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!

Guitar Review – Allan Bull Guitars

One of the great privileges I have in writing this blog, aside from writing for you good folks twice a week, is taking receipt of some fantastic gear (albeit temporarily) to play around with for a bit and review – all course with you, dear reader, in mind to inform and delight! Oh OK, and to have fun indulging myself too……

So, my latest privilege this last couple of weeks has been playing around with two guitars from one of Australia’s top luthiers, Tasmanian-based Allan Bull. I own a 2008 Allan Bull guitar, so the opportunity to see what Allan had been up to of late, the progress and development in his design and sound was an absolute must for me!

This past couple of weeks I’ve been getting to grips with a new fan-braced spruce top and a cedar top with asymmetric grid bracing from the Bull Guitars stable, road testing them and having some of my students play them to get their thoughts and reactions and to hear how they sound from an audience perspective. It’s a tough gig, but someone’s got to do it!

First up, let’s take a look at the spruce top. This guitar is probably the closest of the two to the 2008 spruce top model that I own, but it is quite a different beast. Not a massively helpful comment for you, dear reader, I appreciate. What I mean to say is that Allan’s design and guitar building techniques have quite clearly continued to progress in a really positive direction.  And when I say that I don’t mean to say that the 2008 model was a bad guitar (far from it) – it’s just fantastic to see the concept of continuous improvement at play here.

The spruce top  has the full-bodied physical weight of similar Aussie-built guitars – a good sturdy instrument, which is going nowhere when playing. You feel like you can give it a bit of welly without feeling like you’re going to break it. The neck has a similarly sturdy feel, somewhat substantial, and not an overly fast neck and fretboard for my hands, although beautifully finished and a pretty nice feel overall for the left hand.

The timbers selected for the instrument itself, as always with Allan’s guitars, are of fantastic quality and visually striking. The pale, white blonde colouring of this particular spruce is striped through with an intriguing bearclaw pattern (much prized by some guitarists).

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Bull Spruce Top (with protective soundboard shield just for demo purposes)

The spruce top, much like other fan-braced, and particularly the Aussie-built guitars, has a lot of power – to say you don’t really have to milk the guitar is an understatement! So it’s a powerful guitar, with that great thick fan-braced kind of sound, but it also delivers clarity in this too. The tone production is probably a little too direct for my own personal taste – the primary note is very clear and distinct, but the tonal depth, the character delivered by the presence of overtones (which aren’t that apparent from the guitar) is perhaps missing from this instrument (although I understand this may appeal to those with flamenco preferences).

It’s also worth bearing in mind that spruce tops do tend to send a lot more direct, bright and “zingy” when brand, spanking new. This type of timber can often take 12-24 months to really open up and reveal the full depth and warmth of tone. My 2008 spruce top model, for example, took around 18 months to fully open up. I’d really love to hear this instrument when played in and the wood opened up and coming into its own.

The overall finish and attention to detail on this instrument, as with the cedar top too, I am really impressed with – the rosette, the bridge, the headstock, the purfling are all really well done indeed. Really top quality.

The cedar top with asymmetric grid bracing is most definitely my favourite of the two guitars tested and an absolutely fantastic instrument in my humblest of opinions. It shares all the quality build features, attention to detail, physical weight and playability of the spruce top, but has a completely different tonal “feel” and sound. As Allan often does with is cedar tops, with this particular model there is a rather attractive blonde “stripe” running through the middle of the soundboard. There’s no mistaking an Allan Bull soundboard, that’s for sure!

The sustain from this guitar is awesome! You can strum a chord or even a single note, put the guitar down, go away, make a cup of tea, check the mail, come back and the note will still be ringing on! OK, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the picture. Great sustain like this makes for really easy legato playing.

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Bull Cedar Top with attractive blonde stripe in the soundboard

It has a lovely warmth to the sound, which one might expect from a cedar top, with really fantastic projection. The depth and character of tone is nicely rich too, with much more obvious presence of overtones delivering that character.  This guitar was a real joy to play and found myself very happily playing this for a good hour or so. Definitely worth a look at if you’re interested in a quality, Aussie-made cedar top.

All in all, both of these instruments are of fantastic quality and neither of these would be a bad buy at all – I’d consider both a pretty good buy in fact. Which one you might choose to go for – the bright and direct spruce, or the warm and more characterful cedar is up to your own personal choice. The cedar top is a full-bodied shiraz in comparison to the spruce’s pinot gris (and just like Alsatian pinot gris, I think this one will age well) – both nice, just different and suiting different tastes for different occasions.

If you’re in Melbourne and you want to check out the Bull Guitars for yourself give Pierre Herrero at Guitars Online a call: http://guitarsonline.com.au

Or head over to Allan’s website to find out more about his design philosophy and his wonderful instruments: http://www.bullguitars.com