There are times when the search for intimate, meaningful musical textures will make even the heaviest of rockers seek the reassuring embrace of the instrument that started it all – the nylon-string guitar. Freed from the rigorous constraints of a classical repertoire, the nylon string has found favour as a solo texture for everything from ballads and bossa nova to bebop and blues.
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The nylon-string instrument has evolved in recent years, leading to a new hybrid style of guitar that appeals to players more familiar with the feel of electric or steel-string instruments. One such example is the new Córdoba Fusion 5.
Guitars from this new branch of the family tree feature slimmer necks and nut widths, and often come with cutaways and active electronics. This makes them a versatile and accessible choice for players of all styles looking to explore that pure, evocative sound.
Inspired by spending time with the Córdoba Fusion 5, we’ve put together 11 of our favourite (and wildly different) nylon-string guitar moments for your inspiration and listening pleasure. We hope that this selection of gut-string goodness through the years will inspire you to explore the beautiful world of the nylon string guitar.
Yngwie Malmsteen – Black Star
Black Star is a standout track on Swedish baroque-and-roll maestro Malmsteen’s debut solo album Rising Force. This live performance on a Gibson Chet Atkins (one of the first hybrid nylon-string models), replete with Bach quotations, mysterious hand gestures and elbow-mounted silk scarves, demonstrates the nylon-string’s potential for injecting a shot of good natured pomp into your neo-classical metal stylings.
Sting/Dominic Miller – Shape Of My Heart
An absolute masterclass in arpeggio work and chord voicing, Brazilian-born Dominic Miller’s heartbreakingly tasteful playing on this track is supported by the sweet tone of his Fernandes P-Project electro nylon-string guitar and some expensive-sounding reverb. This could very well be the gold standard for nylon-string playing in contemporary songwriting.
Lenny Breau – Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright
Canadian fingerstyle jazz legend Lenny Breau cast a huge shadow over the acoustic scene and, despite his untimely passing, his influence can be felt in the work of players such as Tommy Emmanuel. Here, Breau lures us into a false sense of security with his arrangement of a Dylan classic which starts off with a simple melody before unleashing techniques and textures that elevate the music to new heights – and on a flamenco guitar with friction tuning pegs!
José González – Heartbeats
While the massive exposure that this track received due to its use in a television ad campaign may have introduced José González to a worldwide audience, it’s his tender vocals and beautiful detuned nylon-string guitar (DADF♯BE with a capo at the first fret, if you were wondering) that ensure the Swedish singer’s cover of The Knife’s Heartbeats deserves a place in our roundup. It also proves that you can use alternative tunings on a nylon-string guitar to great effect.
Al Di Meola/Paco de Lucía/John McLaughlin – Mediterranean Sunrise
We are firmly in face-melting territory here. In 1981 the live record Friday Night In San Francisco was launched on an unsuspecting world. Featuring the monolithic jazz-fusion talents of Al Di Meola and John Mclaughlin, this virtuoso trifecta was granted authenticity and gravitas through the sublime pyrotechnics and duende of flamenco legend Paco de Lucía. Here Mclaughlin and Di Meola are playing Ovation nylon-strings, while De Lucia keeps things real with a Hermanos Conde flamenco guitar and a microphone.
The Spice Girls/Greg Lester – 2 Become 1
Ah, the 1990s, a true highpoint for the nylon-string guitar in pop culture. This gentle ballad from the world-straddling spicy pop group features some tasty nylon-string work by British session guitarist Greg Lester. There’s just a touch of piezo on the attack of each note, allowing the solo to glide effortlessly through the mix.
No Doubt – Don’t Speak
As if anxious to prove our point, No Doubt’s chart-crushing 1990s hit Don’t Speak also features some sensitive nylon action. Although the official video cut to a slightly awkward behind-the-scenes montage during the solo, this live performance from 1997 gives us the good stuff with a stand-mounted Takamine Santa Fe nylon-string. Extra Yngwie points for that!
Antonio Forcione – Spanish Breeze
Go on, see if you can listen to this sublime track from London-based Italian acoustic maestro Antonio Forcione’s album Tears Of Joy without experiencing some serious goosebumps. And that’s before Forcione breaks out the fretless nylon-string (what?!) and gets deliciously microtonal all over your ears. Utterly masterful.
Leonard Cohen – Suzanne
There is nothing like a nylon-string guitar when you want to get deep, deep down. In the hands of poet/novelist/songwriter triple-threat Leonard Cohen it becomes a soothing backdrop to a hypnotic tale of strange love, tea and oranges. Filmed at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, the guitar sound here is as pure as it gets – just one mic and the truth.
José Mercé/Diego Del Morao – Al Alba
No nylon-string roundup is complete without some serious flamenco – in this case from the late José Mercé whose devastating vocal performance blends perfectly with the elegant guitar work of Diego Del Morao for a sensational cover of the Luís Eduardo Aute classic Al Alba. In this case the guitar is amplified with a single Neumann small-capsule condenser microphone, for the natural sound beloved of flamenco artists. Absolutely storming.
Rodrigo y Gabriela – Tamacun
Mexican duo Rodrigo y Gabriela have done more than most in recent years to popularise the charm and versatility of the humble nylon-string. Here, in this Tiny Desk Concert, the pair showcase their effortless blend of rhythmic complexity and melodic invention.
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