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classical guitar nail

Living With Classical Guitar Nails

Fingernails sound great on the classical guitar, but to get that sound, you have to go through your daily life with longer-than-usual nails.  And that can be a tough sell.

But in this article, I’ll suggest a few small things you can do that will increase your chances of keeping those nails (and avoiding the pain of accidentally ripping them off!).

To really explore this subject, see my articles on classical guitar nails, and on tone production.

 

 

Getting Through the Day with Nails

What Are We Doing?

There are many tasks we do each and every day that seem tailor-made to destroy our nails.

A few of these are:

  • Opening doors
  • Using metal zippers
  • Searching through drawers or bins full of small items
  • Any type of work that uses the hands
  • Any encounter with metal objects that have rough or sharp
  • Outside work
  • Anything that can get your hands dirty

There are thousands and thousands of simple, everyday movements that can quickly beat up your nails.

How does it happen?

To prevent the painful and annoying little rips and tears, it helps to understand how they happen.

Nail damage generally occurs when something hard and/or sharp catches on a little notch or bump in the edge of our fingernail.

Try this right now:

Using your left-hand thumbnail, rub across the end of your right-hand nails.

Chances are (unless you have recently polished them) you will feel rough little ridges across the edge of your nails.

This is because your nails don’t grow out smoothly.  They grow out unevenly.

Even over the course of a few hours or overnight you can notice new ridges forming.

Keeping Your Nails Smooth and Polished

One of the very best preventions of nail damage is to keep a small piece of “nail paper” in your pocket and keep your nails with a glass-like finish.  This alone will help you keep your nails attached to your fingers.

If this sounds artsy-fartsy and bizarre, that’s okay.  Nail paper is actually just very fine sandpaper.

You can be discreet about “doing your nails”, and your friends don’t ever have to know.

The upside is that you’ll both sound much better (because you’ll have better tone), and you’ll avoid so many “incidents”.

For more on Nail Paper, see this article.  To order some, go here (not an affiliate link).

Go Lefty!

Although it may be a bit weird for the first little while, it can be very beneficial to start the habit of performing “dangerous tasks” with your left hand.

After all, if you are taking the long view of your classical guitar playing, you could be living with guitar nails for decades.  A couple of weeks of inconvenience is a small price to pay for a lifetime of good tone.

And besides that, it’s great for your brain to do things a little differently now and then.

So,

If you are going to use a metal-toothed zipper several times per day, try going at it with your left hand.

Rummaging in dark places?  Stick your left in there.

Where in your daily routine can your find to use your left hand instead of your right?

Keep Them Clean

You also have a better chance of hanging on your nails if  you get into the habit of keeping them clean.

Besides being unattractive (in every culture I can think of) and more hygienic, keeping your nails clean help you avoid accidents.

At the very least, if you create the habit of keeping your nails clean, you are more likely to also notice when you get the burrs and ridges we talked about earlier.

So,

If you are setting out to do something dirty, like changing your oil or potting those spring annuals, either lead with the left, wear gloves, or clean them immediately afterward.

Keeping a nail brush on every sink in your house, as well as at work and/or in your every-day-bag (purse, man-purse, gym duffel, messenger bag, backpack, knapsack, what have you) will help to keep you clean, presentable and on the safer side.

Keep Gloves on Hand (no pun intended)

For those expected and unexpected jobs and chores, consider using gloves.

Having a pair live both in the house and in the car (if you have one) will keep you prepared for those big jobs.

Use a Bandaid

When you are first getting used to having nails, keeping band-aid or tape on one finger will remind you to favor that hand.

It will draw your attention to how you are interacting with the items your touch and pick up.

As you get comfortable noticing and remembering your nails, you won’t need it anymore.

Keep a “Nail Kit” Close-by

Keep a couple of helpful items on hand for emergencies and general care.

Here are a few things you could have in your nail kit:

  • A file
  • Nail Paper
  • Nail Clippers (for your left only)
  • Superglue
  • Band-aids

Having a nail kit in your guitar case, as well as anywhere else convenient is a good (and cheap) insurance policy.

When Things Start to Go South

If you’ve found yourself with a small rip or tear started, or if you have banged your nail head-on and creased it (which weakens it and makes it vulnerable), there are a couple of things you can do to salvage what you can.

Superglue

If you get a rip or tear that you can’t file away without taking too much of your nail, superglue can be the answer.

Putting just a bit over the rip can keep it together until it has a chance to grow out.

Superglue won’t stay on forever.  The oils in our fingernails will slough off the glue within a few days.  So you may have to re-apply.

Also, after it dries, you can file it flatter to make it less obvious and lower-profile.

Band-Aid

If you get a rip or any damage that you want to contain, taping your fingernail or using a band-aid can protect it from further harm.

If you are caught out somewhere and get some nail damage, you can often find someone with something you can use.  That will tide you over until you can more fully address it.

Forgive Yourself

Even with all these preventative measures, we are still likely to occasionally destroy a nail or two.

It’s just the nature of the game.

While extremely inconvenient to our daily practice, at least we can feel better knowing that it will grow back.  Eventually.

It will take a few rips and tears to let you know where and how you need to pay more attention, or do things differently (like using your left hand).

When you get this feedback, heed it.  Make a mental note and do it differently next time.

Again, this is a long-term affair we are having with the classical guitar, and like all relationships, we will get better at navigating the daily dance as time goes by.

Over To You!

Have you gotten used to having classical guitar nails? How?

Are you on the fence?  What is your top one or two concerns?

Leave your answer in the comments below!

 

8 Responses to Living With Classical Guitar Nails

  1. Nate B May 26, 2015 at 8:26 am #

    Hi Allen,

    Thank you for this information! In addition to my classical studies, I am playing fingerstyle acoustic in a folk trio. The other night at practice, a crease in my “m” fingernail finally split, and in the middle of a song. I must be a glutton for punishment–steel strings shred fingernails, if one is not extremely diligent about polishing them. Anyway, here’s a quick fix I found for a piece of nail that is hanging off. The aforementioned superglue, but on top of the split, a layer of toilet paper, then more glue, and another layer of TP. Seriously, Toilet paper. Same principle as carbon fiber: Once the glue dries into the fibers of the paper, it sets up hard as steel. Our bassist puts together model airplanes, so he had some CA glue drying accelerator on his workbench. I had the nail repaired in around five minutes. After a file, reshape, and polish, I was good to go for the rest of rehearsal until I could get home and get a band-aid on it.

    I hope this long-winded anecdote can be of some use. Thanks for all you do. -N

    • Allen May 26, 2015 at 8:34 am #

      Thanks Nate! I learned this one from a roving band of flamenco players. They used cotton from a Q-tip or cotton ball in the same way. It basically creates a “steel-belted radial” on your nail tip. I haven’t heard of glue drying accelerator, but it sounds like a great addition.
      Thanks for bringing this up!

  2. Graham May 26, 2015 at 3:57 am #

    Hi Allen

    really good tips. My nails used to be really thin & brittle. I did some googling & many people recommend cod liver oil & evening primrose supplements. After about 6 months my nails were definitely stronger. When I do break off the end of a nail, I use 18/32 preformed nails from the guitarplayernails website, which I attach with 12mm craft glue dots. The great advantage of this is that you can easily attach & remove the false nail. Cleaning the natural nail with some rubbing alcohol or methylated spirit gives a stronger attachment. I can get two or three practice sessions from one dot.

    thanks

    Graham

    • Allen May 26, 2015 at 8:37 am #

      Thanks Graham, I haven’t tried the preformed nails, but you’re not the first person I’ve heard liking them. I may just have to give them a go. It’s great that you went with the beneficial oils and saw good results. The best fix is definitely from the inside out! Cheers, Allen

  3. Sue May 23, 2015 at 8:19 am #

    Oho, yes — the dreaded Metal Zipper! Thanks for the great list and practical suggestions. I’d like to add one more: wait at least half an hour after doing dishes, hot baths, or swimming. Guitar strings can quickly shred water-softened nails.

    • Allen May 23, 2015 at 4:48 pm #

      Ah, the soft wet nails. Great addition, Sue!

  4. Philip May 23, 2015 at 7:45 am #

    Alan,
    As serious guitarists, we all tend to be insular and private with our love and passion for guitar meaning we tend to be mentally pre occupied with pieces and techniques and career and new instrument purchases , at least , I ,certainly do, and need subject matter to “shake us up”.
    As creatures of habit we simply need good habits to live by and your viewpoints continue to help me along…thanks Allen

    W Y P I W Y C D
    “whatever you practice is what what you can do”
    Philip Roberts

    ps…I would like your permission to link your site to mine…let me know, ok?..thank You

    • Allen May 23, 2015 at 4:49 pm #

      Thanks Philip! Right you are!
      Cheers,
      Allen
      PS Please feel free to link to me anytime. I appreciate it!

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