Classical Guitar Fingernails – A Guide to the Guitarist Nail
Classical guitar fingernails can add warmth and beauty to your playing. But they can also sound tinny and brash. And aren’t they a pain to take care of? (“What will my friends and co-workers think?”)
While they do take getting used to, classical guitar nails can bring beautiful new sounds to your guitar playing. And once you know how to shape and care for them, they don’t take much time.
Contents (click the link to go to that section, or scroll down):
- Do you need fingernails to play guitar?
- The end goal of nails
- How nails engage the string
- The role of guitar technique
- How to shape your fingernails
- The thumb nail
- Polish nails for best sound
- How to run nails experiments
- How to repair broken nails
Do you need fingernails to play classical guitar?
The question of nails is truly personal. Many people think it inconvenient to maintain fingernails, even on one hand. Many players work in professions that do not permit long fingernails (culturally or practically). And so they opt to keep their nails short.
Classical guitar nails are not absolutely necessary to playing guitar. You can choose to play without nails. In fact, traditional lute technique uses short or no nails. So there is a historical basis for playing without nails as well.
But using nails allow for a much wider range of tone color on the instrument. You can have very lush, warm sounds, as well as very bright, metallic sound. Smooth nails allow us to create a wider variety of sounds and volumes.
Start with the end in mind
The actual shape of the nail or length of the nail should be determined by what it ultimately needs to do. The way we play guitar will affect the ideal shape of the nail. (Unless guitarists play left-handed, in which case they sound the strings with the left hand.)
Before shaping the fingernails, it’s useful to review classical guitar technique. Good form, positioning and technique will make our guitar playing sound more beautiful.
Also, the different characteristics of our unique fingers and nails also affect the ultimate shape and length of our fingernails. Some people have very meaty finger tips. Other people have the very thin tip that slopes away from the nail at a severe angle.
Some people have very flat fingernails, while others can be curved or hooked. Nails grow in a variety of different ways.
So there is no a particular length or shape work for everyone. There are, however, methods of shaping that can be used by nearly everyone, regardless of playing style. More on these below.
What happens at the string level?
To understand how to shape your nails, you need to first understand how they stroke the strings.
When the string is activated in a circular motion, the resulting sound is warm and beautiful.When the string is snagged or hooked, the string vibrates with more of a back-and-forth motion, which makes the sound brash and ugly.
So we want our stroke to activate the string in a circular motion (not back and forth). To do this, the string must slide off of the skin (flesh) and fingernail as the finger moves through the string.
If the finger nail snags in any way, it will produce a bad tone. A good stroke produces a good sound.
So we don’t need necessarily long nails. We instead benefit from well-shaped nails that work with our playing technique.
Technique plays a role
So to move the string moving in a circular pattern, we need to use good right hand guitar technique.
High-level guitarists push through the string, instead of hooking it and pulling up (which I call “bicycling”). It’s useful to contact the string in a consistent way, so that the tone quality is also consistent. Using good technique will improve both scale playing and general arpeggio (finger picking pattern) playing technique.
Embrace the process
You may not file your nails absolutely perfect the first time you shape them. That’s fine. Over the years you will improve at it. Chances are, your ear has not yet developed to a point where you automatically know how your guitar sounds best and how your nails affect it.
This is a process every classical guitar player goes through, and one that will progress over the years. Feel free to experiment and play around with abandon.
There will be times when you take off too much nail, or have too much or not enough of an angle to your nail. There will also be times when your nails grow too long and you won’t realize that it could be improved upon. Doesn’t matter. Your nails will keep growing, and you will have more opportunities to practice the art of shaping your classical guitar nails.
Let’s do it: Shaping your New Classical Guitar Nails
Use a file, not clippers
One of the biggest mistake beginning classical guitar players make with their nails is that they try to cut them into a particular shape, using scissors or nail clippers.
This rarely ends well. Instead, it’s more effective to shape the right hand nails using a nail file.There are a number of different types of nail files on the market.
Many classical guitarists fingernails are shaped with a metal or glass file. But you can achieve great results from just about any shape or material of nail file.
File lightly at an angle
To start with, it might help to sit in a chair with your elbows resting on a desk or table. This will keep your hands stable.
When you begin filing your nails, it’s best to keep your right hand (the hand with nails) still, and move the nail file with left hand. Many right-handed people hold the nail file still and move the nail across it. You will have more control moving the nail file.
Important: Remove just a little at a time. You can always file more. So go slow and check frequently.
When we file our nails, we want to file from the bottom of the nail at about a 45 degree upward angle. Do not file at a right angle to the edges of the nails.
The next angle you may want to start with is the angle from the corner to the peak of the nail. Because we want the string to slide off the nail, we will create a sort of “ramp” from the (thumb-side, not pinky side) corner to the peak.
You can start with about a 30 degree angle and go from there. The angle at which you play the strings will affect this angle. How you hold the guitar, and the angles of your hand and wrist play a part as well.
With time, you will better understand and be able to get things just right. To begin, just go for it and see what happens. Alternate between shaping and filing, and playing your guitar.
It’s good to remember that you are trying for a particular effect with the nail and the string. What the nail looks like is of no importance. So instead of making it look like a “ramp”, instead make it feel like one when you play.
For most guitarists, the index (“I”) and middle (“M”) fingers will be in a ramped shapes for oblique playing. And the ring finger (“A”) will be more rounded, because it plays more perpendicular to the string. Most guitarists do not use the little finger, so this nail can be kept short.
You will have to experiment to find the right length, but a good rule of thumb (no pun intended) is to have enough nail so that the string is activated in a circular pattern. But not so much that the nail catches on the string and snags it. You want to still be able to feel the string with the flesh of your finger tip, as each note plays. Play around and notice the nuances.
What about the thumb nail?
While the thumb nail may be longer, it plays by the same rules as the fingernails. Regardless of your thumb technique, file from below, at an upward angle. Create a bit of a ramp.
The thumb nail shape is usually far more forgiving than the fingernail shape. As long as you have any thumbnail at all, you can generally sound decent. Not so with the fingers.
Polishing the nail comes next
Once you have shaped your nails, you have just one more step. The file you use will leave scrapes and ridges along the edges of your nails. You can feel them now, if you drag one nail over the edge of another.
To get rid of this texture (which will create bad tone) you need to polish or buff your nails.
For this, my favorite product is a very fine sandpaper. You can have a piece in your pocket at all times, and your nails will thank you for it.
To use nail paper, simply grind or file your nails with the sand paper. Fold it, bunch it, whatever you like.
Make sure to polish the area of the nail that meets the sides of the finger tip. (These can catch on things and rip the nail.)
The end result is a smooth glassy finish that sounds great. You may be shocked and amazed at the differences you will hear coming from your guitar. Most all professional classical guitar players now do this, and it really does make all the difference in the world.
If you want this particular paper, you can get it at StringsByMail.com (not an affiliate link). Or, if you try a few of the available products, you might find one that feels best for you. For the polishing step, smooth is the goal, so higher numbers on the sandpaper will be more appropriate.
Also, as your strings age, they get small dents and scratches on them. If you change your classical guitar strings, you’ll produce a better sound and take care of your nails.
Experiment: Trial and Error with Classical Guitar Fingernails
Chances are, we’ll sometimes remove too much nail, making them too short. Or we’ll let them go too long. This is normal. Just keep a nail file in your practice area. When you feel called to shape your nails, do so. It may be just light touch-up taking only a few minutes, or a major re-shaping.
With practice, we can find the best length and shape for our playing.
Regardless of what happens, nails grow. So they’ll always return for another go, eventually. And if you break one, you can fix it using a ping pong ball…
Broken Fingernail Repair
For a split nail, superglue can be used to hold it together while it grows out. For more protection, a few cotton fibers or a ply of tissue can be but on the superglue when wet. This can then be filed down once dry.
For a broken nail, we can apply a fake nail. There are commercial products available. Rico Nails are popular with guitarists in particular. And any beauty store or department should have many different options.
Most of these glue to the top of the fingernail. This can work, but is visually noticeable and obvious. A stronger method is to super glue just the strong part of the fake nail under the existing nail. This can be a little painful at first, but it works, and often sounds as good or better as our natural nails.
Another option is to use a ping pong ball. Here’s a video to explain.
All Articles on Classical Guitar Fingernails
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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