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.
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. A nail buffer also works.
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.
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 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.