Nick Haughton looks at the role of fingernails in guitar playing, especially classical and flamenco, and provides some tips and advice on shape, care and repair
What are they?
Fingernails are made of the same stuff as the hooves and horns of many animals: a tough protein called alpha-keratin. Their main purpose in life (unless you are a guitarist of course!) is to protect our finger tips from damage and to help us handle smaller objects. They are much more permeable than the skin (so be careful what you let them come into contact with) and contain 7 to 12% water
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of fingernail cultivation and maintenance, let’s take a look at a perennial debate that continues to stir up passion and fill blog pages and forums: do we actually need these things to play the guitar?
Nails v Flesh – which is better?
There’s no right or wrong here, just plenty of heated debate. Before we get into it, it should be mentioned that there is a third choice here: artificial nails. Here again there is an ongoing and lively debate about their merits and pitfalls. This article isn’t going to go there suffice to say that for some people, especially those with weak nails, it could be an interesting option. Some people swear by (and sometimes at) natural nails whilst others devote themselves to developing a flesh technique which involves the cultivation of fingertip callouses and, sometimes, very short nails to add a bit of top end to the sound. Some, like the great Tarrega, played with nails and then towards the end of his life played with flesh. Many classical teachers start their students for a year or two without nails to promote a deeper understanding of tone and dynamics. Here we’re going to have a quick look at the advantages and disadvantages of both methods.
The advantages: No nail care necessary. No mid-performance nail breakages. Rip open those cardboard boxes, yank the lawnmower out of the shed, fear no more the car-boot door, nibble your nails during scary movie moments, even unscrew that little screw when you don’t have a screwdriver at hand. Forget about oils and ointments, repair kits and nail files – life is simpler with short nails, and you’re always ready to play.
Disadvantages: Many argue that tone, volume and speed suffer. Proponents say that, with proper technique and practice, tone is actually better and more dynamic, volume is tied to technique and angle of attack and speed can be cultivated. The caveat? If you are going to switch to a flesh approach you are going to have to work at it hard, in fact you are probably going to have to play harder as more down or belly-facing force will be needed to get the optimum volume and tone out of each pluck.
Virginia Luque, Segovia’s last private pupil, is a virtuoso classical guitarist who plays with no nails. Take note, critics of the no-nails technique who state that playing without nails limits your speed, dynamics and tonal palette. Here’s a really interesting interview with her, where she discusses why she decided to play without nails and some of the results and implications of doing so: https://rmclassicalguitar.com/interviews/virginia-luque/
The advantages: Generally accepted but hotly debated: Increased volume. Better tone. Better Accuracy. It may well be easier to play with nails, especially flamenco piccata and other faster techniques.
Disadvantages: Nail care and nail fear. You have to adapt your life, somewhat, to remember not to do anything with your hands that could endanger those pluckers but, of course, they are just too exposed out there on the end of our digits and something will get you in the end — usually something stupid like slightly missing a door handle — and you’ll be plunged into the realm of emergency repair techniques and a month or so wait while things grow back. Surprisingly, one of the recurring complaints that I came across while researching this article, was from male players who felt ashamed of their fingernails because of negative reactions from females. In other words, it doesn’t fit the alpha male stereotype! Indeed, having even one hand with longer nails may prove to be a problem in various walks of life, sometimes especially for men: programmers or writers (lots of keyboard bashing), medical professions, mechanics, and some of the more prototypical male sales jobs all can experience conflict about having nails.
Most guitarists play with nails, and there seems to be an accepted length and shape, the length, which also depends on your right-hand angle, usually being a little longer for flamenco players whereas the shape is usually pretty uniform across styles. Note: excessively long nails are easy to break. Shape is a very personal thing, and the best one for you may not be the best one for another guitarist. Each individual’s technique plays a big role in deciding the best shape to go for. But, for the sake of this article, let’s stick to that generally accepted and most common profile we mentioned before: a gentle ramped shape which allows the first contact with the string to be mostly flesh. The string then travels across the finger tip and travels smoothly up the ramped nail, which, on release, provides for a more brilliant tone. What you want to aim for here is a 30º-40º angle starting from the thumb side of your hand. Here’s an illustration:
Tools of the trade
What you’re going to need to get and keep your claws in shape. Files. Stay away from nail clippers unless you need to do some major preliminary surgery. Here the choice is between a metal file or some other type. The advantage of a good metal file is that it’s not going to wear out on you. They will usually have a coarse face on one side and a fine face on the other: obviously, start with the coarse one if you have a lot of profiling to do and then switch to the fine side to perfect and polish your masterpiece.
It’s best to rest the subject hand on something solid like a chair-back or table and keep it still, while moving the file with the other hand. Once you have achieved the desired ramp you’ll want to polish your nails to get rid of any leftover roughness. Fine grade sandpaper is one of the best tools for this and it’s probably a good idea to always carry a bit with you to remove any unwanted micro-snags that may form at their will. We’re looking at anything between 2,400 and 12,000 grit here. You can pick up a set of papers from most online classical guitar outlets in their nail-care section, and you will be surprised at the difference this final polishing makes to your playing experience.
Final note: do try as you go when filing your nails. File a bit and pluck a string. Note the travel, the tone and comfort. If you’re new to this it’s going to take a bit of practise to get your personal optimal shape.
As with almost anything health-related on the internet, nail nutrition is a never-ending story. There is a plethora of information and advice which ranges from smothering your nails in gelatine every day to taking vitamin B or D supplements or elephant hoof strengthener. Beware of travelling medicine men and witch doctors. When we listen to what seasoned pros are saying though, the advice is much more down to earth and homogenous: be healthy, or if you’re not, get healthy. Apart from problems caused by general health issues, the key here is to keep your nails moisturised and flexible. Choose your potion: olive oil or special nail-nutrition oils, creams with vitamin E, jojoba oil or keratin. The list is long and if you have problem nails you will need to put in time to research an appropriate solution for you. Wear gloves for heavy manual work and when washing the dishes. Have a healthy lifestyle and a healthy, balanced diet. Oh, and don’t scrape your nails down that blackboard just because you like the sound.
It nearly always happens when you’re least expecting it. You’re hand slips on the car door handle and two month’s of careful nail cultivation goes down the drain. After the wincing and curses it’s time to swing into action and get our beloved digit into playing shape as soon as possible. Following a good bit of research it would seem that the generally accepted path here is that of Swiss (or cheaper) silk-wrap: this usually comes in the form of a self adhesive roll of silk tape which you apply to the damaged nail and then coat with superglue (or an expensive renamed version of the same, don’t be fooled) and then apply a second layer of tape and glue. The resulting creation then needs to be filed with progressive grit papers until the desired smoothness is attained. Savarez make a complete kit for nail repair which you can find on our store and other specialized guitar stores. Strips cut off coffee filters or tea bags are a good poor person’s substitute by the way, although they are harder to position, not being self-adhesive. Of course, you could just cut all your other fingernails off and take the plunge to become a flesh player from now on!
Sources and links