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Ask the Readers: Fingernail Open Thread

I’d like your help. I get a lot of requests for fingernail advice. However, I feel that I’m the least qualified to give it. Many of the people who contact me have odd shaped nails or hooks or some other issue. I don’t have any experience with that as my nails are very well suited for guitar playing. I’ve written an article about fingernail basics, but it did not go into shaping.

Have you had trouble with your nails due to awkward shapes? What did you do to get over it? Or, if you’re still working on it, what did you try that didn’t work?

I’d be interested in hearing from those of you with thin nails. What did you do to strengthen them?

Please leave your stories in the comments!

28 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 October 9
    Brendan permalink

    I would try rubbing them habitually. (promotes blood flow) Or even rubbing various oils into them. (coconut oil or such) I used to have rather brittle and thin nails, whether or not this method actually works if up for review. I used to do this and now my nails are seemingly indestructible.

  2. 2009 October 9

    I have developed a couple of high ridges on my A finger nail which also causes a bit of a dip between the ridges. The only way I have found to deal with it is to slightly adjust my angel of attack. Or, use an artificial nail. The Rico nail system is the best in my opinion.

  3. 2009 October 9

    I can only speak for myself as a 2-yr amateur (albeit a serious one).

    My nails are kept at about the same length as what I’ve seen from photos of the Romeros’ hands. I ramp my nails slightly but each one’s overall shape and length is determined by the nail’s width, its nail-bed size, its curvature, and its angle to the strings. One misconception that I had in my first months as a guitarist was that all my nails (i, m, a and c) were supposed to be identically shaped and have about the same length.

    A lot of my shaping was developed through trial-and-error. If a nail catches, I try to find out why and where and reshape the nail. I’ll point my fingertips to my face to examine the curvature of the front edge of my nails; revealing to me any hooks that might cause problems. If I find myself “missing” a string, then I allow a nail to grow a bit longer.

    I too felt that I had weak nails when I started out and used Onymyrrhe for a couple of months. I came to the conclusion that using a very good moisturizer was enough. I now use Hemp hand moisturizer from The Body Shop in the mornings and before I go to bed.

  4. 2009 October 9

    I stopped having problems with my nails after I read Scott Tennant’s book. I think he breaks it down pretty well. My nails hook violently to one side, so I have to ramp them or they catch like crazy.

    Except the ring finger which has a v-shape, so I ramp it the other way. My basic rule of thumb is that when I look at my nails straight-ahead, the should look like an even curve.

  5. 2009 October 9
    Brian permalink

    For years I had terrible problems with weak and flimsy nails. No sooner would I get them all grown out and nicely shaped when another one would break and I’d have to struggle along without it or mess around with artificial nails. I finally found RicoNails from Rico Stover on the internet and that was a blessing as they were very good as artificial nails go, but still it was a pain to have to be constantly messing around with artificial nails on an almost continuous basis. I tried some moisturizers and various paint on fingernail strengthener products but none of them seemed to do much good for me.

    What finally resolved my problem was I started taking a mulivitamin and mineral supplement from the local health food store just because I was concerned that my diet wasn’t the best when it came to eating the proper amount of fresh vegetables and fruit etc. When I started on the supplement I had not given any thought to it actually doing anything for my flimsy fingernails, but after I had been taking the supplement for a couple of months, I suddenly realized one day, “Hey, my thumbnail is getting to be ginormous (it was always breaking as soon as it got to be a useful size), and I haven’t broken any other nails for quite a while now. What’s up with that?” Upon closer examination my nails did appear to be much thicker and stronger than I had ever seen before. For a about the last year and a half now since I have been on this supplement, broken nails are a rarity instead of an everyday occurrence, and I can honestly say that my nails really are “hard as nails”.

    • 2012 July 13
      Kathy permalink

      What type of supplements do you take?

  6. 2009 October 9
    Trev permalink

    Brendan and GuitarVlog have already touched on this, but I think that massaging the nails with a moisturizer regularly is very important.

    I have been playing for about ten months now, resuming my guitar studies after a long hiatus. When I first started playing again, I had some difficulty with hooked nails. I found that using a ramped shape, and keeping the nails relatively short were both helpful. Back then, my cuticles were very ragged and torn in places, and after doing some research I leaned about the importance of having healthy nail beds for growing strong nails. I started to apply moisturizer at least twice a day, and have kept up that routine ever since.

    Ten months later, I have incredibly strong nails. The hooking is only slight now, and my nails seem to be a bit more arched when I view my fingertips head on. I also changed the shape of my nails. Instead of ramping across the entire width of the nail, I now try to create a small flat area where the nail contacts the string, and then I ease off the ends of the nail a bit instead of continuing the ramp.

    I use my cuticles as an indicator of nail health. If they start to look dry and begin to tear or crack, that’s a sign that I need to moisturize more often. Paying attention to the cuticles is an easy way to get healthier, stronger nails. After all, the nail beneath the cuticle is going to be the tip of your nail many months down the road. Start taking care of it today!

  7. 2009 October 9

    For me, I always file my nail on an angle. If I’m touching the nail file to the end of my fingernail, I go about a 45 degree angle down under my nail. This works great for nails that have weird hooks or “holes” in them. For me, I use it because I have some weird lines that grow through my nails length wise and the angle seems to help control that and even out the playing surface.

    As for strengthening nails, I don’t have a weak nail problem (my nails are extremely thick, my thumb nail is probably the same density as a 2mm dunlop pick). However, Richard Provost (my teacher from Hartt) recommends the CVS brand Vitamin E lotion to rub into your hands and fingers. For whatever reason, he finds that the CVS brand works better…go figure.

  8. 2009 October 9
    Randall Vidas permalink

    Wow! Big subject area here. Here are my top three nail tips I learned out of necessity:

    1. Many odd shaped nails (if not from injury) result from some type of habit that normally involves pressure to the nail at the cuticle line. Stop the behavior and the nail often returns to a more normal shape.

    2. Weak nails…there is no nothing better in my mind than gelatin tablets, and more importantly ONYMYRRHE oil, which can be purchased at many online beauty or classical guitar stores. The product comes in a small nail polish-like bottle and is painted on to the nails several times a week. After a period about three weeks you will notice your nails growing much quicker and stronger than normal. ONYMYRRHE was used in the past to strengthen the hooves of horses, GREAT STUFF!

    3. Lastly, for broken nails, or if you are looking to strengthen the sound of a particular nail, the best thing going is a self-shaped fake nail made from a ping-pong ball!!!! Once applied to the bottom of the original nail, the ping-pong substitute files like a regular nail, yet can be polished and to a much greater degree. This results in fantastic tonal and volume control. Also, For a performance quality look, I recommend filling the transition from the real nail to the ping-pong nail with cornstarch and crazy glue, and then topped-off with a covering cut from a teabag. Once glued to the transition point the new nail will be Rock-Solid and will file and polish down to a very normal looking nail (as long as you don’t use an orange ping-pong ball).

    Enjoy, rv

  9. 2009 October 10

    I have weak i and m nails… I play a lot of electric guitar also so this makes it worse with breakage.

    The solution>>>> Rock Hard Nail Hardner…. It’s about the strongest stuff you can buy. It’s advertised as being 5x stonger than anything else you can buy. You can find it at Sally’s Beauty Supply for about $10 a bottle….After using this, my problems of weak nails went away for good…

  10. 2009 October 11
    Evan Westre permalink

    When it comes to nails, tips that aim at an objective method are helpful, but in the end, the nails are just as subjective as every other aspect of one’s guitar playing. This being said, there are numerous different ways one can shape and care for one’s nails and none of these ways are ‘wrong’.

    I recommend actually creating a nail log. It sounds odd, but will pay dividends in the end. Experiment with your nails, and try shapes/lengths that you would not normally try. In the couple weeks where you adapt to something new, you may find that it is just what you were looking for. Do not be paranoid of change. Just keep a log and document what you tried, what worked and what didn’t. The nails are to be a compliment to your technique and will greatly enhance your overall performance when the true compliment is discovered.

  11. 2009 November 24
    teefcycle permalink

    Thanks a a lot

  12. 2010 March 22

    I’ve read through the comments. First, don’t waste your money on gelatin tablets or likewise. General healthy nutrition is all you need. Unless you are malnourished – even oral vitamins aren’t going to help your nails.
    Be very wary of “hardeners” as they work by binding the nail elements together – then unfortunately make your nails brittle down the road.
    The person that mentions the health of the nail has it right. Your nails take months to grow and reach the end of the finger. I work for FlexiNail and can tell you that applying a nail conditioner like ONYMYRRHE or preferable a penetrating conditioner like FlexiNail – I work there and it is much better :) . Looking after you nails will serve you well for your playing. I know Rico from Rico Guitar Nails uses FlexiNail and recommends us on his site. Not only are you “hydrating” the nail from the start of its growth but you are making them very difficult to crack or break. If people from this site would like to try FlexiNail, I will give you a $5 discount on your purchase and ALSO donate 50% of dollar amount you purchase to the owner of this blog to help pay for the expenses of keeping it running. on the http://www.FlexiNail.com site… use coupon code:
    CGB

    hope you enjoy. Derek

  13. 2010 August 7
    shag permalink

    I don’t know if anyone will see this as it’s a while since the last comment, but anyway… when I grew my nails to play guitar some fifteen years ago, they were very flexible and could be folded back into the finger easily; they were sort of “floppy”. I broke one every few weeks. Now I’ll go years without breaking a nail. They are tough as hell. (And you know how I feel about hell. It’s extremely tough). The only problem I have is wearing the nails out on the playing side.

    Here’s what I think strengthens nails: playing the guitar a lot over a protracted period. I do use a moisturiser (Vaseline intensive care, or anything pink with the same smell), but this is mainly to make the nails softer and give a nicer sound. I think the nails have just thickened up with “exercise”, like a muscle would. I have no evidence for this, but it seems to be my experience.

    Thanks for the nice blog. Hope this makes sense folks. I’m a bit drunk.

  14. 2011 January 13
    Bonita Majonis permalink

    OPI Natural nail strengthener (not Nail Envy, Natural Nail Strengthener

    Start with two coats (don’t paint the cutucle so it can breathe), each time you play use sandpaper to smooth out imperfections and then paint on another coat. Remove once a week and start over again.

    This stuff works–take it from someone who was reduced to crazy glue for a while.

    Also take biotin 3 times a day. It’s a B vitamin, strengthens nails and hair.

  15. 2011 January 13
    Michael S. Jackson permalink

    Lots of comments here. I do have to admit that I probably won’t be buying onymyrrhe oil because I can’t pronounce it. I have been using a product called Reconstux for about a year and a half, but I can’t say that it does anything except make my nails oily for a while until it dries.
    Regardless, here is my problem. I admit that my feelings about it are rooted somewhat in a degree of envy for those who don’t have to use their hands in physical hard labor (some might say to work for a living) or live an active lifestyle (sports, remodeling, etc.). It’s kinda like being envious of those whose parents paid for their education as opposed to those, like me, who had to work my way through 10 years of higher education.
    I’ve long noticed guitar players with beautiful long nails and I have just about given up ever being able to have nails like that. How do you keep nails like that when you pour cement? Rebuild a wood floor? Lay carpet? Rebuild an engine? Chop wood? Or do anything with hour hands except play guitar? When my nails reach the ends of my fingers, I guarantee they will be broken, snagged, or ripped off within two days.
    And my nails are strong – very strong. In order to play guitar I must use the ping pong ball method but since my nail usually breaks off below the quick, I can’t super glue it to the underside of the nail (there is none). Instead, I make a new nail which I glue over top of the nail. I even break these off quite often, but I just make a new one. I look weird, I know, but such is life.
    The problem comes in when I try to grow my nails out – which I would very much prefer. Super glue destroys my nails and makes them very thin. So doing the ping pong ball thing is a vicious, never ending, circle.
    If anyone can ever solve this problem, I bet they will make a LOT of money!

    • 2011 February 24
      John Pino permalink

      Michael,

      Do you have very thick leather gloves to use when to do construction type work? Seems like leather gloves are getting harder to find, but if you get some that are very thick, or better, have a double thickness of leather on the last joints of the fingers, that can help protect your nails. Whenever I’m doing carpentry, I use those and for really rough work, I stuff a cotton ball in the inside of of the p,i,m, and a fingers. Since nails aren’t an issue for the left hand, you can use a glove on it if you’re dealing with splintery wood, but if you need to pick up nails, screws, etc, use an ungloved left hand. When both hands are needed in a construction scenario, using a cotton-balled glove on the right hand, but still being very careful with how your right hand is used, will usually mean less nail problems for the right hand.

      In non construction type work, but just day-to-day activity, the best thing is to learn to use your left hand a lot more. Things like car door handles, zippers, snaps, even guitar case latches, all can zip off a nice nail in a heartbeat. When you have to use your right hand, try to use the little finger if possible, which doesn’t really need a nail(unless you do flamenco), or maybe the edge of the heel of your right hand.

  16. 2011 January 13
    Justin permalink

    Wow, I am surprised no one here has mentioned my method. I do a lot of work with my hands and I need something super hard not to break. I use a combination of Super glue, and tissue paper. Generally one coat of super glue to get me started. Then a small piece of white tissue paper (dries clear) about 1/8 – 3/16ths of an inch long and cut to match the nail profile. Put a dab of glue on the nail, then apply the tissue paper. Wait for it to dry, then apply two more coats. You will have a rough finish. File that smooth with your emory boards, then add one or two top coats. Presto! nails hard as rocks. I have broken the tissue paper/super glue top a few times, but it has always been enough to save the nail. Lasts anywhere from 4- 8 weeks. It did effect my tone some, but a change of my nail profile, and right hand attack angle, and I think my tone is decent. More important, I can have nails that don’t break when I work. I got the idea from !Guitarra!, Julian Breams documentary on Spanish guitar. In it he interviews Paco Pena, who mentioned he put glue on his nails. If it is good enough for Paco, then it is good enough for me!

  17. 2011 May 10

    I have hooked fingernails, specifically my A finger. In addition to being thin and generally weak, the hook problem results in the nail growing at a 90 degree angle past the nail bed. As a young player the problem destroyed arpeggios and tremolo.

    My cure for this is the Guitar Player Nails product. I use one on my A-finger only and for my other terrible nails, I simply avoid water and harsh chemicals (think rubber gloves when housecleaning). I even started a Facebook page on this product recently and would love some input on it!

    https://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=group_105036926240796&ap=1

  18. 2011 June 5
    Blueno permalink

    I have had the best luck with wonderfully cheap and wonderfully messy Neats Foot oil on a Qtip daily; normally for moisturizing leather and horse hooves, available at your local home supply. Read the cautions on the label, of course. My issue was hooked thin brittle nails.

    Blueno

  19. 2011 November 9
    Gary Mollenkopf permalink

    Fingernail length and shape is still a problem for me a year after beginning to learn to play classical guitar. I have naturally rounded nails the tips of which sit well behind the rounded part of my fingertip. They have NOT lent themselves well to any ramping regardless of the length at which I’ve filed them. (I have tried every length from barely any white showing to nearly a quarter inch of white showing.) I am meeting the most success with about an eight of inch of rounded (not ramped) nail showing beyond my fingertips while looking at the palm of my hand with fingers extended. When catching occurs, generally at the point at which my nail exits the cuticle, I gently round the newly exposed area with a file, and that takes care of the problem. Getting the nails at the right length to obtain optimal tone from the instrument has been a challenge!

  20. 2012 February 17
    Martin Shellabarger permalink

    I used to be a semi-professional flamenco guitarrist, and I have the worst nails in the word: they are thin and when they break, they break unevenly and then rip into the quick. Not a pretty sight. I used to use white muslin fabric (like that used in cotton sheets), cut to shape like the top 3/4 ths of the entire nail. I would lay them on top of the nail and then saturate them with SuperGlue and file smooth, shape them when they were dry. Good tone, durable, but they tend to destroy the nail, making it thin, weaker and soft, which means one must give the nails a “rest” from the superglue periodically. I ended up stopping playing because of my nails, now I will try the vitamin and nail conditioners and see if that helps. Thanks to all for the suggestions.

  21. 2012 May 4

    Hi,

    I have few somewhat odd advises, that usually work for my students:
    For weak nails, try rubbing olive oil at the root of your fingernails, for few days/week. That is suppose to strengthen the root, and thus the nail will start growing stronger. The best results, if you use cold press oil, that you can find in Co.op markets. even better results are with garlic oil, that is not easy to find, but you can just cut garlic clove in two halves and again rub the oily, the root of the nail, right where it starts growing.

    For people with nails that have weird shapes, for example curve at the end or edges, try warming the spoon on the stove and then correct the shape. Since the spoon is going to be hot, you want to use sand paper between fingertip and nail to protect from burning! You don’t want to do this too often, since it makes nail a bit thin. (I usually do it before performance and then get nice rounded tone).

    cheers!
    Maja

  22. 2012 June 2
    Stephen permalink

    I use Hoof-Alive, obtained from a tack and feed store. It is a horse hoof conditioner that has really helped my nails become healthier. Instead of breaking, ripping, or pealing, the nail will only bend and not be destroyed when stressed. My nails are still thin, but they are now strong and much less susceptable to damage. Hoof-Alive contains lanolin, safflower oil, almond oil, avocado oil, vitamin E, lecithin, aloe ,wheat germ oil, and coconut oil. A small tub costs about $15 and contains enough to last several years. The young woman in the tack and feed supply told me that many of the female employees use it for their nails, and that nail salon owners buy large tubs of horse hoof conditioner, then repackage it into small plastic ramekins for sale in their salons.

  23. 2012 August 15
    John permalink

    On shaping hooked nails – I believe I’ve tried every possible shape (beginning & returning to Scott Tennant’s recommendations) over the past 7 years. The hook still grabs. My solution has been the ‘hot spoon’ trick. That reshapes the nail to a ‘normal’ curve. It lasts a day or so before needing another treatment. I would love to hear from someone who has solved this issue with shape alone.
    Great forum. Thanks, John

  24. 2012 September 11
    Steven permalink

    Before taking supplements my fingernails hooked horribly straight down. After taking the daily supplements I no longer have any hooking and as a plus the fingernails grow faster and are much stronger. These supplments are generally beneficial for hair and skin, too. No, they won’t reverse baldness but your hair will look better, and for the ladies, many fewer split-ends. :)

    I take some daily vitamin/mineral supplements, nothing mega-dose, just regular dose one a day supplements.
    1. standard daily vitamin/mineral tablet
    2. Biotin supplement, at least 100omg but I take 5000mg, daily.
    3. Hair, Skin and Nails daily tablet supplement.

    You can find this stuff at many pharmacies but here is a quick online reference with great prices and quality product: http://www.swansonvitamins.com – just search their site for Hair, Skin and Nails and then Biotin. Look over what is in the supplements and research on this site and elsewhere, of course. Biotin is a form of Vitamin B and is also raw material for hair, skin and nail building and maintenance. The other supplement typically has MSM, Horsetail and a few forms of Vitamin B along with PABA and maybe some gelatin. Some also have Biotin but take the separate Biotin supplement.

    Moisturizing the fingernails is important and some moisturing creams also strengthen, as others have mentioned. I like the story of Hoof-Alive from the livery store. :) I personally use Hard as Hoof which I buy at Walmart in the makeup dept and which is really just a nail moisturizer. My nails are already semi-steel. :) As someone who used to own horses, the hoof treatments really do work on horse hooves so I believe their fingernail use for conditioning and strengthening really works. But take the supplements daily if you want to promote healthier, stronger fingernail growth… typically people are not allergic to any of this stuff. :)

    I also found the fingernail care for classical guitarists as described by Scott Tennant (see Pumping Nylon, or other books of his) to be excellent.

    Before taking supplments, per Tennant’s advice, I filed my nails at an angle, the so-called chisel angle. But now that my nail hooking is gone, I file them with a typical rounded shape.

    As to nail length, the mainstream advice is to maintain the length just beyond the end tip of the flesh. This works for me – best modulation of flesh and nail, at least for me.

    Though some players, excellent players, play with long fingernails, I mean looong! Check out Tom Ward, for example. Check out Tom’s nails and his guitar playing:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BudOnxI7NxM

    I am probably not related to Tom. I’m here in the USA he’s from Tasmania. But I would love to share his guitar gene genetics. :) He is GOOOOOOD!

    He is also a very exciting, emotional player. Tommy Emannuel is also a very expressive player. He’s an Aussie. Must be something due to the southern hemisphere.

    Tom get’s his nails done professionally at a manicurist wherever he travels and that is his advice: let the manicurist pamper your nails. An excellent fingerstyle steel string guitarist, Pete Hutlinger, also recommends going to the nail salon. I’ll have to give it a try sometime.
    Steven Ward
    —–

  25. 2013 April 26

    My fingernails don’t have any unusual bumps or anything like that, but I do tend to keep them maybe a little longer than necessary. Always had difficulty with my little finger though.

  26. 2013 July 3
    Doug permalink

    Want to play fast? We all want speed, right? Here’s the deal. If you have thin, flexible nails you will never play fast. The nail will distort around the string, causing an unavoidable delay coming off the string. Your nails have to be about as stiff as a thick guitar pick. It should take a significant effort to bend them with your thumb. The way to fix this, and still have relatively normal looking nails, is as follows: grow your nails to your desired length, and shape them to your satisfaction. Get a good clear nail hardener, paint it on, let it dry. Repeat x 3. Take a coarse emery board and carefully work the entire convex surface of the nail, attacking from many different angles, until you have smoothed all the irregularities. Do not take the hardener down to the nail in any area, especially the area near the edge of the nail. Apply another coat or two. Let dry over night. Work the hardener down a bit more to get the irregularities out. Then, using finer and finer emery boards, buff out. Your nails will be almost impossible to bend or break, and they will look almost natural. If you get them shaped right, you will notice an amazing improvement in your technique very quickly. Try to develop speed with a strict economy of motion, activating the string with a minuscule movement. Keep your fingers just millimeters off the strings at all times. Index your hand horizontally and vertically like it was attached to a two dimensional sliding mechanism with an x/y axis. Never move your hand in the z axis (away from the soundboard). Stay in position always. Here is a tip: Find the hand position that is best for playing a rest stroke on a string. Your fingers should be just slightly curved, almost straight, especially the index finger. The nail on the index finger can be slightly longer than on the middle finger. After playing a rest stroke, and maintaining the hand position, you are in the perfect position to play a free strokes on the string your finger winds up resting against. If you want to continue playing rest strokes on the string your finger lands on, you have to lift your hand up exactly as much as the distance between strings. Leaving the too-curved-for-rest-stroke finger against the string, and using it to steady the hand, draw the hand upward exactly the distance between strings, which straightens the finger out (remember, for a rest stroke the finger needs to be just slightly curved, almost straight), and puts the fingers in position for rest strokes. Then just use a regular rest stroke motion with the finger you are alternating with , using movement generated mostly at the big knuckle. It is the rare guitarist that can play a difficult piece and ignore the above.

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