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Classical Guitar Fingernail Basics

Classical guitarists, for the most part, use fingernails on their right hands. Think of this post as a basic introduction to fingernail concepts. After you’ve read it, check out these posts for more info:

Classical Guitar and Fingernails – Some more in depth thoughts on fingernail length.
Fingernail Open Thread – Check out comments for information how people deal with odd fingernail shapes and growth such as bent or hooked nails.
Video Lesson: Fingernail Advice – A discussion of all the concepts outlined here. The video also includes the basic “how to” of shaping and smoothing your nails to get the best tone out of your classical guitar.

Fingernail Length

How long do your nails really need to be? I think that depends on what sort of sound you like and your technique. For me, long (super long, anyway) nails get in the way. I tend to have too work to hard to play with long nails. On the other hand, super short nails feel equally awkward. Find a balance. The good thing about nails is that they grow. I’d start with shortish nails (about even with the finger tip), and keep the edges nice (see below). As your nails grow, evaluate and see what you like. Like anything, you can take notes about this in your practice log.

Another thing is that your nails might actually need to be longer depend on your genetics. That is, your nail bed matters. That’s the part that give the nice pinkish color to your nails. Some people have very small nail bed which requires a lot of a white nail to show to get a decent length. Others have nail beds that extend all the way out to their fingertips. People with shorter nail beds will probably appear to have longer nails than those with bigger nail beds. I have a friend who looks like he has half-inch long claws for fingernails–turns out his nail beds are tiny. His nails barely poke out beyond his fingertips.

Use the Right Nail File

Emery boards are not good. Nor should you (EVER) use a nail clipper on the right hand nails. File them. A “diamond dust” file should be used. You want a very fine file that won’t take a lot of nail off all at once. If you can’t find something like that, just get a decent diamond dust file and run it over some rock or concrete to take some of the files potency away.**

Fingernail Edge Contour

The edges of your nails shouldn’t contain any jagged breaks or odd angles. A good way to think of if is that, if you were to lay your nail out flat, the edge would be a straight line. Whatever shape you decide to use, avoid odd contours on the nail.

Buff and Smooth Nail Edges

Every had your nails wear away from playing? Or maybe you’ve felt that you finger nails were catching on the strings or not releasing cleanly? That has to do with the edge. Assuming you don’t have any odd contours on which the string can catch, the next step is getting it smooth. Some super fine, wet/dry sandpaper works well for this–available at your local hardware store, it should be black in color. Other options are nail buffers or Micro Mesh Pads.

A good test is to hold the edge of the nail up to a light, it should be shiny and reflective – there should be a nice gleam on the edge.

Anatomy of the Guitar Player’s Nail

There’s a contact point and a release point on the nail. The contact point, for most of us, is on the left side of the nail where it meets the flesh of the fingertip. Those who play with a more Ida Presti technique will have a contact point on the right side.

The release point is where the nail leaves the string. We want this string’s travel along the nail to be easy. That’s what we avoid rough contours and buff the edge of the nail. I always think of the release point as the longest point of the nail.

Fingernail Shape

There’s many different ways to do this, and I have no clue what’s right for you. The best method is experimentation. I’ve been hesitant to write an article about nails because I feel that I don’t know anything. It took a lot of experimenting to figure out what works for me.

There’s the ramp style of shaping a nail mentioned in Pumping Nylon (aff.) or just a nice curved shape. Or anything in between! There’s many options. Start with one shape and experiment for a while, then try something else out. Take notes, choose what you like best.

Don’t be afraid to combine shapes. What works well on one finger might not work well on another. Mix and match if need be. Nails don’t have to look uniform. They just have to sound good.

I use a pseudo curved shape, but I put my release points more towards the right side of my nails instead of in the middle. Except for a, which has a release point closer to the center.

**Similarly, if you can’t find sand paper fine enough for your needs, just rub the sand paper on itself for a while to smooth it down a bit.

Got some nail tips? What works for your nails? Want to vent your nail frustrations? Post a comment below!

14 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 July 2

    Great post. I suffered a lot with my nails until I read Pumping Nylon. My nails hook drastically to one side, so the “ramp” is essential for me.

    Right now I’m experimenting with my ring finger, since it’s shaped differently from my other nails. I’m not convinced I’m getting the best tone out of it yet…

    ######
    I’m always messing around with my a finger. Unfortunately that one is hit and miss in the sounding good department. -CD

  2. 2009 July 2
    Carol A permalink

    My problem is not my right hand nails, it’s the left! My nails grow very fast and I seem to be endlessly sawing away trying to avoid buzzing strings etc. Having small hands doesn’t help as I have to stretch to reach the notes.

    I might add that this is my 3rd attempt at classical guitar playing – very frustrating that someone who can play other instruments quite well can’t do much with the guitar!

    ######
    I feel your pain, my nails grow super fast as well. Stick with it! it gets easier. -CD

  3. 2009 July 2
    Jamie C permalink

    I agree, a great and informative post. As for what to shape with, I’ve found that 3M’s Tri-M-Ite sandpaper works best for me. A full sheet will last you a long time, and it yields great results for both shaping and buffing (I use it mostly for buffing with a crystal file for shaping). You can get it at on most guitar websites (GSP, stringsbymail).

    I’m actually undergoing a bit of a nail crisis myself right now, and have been for quite some time. I have a growth (wart) at the cuticle of my M finger, and it’s doing terrible things to my nail. Since the nail grows at the cuticle, the wart is cutting off a lot of nutrients for healthy nails to grow, so it’s very brittle and has developed a nasty hook on the right side. It’s also actually growing faster on the right side, so when looking at the nail dead on, instead of a nice arch, it points to the right, which gives me pretty awful tone if I don’t get it right. Because of the way it grows, fake nails won’t stick either…really sucks!

    I’m currently working with a dermatologist to get that fixed, but it’s a slow process…then I have to wait for the nail to grow out completely from the cuticle…ugh! Until then, anybody have any tips? It’s mostly the hook that’s killing me.

    Okay, done venting…

    #######
    Have you tried gluing a ping-pong ball piece underneath the nail? That could be a good temp. solution. -CD

  4. 2009 July 2

    It’s good that you mentioned the matter of the nail bed. Players will sometimes try to file their nails to the length suggested by a photo of another player’s hand and will end-up with nails that are too long.

    Only my index and middle RH fingernails have ramps that extend along 75% of the edge. That is is because both nails are relatively flat. The ring finger nail is more evenly shaped on both sides because it is curved. The pinky fingernail is evenly shaped and a bit longer for flamenco rasgueos.

    For hygiene, I use a toothbrush and soap to clean underneath the nails.

  5. 2009 July 8

    A very good presentation here Chris. I agree that nails are very much an individual thing. The term “nail bed” is new to me but what you say is right on. The shape of the finger tips as well as the size of the nail bed will have a tremendous effect on the length of the nail. People frequently comment on my sound (generally good comments I mean) and are amazed at my short nails but my nail bed is quite long and my finger tips are more blunt than most so short nails go a long way with me.

  6. 2009 July 11
    Max permalink

    Good posting. The problems I’ve seen many face are both the issues of catching the string with a “hook” nail, or the nail that protrudes too far off of the finger that produces what I call “the pause.” This is a small interruption of the note that happens when the string falls between the flesh and the nail as it is plucked (producing a rather unappealing “click” sound with each note). It’s very slight, and even some professional guitarists do this and don’t even realize it. But once a serious student is aware of it, they will spend however long it takes to get rid of it.

    ********

    I have always subscribed to the method that my first guitar teacher taught me. When she was studying in Columbia as a child, she learned that fingernails are indeed individual to each player; no one disputes this. However, this individuality is no reason to stop the lesson of nail shaping (as MANY do). In fact, it IS the lesson. Because of the individuality of each players fingers, the lesson of nail shaping is:

    The tips of your fingers are to be the template for how your nails are shaped.

    Think about it; by shaping your nails the same as your fingertips you are instantly creating a “oneness” between the two which, as many will tell you, allows for the ideal sound. Quite simply, the best way to achieve this is by imitating the very finger the nail grow from.

    When one reads the countless instructional books on shaping nails they often times make reference to a rather defined angle they call a “ramp” that is suppose to allow the nail to easily guide the string off, producing a great tone. They are correct in this, but the method and degree of creating said ramp is usually misleading. There really is no pronounced ramp per se, but rather an uninterrupted union between the finger and its’ nail.

    Look at your fingertip. It is not perfectly round or symmetrical. There are tiny curves within the outline of the tip. It is these curves and angles that is crucial to
    the shape of your nail. (Incidentally, these same curves are also the “ramp” that all those books are talking about. If you file your nails to create a “ramp” and produce a good tone with it now, it’s only because your ramp just happens to be the same angle as your finger tip. It is not an isolated technique! This is one in the same.) I never knew how many tiny curves and angles my fingertip had until I looked at it under a magnifying glass. The larger the magnifying power, the more I saw what I needed to do with my fingernail shape. Try this as a starting point and you will be on your way to producing a warm tone others only dream of.

  7. 2009 July 18
    Robert permalink

    Why is fingernail length important for playing classical guitar? Was it always like this?

    #####
    No, it wasn’t always like this. We do use nails now, but early guitarists did not use nails. Even Taregga didn’t use nails. But most modern players today do. It’s a personal choice as far as I’m concerned — though using nails does make thing easier.

  8. 2010 August 24
    Matt D. permalink

    It is beyond me how anyone–even from centuries ago, can play classical guitar
    with absolutely no nails. That is to say, with any speed and anything but tiny little
    pencil sized fingers. Can someone explain?

    Also what is a remedy for hooked nails–that is, hooked at the tip when viewed
    straight on down the finger. Again, when I hold my right hand out in front of me
    with the palm facing my face, and bend my fingers down so I am looking “down”
    them, the middle of the tips of only the i and m finger have a slight (not huge)
    “beak”. Something like the beak of an eagle for instance. I believe this may
    be slightly hindering my speed. What to do?

    • 2010 August 26

      If you have hooked nails you’ll need to experiment more with your nail shape. That said, they’re going to be have to be very hooked to make a huge difference. Try doing more of a “ramp” (straight line) than a curve.

  9. 2011 January 13
    Michael S. Jackson permalink

    I don’t know if anyone will read my comment but I’m going to leave one anyway. I really liked the videos re: Ida Presti technique. However, I simply cannot play this way. If you notice her right forarm is almost perpendicular to the floor. To try to do this, I have to raqise my right shoulder extremely high and actually lean my body to the left (port). I wonder if this has to do with shoulder width? When I get into this contortion, I feel as if it would be easier if my shoulders were not so far apart (narrow, as they are with most women). I don’t know.
    But I did like the advice about relaxing and not pulling up on the string, stroke arc, etc.
    One thing I will try to experiment with is my left hand thumb in relation to the fretting fingertips. She said it sould be behind the middle or maybe even patially behind the left hand ring finger. What a difference from how my hand naturally goes! My thumb naturally goes to a point between my index and middle fingers. But when I play it usually ends up directly behind my index finger. I’ll try moving my thumb toward the guitar body (as opposed to the nut direction) and see what happens. Maybe this will cure my hand pain when I play; I’ve had this pain for 4 years now and can’t play more than about 30 seconds without severe pain in the base of my thumb. Also, I will try to get my thumb to roll over onto its side, as she said, but this is not natural for me.
    As for nails, if you do the Ida technique, it would make a huge difference on how the nails are shaped. I like a slight ramp with my nails a bit higher on the release point on the right side (as the hand is held outstrectched), with the “a” finger slightly more toward the middle. I noticed others posting here have said the same thing and that makes me feel good about my experimentation conclusions.
    Thanks for the ideas!

  10. 2011 January 20

    You should not do the Presti Technique, Michael. Those videos are more of a curiosity and a learning thing rather than practice advice.

  11. 2011 August 11
    Bob permalink

    Great comments. In addition to things mentioned, above, I push the cuticle back with one of those “thing-a-ma-gigs” that the ladies use. I also apply Hoofmaker now and then. As for length, I turn my right-hand palm facing me, then, with the thumb and index finger of my left hand, I squeeze the end of each finger against the finger nail of my right hand. I keep my nails filed to a point where I can just see a sliver of the nail over the top of my fingers. Hope that you were able to follow this explanation (it would be much easier to show you).

    This approach helps to take the guessing out of how much to file. For longer nails, you may want to see more than a sliver, etc.

  12. 2012 July 16
    Alex permalink

    Actually I find the best way to file the nails is to turn your hand facing you as if you have your right hand fingers planted on the guitar strings, and then align the file just under the nails and file in a straight line from the contact point(left side of nail) to the release point(right side of the nail). No matter what type of contour your nails have this method works but when you look at your nails facing you must see a straight line on each nail. The thumb nail would have to filed at a 45 degree angle with a straight line. Basically you want to file to be like the string on the guitar with thumb on it as if it is playing a string, and make sure to see a straight line on your thumb nail.

  13. 2013 July 3
    Solution to sore thumb permalink

    If your thumb muscle is painful try the following. Press very lightly on a string at a fret just until is buzzes. The press just hard enough to stop the buzzing and obtain a clear note. You will be amazed how little pressure is required and that will greatly reduce the stress on the thumb muscle (the Policis muscle). Do stretching exercises before you begin to practice. Hope this helps.

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