is built the same. A nylon string guitar produces a different sound than the steel string acoustic guitar, for starters. But what separates a steel string guitar from all the rest, besides how it sounds? Let’s find out.

What Is a Steel String Acoustic Guitar?

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The steel string guitar can be great for live performances, thanks to its sharp, cutting sound.

Simply put, a steel string acoustic guitar is an acoustic guitar that you load with steel strings, as opposed to nylon. The steel strings tend to be tougher and thicker, and they produce a sharper, louder sound than the gentler nylon.

The Origin of the Steel String Guitar

The guitar itself traces its origins to instruments like the mandolin, which have been around since the Baroque era. The acoustic guitar you might recognize today first gained popularity in Spain with Antonio de Torres Jurado, whose guitar presented a larger body that helped distinguish the guitar as its own instrument. 

Then, C.F. Martin of the United States introduced steel strings. They were tough, they were loud, and perhaps most importantly, they were durable. From then on, a new style of acoustic guitar music was born.

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What Is the Difference Between the Steel String and Classical Guitar?

Are you eating? It might be time to stop.

You see, classical guitars traditionally used either nylon or “gut” strings. As you might imagine, nylon strings produce softer, milder tones than the bright and cutting sound you might get out of a steel string guitar. Here’s the icky part: gut, or “catgut,” is a product sourced from the fibers in the walls of animal intestines, typically animals like cattle or hogs. On the other hand, steel string guitars are 100% vegan. So there you go! 

Types of Music that Use Steel String Acoustic Guitar

As you might imagine, an acoustic guitar with steel strings is well-suited for any live guitar performance that needs to cut through the sound of the crowd. Some of the most common include:

  • Blues
  • Rock, especially classic rock
  • Bluegrass
  • Country
  • Pop
  • Western

Western guitar music is worth noting in particular. That familiar rustic guitar sound you hear in the background of movies when the town ain’t big enough for them? There’s a good chance that western guitar sound is really just a steel string acoustic guitar playing its low notes.

In other forms of popular music, you might notice the acoustic guitar isn’t always the lead instrument. Instead, it’s used to supplement other sounds. Producers commonly double a steel string guitar with the piano. The sharp plucks of the steel strings contrast with the soft hammer-taps of the piano, creating a rich, full sound.

Some examples of steel string acoustic guitar songs include “I Live For You” by George Harrison and “Far Away Eyes” by the Rolling Stones. In both songs, you’ll notice the steady pulse of the steel strings in the background, while they use slide guitars for a country-style twang.

How to Play the Steel String Acoustic Guitar

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The steel strings may be heavier and require more finger force, but you’ll master it in no time.

From a playing perspective, the steel string guitar provides a new challenge for people used to nylon strings: You really have to get strong fingertips (especially if you’re learning fingerstyle guitar). That means building up calluses and applying enough force for the strings to ring out with clarity. Here are a few things you need to know to play a steel string guitar well.

Step 1: Build the Habit

The first thing to do is to make playing the guitar a rewarding experience. If you find the steel string guitar gives you nothing but despair and sore fingers, you’re not going to want to return to it every day.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, recommends using the two-minute rule to start any new habit or learn a new skill. Start by taking two minutes out of your day at first. Go somewhere you can be comfortable, sit down with the guitar, and start your beginner’s course. Two minutes. That’s it. 

After the two minutes are up, feel free to quit whenever you want; you did your habit-building for the day. End your practice with a reward to reinforce the habit. The more you look forward to your steel string guitar time, the more likely it is you’ll keep coming back.

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Once you explore the basics, you’ll be free to move on to more advanced techniques, strums, and chord patterns.

Step 2: Learn the Chords

Since steel string guitars produce such lush, pronounced chords, the fastest way you can give yourself a song to play is to learn the basic chord structures.

As a beginner, you really only need three chords to play a lot of different songs: D, G, and A. These chords give you a basic I-IV-V progression that forms the basis for plenty of songs across rock, bluegrass, and the blues. Don’t believe us? Just Google it and you’ll immediately see a torrent of classic songs that you can play with just these chords.

Step 3: Stay Consistent

From there, you only need two elements to improve: consistent effort and consistent progress. Consistent effort simply means coming in, day in and day out, and blocking out the time to get better. Consistent progress toward becoming a guitar pro, however, is a little harder to define. Here are some ways you can branch out:

  • Learn different scales. Blues scales, for example, are the bedrock of learning how to launch into a guitar solo. A pentatonic scale on the guitar is also a great way to improvise melodies. You can progress by learning these scales from different starting points.
  • Advance your chord progressions. Eventually, I-IV-V will seem like child’s play. You can advance your chord progressions to learn all sorts of musical styles, including complicated jazz harmonics.

Get Your Steel String Acoustic Guitar Buzzing

Metaphorically buzzing, of course. If your strings are literally buzzing, you should try to press more firmly! As you build up the habits that keep your fingers strong and your mind challenged, you’ll find that learning steel string guitar can be one of the most rewarding ways to enjoy a new musical experience.

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Written by:

Dan Kenitz