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Four Common Sense Ways to Keep Your Nails Safe

I started playing guitar hoping to impress girls. I ended up talking about my nails with a bunch of middle-aged guys

Part fetishism, part necessary evil, and part endless source of embarassment, the fingernails are both a guitarist’s trusted companion and their crux. Although mother nature blessed me with some reasonably strong claws—I often perform on steel-strings and the nails usually survive to tell the tale—accidents are always waiting to happen. It also seems that breakage happens more in the fourteen days or so before an important recital, not necessarily affecting the performance, but effectively pushing me to the brink of neurosis as I file, patch, wrap, and generally nurse the damaged nail in a series of desperate salvaging efforts.

Here are some general nail care (as in precaution) tips that I would like to share. Most of them are common sense, but so are most of the genuinely good things in life.

1. Keep your nails short

I know, I know, you’ve toiled to develop your beautiful tone and lightning-fast technique for years, and nail length plays a fundamental role, down to the micrometer. If however you can afford the time to experiment a bit, try filing your nails down to just a couple of millimeters (that’ a little over 1/16”). I have found that adapting my right hand technique to a shorter nail lenghth is a matter of minutes, and I am always surprised at how much cleaner, warmer, and clearer I sound with shorter nails. The underlying benefit: short nails are stronger and will often survive situations when a longer nail would break. One downside (aside from the fact that short nails might not work with your technique) is that if an already-short nail breaks or chips, you don’t have much room for a salvaging/rescuing operation.

2. Organize your pockets (gents) and purses (ladies)

Nails and metal don’t mix. Your house keys especially can do a number on your precious keratin…and so can that miniature nailfile you thought you’d always like to have around. The solution? Keep potentially hazardous objects in your left front pocket, or in a separate compartment of your purse/murse. Also, get in the habit of carrying purses and bags on your right side, so that you are likely to reach into them with your left hand. This latter point leads seamlessly into the next one, that is…

3. Train yourself to reach with your left hand

Door handles, car doors, miscellanea objects you need to pick up: a slight miscalculation in reach can mean losing a nail. This is a tip that I got from a Christopher Parkening interview many years ago, and I’ve tried to follow it as closely as I can. To offer a (slightly painful) example: I just recently cracked my thumbnail when trying to get my laptop out of my messenger bag. The laptop got stuck against a half-open zipper, I lost my grip…and crack. Just what I needed with a schedule full of performances.

4. Wear gloves

This last tip is really the most basic of all, but it cannot be emphasized enough. Whenever you’re doing something potentially hazardous for your nails (and, I might add, your hands), a sturdy pair of gloves are an absolute necessity. Light gardening gloves with a no-slip palm work perfectly—as in my cautionary tale above, slipping objects are among the most dangerous things for your nails. Beware of cardboard boxes and heavy, bulky things in general—always offer your friends a helping hand for their big move, but make sure the hands you offer are safely guarded by some nice gloves.

10 Responses leave one →
  1. 2012 March 6

    That is why I keep my keys in my left pocket now instead of the right.
    Still working on the ambidextrous thing… really hard to train yourself to reach with the left hand for door handles versus the right hand.

  2. 2012 March 7

    This is a great little article. I most definitely agree that the tone quality from a slightly shorter nail length is much warmer, even slightly more glassy. This could possibly because the nail is a little thicker being shorter?

    I also like the feel of shorter right hand nails in terms of touch on the strings; I always feel a little more in control when they’re at that “just so” shorter length. Too long and it’s feels like there’s more nail to move around and they get a bit clickety-clackety against the strings. This is all about fractions of millimetres, but definitely makes a difference.

    The thing that always gets me is my right hand nails in zippers. I need to learn to do zips up with my left hand!!

  3. 2012 March 7

    Oh man, I’ve done the laptop/thumbnail thing so many times. I’m really careful about it, too; it only happens when I don’t expect it to. ;)

  4. 2012 March 7
    Dave Pelham permalink

    Yeah, I’ve had nail disasters and ultimately have to keep them pretty short, too, and for the most part I do fine with them. I can adapt to that easily, but for one exception: quick arpeggio pieces. Brouwer Study no. 6 and Villa Lobos Etude no. 1, etc. just seem to go much cleaner with longer nails. But maybe I just need to improve my technique and accuracy!

  5. 2012 March 7
    Trevor permalink

    If you carry pointed things in any of your pockets – nail files, pens, pencils etc., point them down, you may forget they are there (I learned that one the hard way).

  6. 2012 March 7

    Welcome to the lefties world!

    I am a lefty playing right (or is it really??? ;-) )… And although that might seem like an obvious thing to do everything with your left hand, you’ll start noticing how awkward it is to be a lefty in a right world (o boy, reading this is so weird)

    A lot of things are not made for lefties that you probably never thought of but that I experience for my entire life and that I especially noticed after getting serious with guitar…

    I posted an article on my blog about ‘the “right” way to play an instrument… http://www.samdesmet.com

    PS: The good thing about this is: you can play bowling every day if you want! hehe

  7. 2012 March 8
    Neil permalink

    All too often I have done ‘short’ jobs in the garden with no gloves and lost one or more nails. Tops tips above. It is remembering to follow them when it is most important.

  8. 2012 March 8

    Don’t forget to buff the nails AFTER practicing as well. Small tears in a nail can easily turn to larger ones if you leave the nail unattended until your next practice session or performance.

  9. 2012 March 8
    James Messick permalink

    Great article! While I also think that nails which are a little longer are nice to play with I have found short nails work very well and are much easier to live with. Also, I don’t really care for the look of long nails, at least not on myself (or men in general).

    I find that nails are a natural “tool” that I often find myself using, whether it be for opening a pop-top on a can of catfood or something else. To this purpose I let the thumb nail on my left hand grow out enough so that I do have a “disposable” tool available for times such as this.

  10. 2012 July 12

    I’ve just rediscovered classical guitar after many years and I find it impossible to live a normal life and grow my nails as well. So I’ve taken the drastic step of using acrylic nails and I’m quite surprised how good they are. I’m sure that I’m sacrificing tone but it means I can have nails whatever length suits me and don’t have to worry about chipping them. I looked at various sites that sell “Nails for Guitarists” but in the end I went to my local bargain shop and bought a set for £2 and they work great. They do look a bit strange and I have to explain to people that I’m a guitarist and not a transvestite but they are helping me get to grips with Recuerdos which I couldn’t do without long nails. Has anyone else tried acrylics?

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