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Classical Guitar and Fingernails

Had a question of Kier over at Street Musician about fingernails. I thought I would put a response up here!

My Mrs. really hates long fingernails and has totally forbidden me to grow the sort of set you see proper classical guitarists sporting. I can finger pick reasonably well on the acoustic, but will I really need long nails to do well in the classical style or does it not really matter.

I’ve tried the finger picks on all fingers in the past and I just can’t stand them.

I don’t think you need fingernails to do well in the classical style. That said, they certainly make things easier. But first, a bit of background.

Guitar Strings in Motion

The big thing about fingernails is they increase your volume. The goal, and I explained in Good Vibrations, is to set the string vibrating perpendicular to the guitar’s sound board. That is, the string moves up and down–towards and away from the sound board. This produces the most sound and the best tone.

Most of making that happen is the way your fingers move. It means playing through the string with a good follow through of the right hand fingers back into the hand at first. Another way to think of it is that all the knuckles of hand move in the same direction. If you’ve every do the “one hand clap” that’s sort of the idea–or closing your fingers into a fist is the same thing. The follow through can be shorted later after a more firm technique is established.

Fingernails Help

Having a properly shaped nail helps displace the string in such a way that it’s vibrates more perpendicular to the sound board. And having those nails nice and smoother helps improve your tone (I use Micro mesh pads for this).

As you play through the string, the string moves up the nail towards the highest point where it releases. The nail literally helps push the string down into the soundboard then releases it. This same thing can be accomplished with the finger tip, which also has a naturally curved shape. The tone will not be as bright or loud, but that’s not a problem depending your personal preferences and amplification, etc. Some callouses will probably develop on the RH fingertips along the way and brighten the tone.

There are, of course, the stories about Tarrega not using fingernails. His student, Emilio Pujol, even wrote a book about nails vs. flesh, El Dilema del Sonida en la Guitarra.

But How Long Do Those Nails Need to Be?

Every guitarist will have a different opinion. Scott Tennant suggests that nails should be no longer than your fingertip in Pumping Nylon. Chris Parkening keeps his nails very long. Some give very specific advice like 1mm above the finger tip which is slightly ridiculous.

There’s no right answer. But short nails can work very well. So maybe the compromise can be nails that don’t protrude over the finger tip. I used to keep my nails very short, but since switched to preferring a longer nail. I’m not sure why. I did get a good tone and volume from short nails.

I think the other advantage, aside from tone, is that fingernails can help with accuracy. It’s really easy to get the string in that pocket on the left corner of the nail where the string connects with flesh. That’s something that’s developed, though, and there’s no reason why it can’t happen sans nails. The only thing I would be sure to watch for is that the string connects with the finger tip. Beware the fingers going too far into the sound-hole and the strings resting on the pads of fingers. Not good for technique or tone. Your finger tips, nails or not, should almost glide over top of the string.

Guitar Nail Contact Point

My Index Finger Contact Point

Do you have experience playing without fingernails? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!

18 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 June 9

    I wrote about my preferences and “why” into my blog.

    http://theguitarjournal.blogspot.com/2009/06/nails-with-or-without-and-how-long.html

  2. 2009 June 9
    Trev permalink

    I definitely prefer to play with nails. My nails meet the flesh on the thumb side corner, ramping to about 1.5mm on the opposite side. My a finger nail is slightly longer than i & m, because the nail is more curved than the flatter nails on the other fingers. It also appears to be slightly rounder when viewed from palm side. My thumb nail has a much steeper ramp, and is about 2-3mm long at its longest point.

    I would love to see a post that offers advice on how to get started with finding a nail shape that works. In my case, the biggest mistake I made early on was to look at photos of the fingernails that other guitar players used, and then break out the files and sandpaper in an attempt to reproduce them. This just does not work due to the wide variety of possible finger and nail characteristics. My advice would be to start with a basic ramped shape (Pumping Nylon #3 shape is a good starting point), and then look at other nail shapes to get some ideas. Instead of making drastic alterations to your nail shape, make slow, gradual changes while paying attention to the feel and tone – otherwise you could file your nails down to nothing from experimenting too much. Experimenting with different lengths is also important.

    It’s also helpful to keep notes on what you have tried, including what was good and bad about each nail shape. You should also be prepared to keep working on this for as long as you play the guitar, because aside from shape, your nails will change over time. What works today, may sound or feel awful a few years from now.

  3. 2009 June 10
    Max permalink

    my girlfriend also forbade me from growing long fingernails, and I have them at maybe just (and I mean just.. like 0.5mm) over the length of my fingertip.

    I get the sound that I find pleasing out of my guitar.

    Personally I think it depends a lot less on the nails than on general technique.

  4. 2009 June 27

    I find it incredibly hard to get anything like the best tone possible from my guitar without nails on my right hand. They need to be silky smooth too. I polish them with glass paper and on fabric (usually denim jeans). The sound is far more punchy and direct.

    I also find it very difficult to play technically harder pieces without nails. It just feels sloppy!

  5. 2009 July 30
    Yairi permalink

    It’s a tricky thing for sure.

    Somehow I find it more natural to play without nails, I prefer using only my fingertips, they provide a warm, smooth tone rather than that rougher, brighter sound of the nails. I don’t play classical pieces but bossa nova and similar genres, it might be that I find more difficult to play with the nails because I have been unconsciously developing my fingertip style playing right from my first guitar lesson. However, I navigated to this article while looking for advice on whether I should use nails or not, so I’m open to change, even though I find it challenging not to produce harsh noises and play equally loud on each strings with nails.

    And if it isn’t tricky enough, I’m planning to learn some flamenco while keeping on playing bossa nova. Probably the solution is fingerpicks. We’ll see.

  6. 2009 October 4
    _MusicMan_ permalink

    Omg….your MRS forbidds you to grow long nails for playing classical guitar.
    I would definately replace the wife!
    No doubt about it.

  7. 2010 March 12

    Because of the business I am in (fingernail conditioner), I have had a lot of contact with classical guitar players. Rico from RicoGuitarNails.com might be able to help the guy whose wife won’t let him grow the nails he needs (by the way, MusicianMan may have it right :)

    Anyway, from Rico’s website… 1) Finding a way to attach an artificial fingernail without using a toxic substance and which can be put on and taken off easily with no damage to the natural nail

    I am not affiliated with Rico in any way – other than he uses FlexiNail and loves it so much he recommends FlexiNail on his site. Anyway, thought this might help out Max. Derek

  8. 2010 August 27

    To increase the flexibility and health of my nails I’ve been using CND SolarOil. I put it’s description down below. It can be found at a fair price at most beauty supply stores. I got 15ml for like $8. I also have been using some Hard as Hoof here and there. But, from what I understand it’s good to get the nails flexible and healthy to prevent them from breaking. Next, according to a medical website the only thing you can eat to improve your nails, besides and overall well balanced diet, is biotin. They recommend 250mg per day. I am kind of tall and way 210 so I take two now and then. This is all in last ditch effort to get some guitar playing long lasting nails. Oh, one more thing…got some dish washing gloves, too. They say getting your nails wet often and washing them leads to breakage. I did a lot of searching and reading on the net for all this info. I’ll chime back in in about 6 months to say how it’s all going.

    CND SolarOil:

    A synergistic blend of naturally light oils and Vitamin E, designed to deeply penetrate and protect skin and nails.

    WHAT IT DOES:
    Jojoba Oil carries Vitamin E deeply into skin to help reduce visible signs of aging. Naturally light oils keep skin soft and supple. Keeps natural nails, nail color and nail enhancements tough and flexible. Repeated use drives oils deeper into natural nail.

    WHY YOU NEED IT:
    Super-penetrating formula conditions skin and nails.

  9. 2010 August 28
    Neil permalink

    A friend gave me a bottle of ECRINAL which has worked wonders on my fragile nails, but takes a couple of months to kick in if the blogged product is not available in your area. Absorbed into he nail, it is not cosmetic at all.

  10. 2011 April 7

    I am considering classical guitar playing.
    I HAVE A PROBLEM. I am missing about three quarters of an inch of my middle finger of my right hand.
    I wonder if anyone out there has a similiar issue and if so what have they done for it.
    I wonder if some form of pick might do the job or should I just stick to the acoustic and forget about the classical and flamenco which I really like.
    I am a beginner so I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot.
    I would appreciate any comments on my dilema.

    Bill Strohm

    • 2011 April 17
      John permalink

      Bill,

      If you love classical guitar there is no reason why you should not try. You will have challenges, certainly the traditional right hand movements in certain cases will not be possible. However, by using non-traditional techniques (maybe you can use your pinky finger?) you should be able to play a lot of really good music. A lot of playing requires alternating the index and second finger – which you should have no trouble with.

      Music is where the heart is – never let anyone discourage you because you are limited from the “traditional” style. Give it a go – and have fun. My experience is people are blessed not only by the music but by the heart of the performer – sounds like you’d be great. Just have to be a little creative.

    • 2011 November 12
      Edward permalink

      Check out guitarist Phil Keaggy. He’s missing half of his middle RH finger. He’s not a ‘Classical Guitarist’ but a ‘Finger-style’ player. He will knock your socks off. Ray Charles was blind. Stevie Wonder is blind. J.S. Bach was blind in later years. Beethoven was deaf in later years when he wrote what some call his greastest works. Thats right, deaf. Itshak Pearlman is wheelchair bound and is one of the worlds greatest violinists. Django Rienhardt had a severly burned left hand. I’ve seen people play the piano with their toes. There are thousands of handicapped musicians who are incredibly talanted in spite of (or maybe because of) their supposed handicaps. In fact, there are thousand of artists and athletes and people from all walks of life who have handicaps, some without use of their limbs, some who don’t even haven limbs, who excell in their chosen fields. Do some research on the internet or go to the library and to some research to find their stories.

  11. 2011 July 7

    I leave mine equal to the end of my finger tip. This allows me to use either flesh or nail so I can add color as a piece demands

  12. 2012 July 20
    Tom Higgins permalink

    Nails are a real problem with me . I Play Flamenco ,Modern music on a steel string ,and Classical Guitar. It is hell on nails . I have found silk wrap for nails -2 -3 layers with thin super glue and sanded and buffed does the trick . I have also used glue on nails from “Guitar Player Nails.com . Goe to this site and read the info . It is the most informative ,Dave Ker has done his homework . Many of the heavy hitters in the guitar world use his products. You will never have to play without proper nails if you have this system . Non-Toxic!

  13. 2012 July 31

    In my guitar pickin’ days, I always refused to grow out my nails, even though I knew it was effective. Just something about it that I can’t really come to terms with!

  14. 2012 November 8
    Andrea Malaguti permalink

    2 mm. of white brim at the top of the fingernail as seen from above does the trick, without preventing other functions of the right hand in daily life.

  15. 2012 November 13
    Pratap permalink

    Laurindo Almedia recommends using both flesh and nail to produce a better tone.Flesh producing too soft tone and nail a more metallic tone.The combination of both producing a more warmer tone.I prefer my nails to be just seen at the edge when i am holding my palms straight in front.

  16. 2013 April 30
    Bob permalink

    Acrylic. Not the exact “classical” feel OR tone but it takes 5 minutes to fix a broken one.

    I use the powder.
    I created the LONG classical fingernails first but unless you’re going to dive into technique and change to a “pure” classical stroke where the finger lingers above the strings instead (as most players do, me included) resting them on the strings.
    I’m finding myself filing and realized that – because I’ve played awhile – the fingernails are becoming exactly the length they need to be for my “technique”. (like a flailing fish)
    Your body interacts with your guitar and you will KNOW how long your fingernails need to be by using them. There’s no other way.
    Get the powder acrylic – try it. If you don’t like it have them removed, simple.
    Leave the LONG and work your way short.
    It’s pretty fun actually. My guy friends take great lengths to tease me about them but they’re crying when I’m done playing!!!

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