Classical Guitar Playing – Nails or Flesh?

I’ve been asked a couple of times recently my opinion on whether or not a classical guitarist should sport and play with a set of fingernails on the plucking hand, so I thought I’d produce a wee blog post on the subject for you today.

Well, my straightforward and simple answer to the question in today’s title is, for me, unequivocally nails. Yes, a classical guitarist, whether just starting out, developing, or well accomplished should really give serious consideration to growing a set of nails on the right hand (or left hand for left handed players).

Why?Nails - filed and buffed, ready for action..

There are a significant number of benefits that can be derived from playing with fingernails that I feel, for myself at least, outweigh any annoyances in protecting and nurturing a prime set of playing nails.

For me these are, in no particular order:

  • You can produce some serious projection with nails that flesh alone cannot provide. The nail being a harder substance can dig into and through the string  for great projection.
  • It’s far easier to play at a greater speed whilst maintaining volume with nails than with flesh.
  • You can change the shape and length of your fngernails to experiment with different sounds and angles of attack (for example, the upper image to the right reflects the shape and length of may nails around 2 years ago. The lower image is my nails just yesterday – longer and a different angle of attack) . You just can’t do that with the flesh of your fingertips without moving your hand which may impact on playing.
  • Nails can help produce a lovely fat, juicy tone by rounding the playing edge and shining to a high gloss, glassy finish. It’s darn near impossible to get a such a smooth finish on your fingertips without damaging the skin!20140622_174923
  • Flesh playing can encourage the development of callouses on the plucking fingers (depending on the sensitivity of your skin) which can impact upon sound quality, not to mention become painful to play with. Fingernails avoids this by providing a surface that you can keep consistent by a little minor maintenance.
  • One of the greatest reasons for me  is the palette of colours offered by playing with nails – there are numerous ways that the nails, or nails plus fingertips, can be used to create a wonderfully, complex suite of tone colours.

Having said that….

Having said all of that, there is no such thing as “must do” – not really – in learning and playing guitar when it comes to nails versus flesh. And just because certain players do one thing, or tell you you’re mad if you don’t, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for you. If you’re producing a sound that pleases you, that you can control and add variations of colour and dynamic into then however you’re producing it doesn’t really matter. Technique and “hardware” (be it instrument, nails, strings or whatever) should all be there at the service of the music.

It’s worth remember too that the current prevailing preference for concert guitarists to play with fingernails hasn’t necessarily always been so. The great Fernando Sor was a huge advocate of playing with flesh only. His compatriot Dionisio Aguado was firmly in the nails camp.

Experiment

If you’re a nails player blessed with relatively fast growing nails (or you’ve just taken a hit to one of your nails from an errant fly zipper or something) you could experiment with chopping them down (or chopping them off!) and getting a feel for pure flesh playing for a couple of weeks. It will probably feel strange if you’ve played with nails for a while so give it time.

Conversely, if you’re a flesh player try growing out your nails for a couple of weeks (or purchase some of the stick-on fake options), and experiment with some lengths and shapes for different sounds. Again, it will probably feel strange for a while, but give it a go. And if you don’t like it you can just chop them off again!

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5 thoughts on “Classical Guitar Playing – Nails or Flesh?

  1. I really prefer the finger-tips for softer playing and nails for the real heavy all-out stuff. It’s at the end of the day a personal preference, no law of guitar playing is set in stone.

  2. I’ve heard that many of the old Spanish masters played with carefully calloused finger tips and not nails. The tone achieved must have been golden. Does anyone know more about this?

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