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!

The Never Ending Search for Beautiful Sound

I’m sure you’ve heard me rattle on about this particular subject in some form before, but I think it’s worth talking about again today.

So what do I mean when I say beautiful sound? Well, just as there are apparently several ways to skin a cat (although I’m not sure why one would want to do that, so perhaps we should retire that particular analogy….), there are also several ways to play a guitar.

Some of these ways sound indescribably delicious. Others not so. Some of these ways are  full-bodied, lush, rounded, full, glassy, shimmering, shining, voluptuous. Others are thin, tinny, shrill and brittle. As guitarists we have such a range of sounds and tones available to us. Pianists in comparison (and I play a bit of piano too, so I’m not picking on pianists in particular) have a relatively limited palette with which to paint and have their standard tone quality pretty much handed to them. Guitarists on the other hand, we have to do all the hard and exciting exploratory work to cultivate a beautiful sound.

Why is this so important?

Well, I can’t talk for you, dear reader, but if given a choice I’d rather hear a simple piece played with a round, full tone, rather than something much more complicated with a thin, lack lustre tone. It’s our job as performers, players, guitarists (however you want to describe yourself) to make the music we’re producing sound as beautiful as possible – every single note (not just the “special” points in the music), open strings and fifth or seventh position second or third string notes alike. Think about having gorgeous tone as standard.

I’m not saying that we all have to have exactly the same sound – that would be indescribably boring! And probably not achievable anyway, even if that were the case – we all have different guitars, made with different woods, with different strings, played with different fingernails and fingers, from different body shapes, driven by different brains. A beautiful tone is something you can cultivate, which is recognisably beautiful, but also recognisably yours.

And the key to achieving a beautiful sound and a gorgeous tone quality is to always, always be listening and being aware of what and how you’re playing. Not just hearing what we’re playing, but listening, and asking yourself “is that the sound I want to make?” Yes or no? If yes, excellent! Carry on! If no, what do you need to do differently to play with your own beautiful tone.