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Willie Nelson’s guitar sound and style are nearly as iconic as his singing, and he’s both written and performed countless country music hits.
When looking at how he gets that signature sound, one thing to consider is: What guitar strings does Willie Nelson use?
Willie Nelson has actually been using the same kind of strings for almost his entire career: LaBella Folksinger 830 Black Nylon strings for classical guitar. He started using them even before he got his iconic Martin N-20 classical guitar, affectionately known as “Trigger.”
The strings he uses, the guitar he uses and his playing style all contribute to the sound that has made him one of the most beloved musicians of any genre. Let’s look at how his strings contribute to his tone.
What Gauge Strings Does Willie Nelson Use?
Modern strings for classical guitars are almost all made of nylon, and the sizes are quite a bit different than the steel strings most people are familiar with. Here’s a more thorough breakdown of how string gauge and type can affect tone.
The LaBella Folksinger 830 Black Nylon strings gauges, from high E to low E are: Black Nylon: .029, .0335, .041; Golden Alloy: .031, .035, .044.
How Do Willie Nelson’s Guitar Strings Affect His Tone?
You might be able to hear one of his songs in your head if you concentrate. Think about the mellow tone of his solos and the way individual notes sound.
That is all a combination of the guitar, the strings and Nelson’s playing style. Some of that would come through no matter what guitar he was playing — listen to 1998’s VH1 Storytellers for when Nelson borrows Johnny Cash’s steel-string acoustic for a song to see what I mean.
You’d never mistake Willie Nelson’s distinctive playing for anyone else, but the end result of his gear and his style is a career stretching across decades that’s filled with legendary songs.
Let’s start by looking at how the strings he uses are a part of his tone.
One of the key things that affect his tone, at least according to some people, is right there in the name of the LaBella Folksinger 830 Black Nylon strings he uses. Nylon strings come in several varieties, including clear and black.
There is some disagreement about exactly how black nylon strings’ tone are different from clear ones, with some saying they sound brighter and others saying they sound warmer.
One thing is certain, though, they’re made to hold a lower tension than clear nylon strings, and so playing them feels different.
Willie Nelson’s Guitar and Guitar Strings
Since 1969, Nelson has primarily played a Martin N-20 classical guitar with a Baldwin Prismatone pickup.
It’s as fancy as you’d expect a Martin to be. It isn’t very highly decorated, but its top is Sitka spruce, its back and sides are Brazilian rosewood. It cost him $750 in 1969, which would be more than $5,700 today.
The guitar is actually a replacement; he’d been playing a Baldwin classical guitar — hence the pickup — but it was damaged by a drunk audience member. In the intervening years, the guitar, eventually named “Trigger” after movie cowboy Roy Rogers’ horse became an essential part of his sound.
The full story of Trigger has been told in a number of places. A long article from Texas Monthly in 2012 talks about Nelson’s life as well as that of his guitar.
Rolling Stone also put together a documentary that tells the story of Trigger:
The pickup uses a ceramic element for each string and vibration creates a small electrical signal that’s transmitted to an amp.
Willie Nelson’s Playing Style
Nelson is best known for country music, but it doesn’t take long listening to his work to hear influences far afield from just that genre. One of his musical heroes is Djano Reinhardt, known for playing “Gypsy Jazz” in the early 20th Century, something he’s spoken about a lot over the years.
Reinhardt had lost the use of several fingers and had developed a distinctive strumming style that relied on a makeshift pick.
Nelson’s love of Reinhardt is evident throughout his career, and he has both released a cover of Reinhardt’s famous song “Nuages” and regularly plays the song during concerts. He’s even released an official music video.
Nelson famously uses a pick, as well, something that is very unusual with a nylon string guitar, which are normally played fingerstyle.
You can see for yourself the impact his pick has had on his guitar — literally so. Trigger has a large hole in its top — and I’m not talking about the soundhole.
Instead, it’s on the lower side, and has been produced by years of the pick and Nelson’s fingers scraping against the wood.
If you think having an extra hole in your guitar sounds dangerous, you’d be right. The guitar is played all the time still, but it also gets an annual checkup, cleaning and repair from Austin, Texas, guitar technician Mark Erlewine.
This video looks at the history of Trigger and what goes into keeping it in playing shape for someone who plays as much as Nelson does:
Now that we’ve looked at what makes up Nelson’s distinctive guitar tone, it’s worth taking a second to think about why Nelson plays the way he does.
Nelson has a smooth, rubato playing style that sounds a lot like the way a human might sing. He’ll play quick runs of notes followed by chords followed by slower segments.
The warm, mellow tone that a Sitka spruce/Brazilian rosewood classical guitar produces is just about perfect for that style, and the contrast between the nylon string and a pick gives his playing a softer edge than a steel string would.
Add to that the pretty distinctive sound of the Prismatone pickup played through a clean amp and you have a warm but very clear tone that’s perfect for solos and chords.
That’s all a long way of saying that just putting a set of LaBella Folksinger 830 Black Nylon strings on your guitar won’t get you to sound like Nelson — there’s a lot more to it than that.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.