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