Classical Guitar Nails: a Basic Primer
First, Do you even need classical guitar nails?
At some point in the life of every classical guitarist, we have to learn and make some sort of decision about our fingernails. We have to ask ourselves the question, “do I want classical guitar nails?”.
The question of nails is truly a personal one. Many people find it simply too inconvenient to maintain fingernails, even on one hand. I have students in a range of professions that do not really permit long fingernails. And so they opt to play without them.
Programming, writing, medical professions, mechanics, and some of the more prototypical “manly” sales jobs all may come into some sort of conflict around having nails.
The point here is that classical guitar nails are not absolutely necessary to play classical guitar. You can choose to play without nails, and the world will keep spinning.In fact, traditional lute technique does not use nails. So there is a historical basis for playing without nails as well.
What nails do is allow you a much wider range of tone color on the instrument. You can have very lush, warm sounds, as well as very bright, metallic sound.
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.
My suggestions in this article are based on my views of technique and alignment. To find out more about those, you may like my post and video on the fundamentals of classical guitar playing.
Also, the unique characteristics of your unique fingers and nails also affect the ultimate shape and length of your classical guitar nails.Some people have very meaty fingertips. Other people have very thin tips that slope away from the nail at a severe angle. Some people have very flat fingernails, while other people’s can be very curved or hooked.
So suggesting that a particular length or shape work for everyone would be rather foolhardy of me. I would be easily proven wrong.
What happens at the string level
“It’s not the size or shape that matters, but how you use it.”
To understand how to shape your nails, you need to first understand how they activate 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 and more of a back-and-forth motion, which makes a sound that is somewhat brash and ugly.
So we want to activate the string in a circular motion. To do this, the string needs to slide off of the fingernail as the finger moves through the string. If the finger nail snags in any way, it will produce a bad tone.
Technique plays a role
So to get the string moving in a circular pattern (instead of back and forth), we need to use the right technique. You can brush up your right hand guitar technique with this free course.
In short, we push through the string, instead of hooking it and pulling up (which I call “bicycling”).
Embrace the process
You may not get your nails absolutely perfect the first time you shape them. That’s fine. With time you will get better at it. Chances are, your ear has not developed quite yet to a point where you automatically know how your guitar sounds best and how your nails affect it.
This is a process, and one that will progress for all the years of your playing. Feel free to experiment and play 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 will get too long and you won’t realize that it could be better. Doesn’t matter. Your nails will keep growing, and you will have more opportunities to practice the art of classical guitar nails.
Let’s do it: Shaping your New Classical Guitar Nails
Use a file, not clippers
One of the biggest mistake newbies make with their nails is that they try to clip them into a particular shape. This rarely ends well. Instead, it’s more effective to shape the nails using a file.There are a number of different types of files on the market.
Personally, I use a metal file. But you can get great results from just about any shape of file.
On your mark, get set….
To start with, it may 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 file with left hand. Many right-handed people hold the file still and move the nail across it. You will have more control moving the file.
“Relax, Charlie. I’ve got an angle.”
When we file our nails, we want to file from the bottom of the nail at about a 45 degree upward angle. If you don’t know better, you will like file at a right angle to the edge of the nail.
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.
Generally, you can start with about a 30 degree angle and go from there. (I say 45 degrees in the video, but that is a bit steep.) 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. As I said, with time, you will better understand and be able to get things just right. To begin, just go for it and see what happens.
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.
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 fingertip, as each note plays.
What about the thumbnail?
While the thumbnail may be longer, it plays by the same rules as the fingernails. File from below, at an upward angle. Create a bit of a ramp.
I have found thumbnail shape to be far more forgiving than the fingernail shape. As long as you have any thumbnail at all, you can generally sound alright. Not so with the fingers.
Polishing 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 edge 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 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 paper. Fold it, bunch it, whatever you like.
The end result is a glassy finish that sounds great. You may be shocked and amazed at the differences you will hear coming from your guitar. All professional players 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).
Experiment: Trial and Error with Classical Guitar Fingernails
Chances are, you’ll sometimes take your nails to short. Or you’ll let them go too long. This is normal.
With practice, we can find the best length and shape for our playing.
Regardless of what happens, at least they’ll grow back!
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 stellar teachers – one focused on the technical, 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. Click here for a sample formula.
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