Do Fingerstyle Guitarists Need To Have Long Nails?


acoustic guitar | Sandy Music Lab

If you’re thinking about learning to fingerpick but have short nails, then it’s reasonable to wonder if you can keep them short. Are you going to need to grow your nails long, or can fingerstyle guitarists have short nails?

Fingerstyle guitarists do not need long nails on their picking hands. However, many finger pickers prefer the sound quality they get from nails. Most classical guitarists have long nails, while many acoustic finger pickers do. For long-nailed players, protecting nails is essential.   

Guitarists agree that the fingernails of your chording hand should be kept short so they can firmly press down on the strings and avoid the annoying buzzing that comes from not pressing down firmly on the fretboard. However, fingerstyle guitarists are divided on whether long nails are needed for their picking hand. This article explores the fingernail debate and how to trim and care for long nails.

Why Do Fingerstyle Guitarists Have Long Nails?

Fingerstyle guitarists have long nails because they prefer the crisper sound of nails. Also, classical guitarists often learn with nails and find it difficult to adjust to playing without them.

Fingerstyle guitarists believe that nails sound better on classical and acoustic guitars. This is because the nails boost the instrument’s volume and give it a richer tone. This is because you will have a greater hold on the string and a bigger surface area, allowing for more consistent plucking.  

Most guitarists who play a classical guitar are trained to play with long fingernails, so they are used to them. Rather than adjust their technique, they maintain their nails.

Why Do Some Fingerstyle Players Keep Their Nails Trimmed?

Some fingerstyle players keep their nails trimmed because of the sound quality they achieve without nails. Others opt for trimming because their nails are too brittle. For beginners, long nails can add unnecessary frustration to the learning process.

Not all fingerstyle players prefer the softer sound of flesh. They prefer to use amplification instead of relying on longer nails. Also, if they have brittle nails, they find the hassle of strengthening nails not worth it.

Finally, beginners don’t need long nails to learn to play fingerstyle. Once they have mastered the technique, they can choose to grow their nails.

How Should the Nails Be Trimmed for Guitarists?

There is no “standard” for nails on guitarists. However, it’s recommended to keep nails no more than 1 to 2 mm (0.039 to 0.078 inch) longer than the fingertip. The length, shape, and finish of your nails may impact sound quality because they affect the three phases of contact with the strings.

Length  

The length of your nails affects the tone of your playing. However, it is not necessary to have long nails. Longer nails can limit the variety of tones you play by keeping you from using a mix of flesh and nail. The shape of your nails is more critical to sound quality.  

Try to keep your nails no more than 1-2 mm (0.039-0.078 inch) longer than the tip of your fingertip.

Shape

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to nail shaping; it all depends on your natural nail curvature, hand position, and playing technique. The contact point, string travel, and release point are the three interactions between your nail and the string.  

The shape of your nails should be based on the interactions between your nails and the strings and what kind of sound you want.  

The Three Phases of Plucking

When you pluck a string, the contact point is the first phase. Next, your finger travels over the string to pull it tight and prepare for the third phase—the release point.  

Contact Point

How your finger makes contact with the string affects the sound slightly, but it’s more crucial for creating control. On the contact point, the most important thing to check for is a good balance between flesh and nail.

The optimum mix of tone and control is generally achieved by shaping the skin and nail to make simultaneous contact with the string. For example, shaping your nail so that just the nail hits the string produces a brighter tone with a more noticeable click. On the other hand, shaping your nails so that only the flesh contacts the string creates the softest, quietest tone.  

Plucking the Note

As you pluck a note, your nail continues to touch the string as it goes over it. You may change how long this phase lasts by changing the angle of your picking hand. For example, if your nails are cut to pick perpendicular to the strings, you shorten this phase. If you want a longer note, angle your nails so that your fingertip tracks along the string for a longer time.

Letting Go

The release point is when you let go of the string. Pay close attention when you release the string—you could be using less of your nail than you think.

Your nails’ shape when you release also affects your sound. The steeper your nail, the louder the sound. For a rich, deep tone from both flesh and nail, try shaping your nails into a smooth angled ramp form.

Final Thoughts on Shaping Your Nails

Some sites on the web will tell you that you should trim your nails to follow the curve of your fingers. Other sites suggest that you cut them at an angle. Both are correct, sort of, because your playing is affected by the cut of your nails.

Experiment with different angles and lengths until you get a sound you like. And if you don’t like what you hear—fingernails will grow out again.

Maintaining Your Nails as a Guitarist

Taking care of your nails is essential. No fingerpicker wants cracked or chipped nails. Unfortunately, some guitarists use nail clippers to trim their nails, not realizing that those clippers can lead to weakened nails.

Instead of following the natural curve of your nails, clippers force them flat and then cut them harshly.

The bending and harsh cutting strain the nail, resulting in small stress cracks around the edge. Over time, these cracks can weaken the nail and lead to chips and splits. Therefore, it is better to file your nails.

Some guitarists use sandpaper to shape their nails, but consider using a nail file instead of sandpaper. The nail file will give you more predictable and consistent results. Exercise caution when using abrasive files or emery boards, being careful to avoid ripping at the nails. Rough files can produce or worsen rips, chips, and cracks.

Even though we use our hands constantly and wash them when dirty, we don’t give much thought to taking care of our hands. This is unfortunate since, without hands, we wouldn’t be able to play our instrument.

How Do Guitarists Keep Their Nails From Breaking?

To keep their nails from breaking, guitarists utilize several methods including fake nails, superglue, nail conditioners, and hardeners. Some opt to have their nails done professionally. Staying hydrated, eating a well-balanced diet, and using moisturizers and cuticle oils may also prevent breakage.

These are some of the methods guitarists use to protect their nails:

  • Acrylic nails – Many finger pickers opt to visit the nail salon every few weeks to keep their nails in tip-top shape. Some use nail-on products available at drugstores, including nail hardeners, nail oils, and topical vitamins for the nails to improve their strength.
  • Superglue – If your nails are already brittle, consider using tissue paper or pieces of tea bags combined with superglue to prevent them from breaking further. This method is preferred by many guitarists and those who prefer to keep their nails long.
  • Ping Pong Balls – As crazy as it sounds, there are multiple stories of guitarists using ping pong balls as fake nails. They cut the balls into fingernail shapes and glue them on to assist them during their fingerpicking.
  • Nail Conditioners – Some guitarists swear by-products like Mane ‘n Tail Hoofmaker (available on Amazon.com) to strengthen their nails. This moisturizer is made for both hands and nails, and contains protein to help strengthen the keratin that makes up the nails.

Here are some other suggestions for strengthening your nails:

  • Remain hydrated. Dry nails can become brittle. Drinking water helps your nails retain moisture. Also, when the air is dry in your home (usually during the cooler months), consider using a humidifier to add moisture back to the air.
  • Use a moisturizer. Use a cuticle oil on the nail beds, and regularly use a hand moisturizer, focusing on the nails as you rub it in.
  • Avoid putting hand sanitizer on your nails. This could dry out the nails, making them brittle and more prone to breakage. Alternatively, you could use a hand sanitizer that contains a moisturizer. The Life Is Simple Foaming Hand Sanitizer from Amazon is alcohol-free and contains moisturizing aloe.
  • Shampoos for oily hair can dry out your nails. Consider switching out your shampoo, or wearing gloves when washing your hair to see if that helps maintain the strength of your nails.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Certain deficiencies can cause weak, brittle nails. Therefore, it’s important to maintain a healthy, well-balanced diet. In addition, consider using supplements such as biotin.
  • Use a vitamin-enriched nail polish remover. If you must remove polish from your nails, opt for an alcohol-free, non-acetone option. The ella+mila Soy Nail Polish Remover from Amazon.com contains lavender oil and added vitamins to help maintain the strength of your nails.

Alternatively, you could opt for shorter nails. Many guitarists keep their nails short and play until they’ve developed calluses. They claim that with these calluses, they can play as well as — if not better — than those with longer fingernails.

What About Finger Picks?

Finger picks are primarily used to play bluegrass and some blues styles. They have a rich sound and, with practice, let you play faster. They are also used by many Dobro and Banjo players to amplify the sound of their instruments. 

However, there’s a learning curve with finger picks. First, picks come in three sizes, and you want to pick one that is right for you. Too small will be uncomfortable, and too large will make it difficult to control. Although you can find sizing charts online, you should probably make a trek to your local guitar store to size them.

Players who try them often give up for two reasons. First, they put them on incorrectly. The point of the pick should not be on the nail but the flesh and pointing up. Secondly, if your fingertips scrape the strings, you should twist them to create a slight angle. 

Because they are lighter, thinner picks are ideal for beginners who aren’t used to wearing picks on their fingers. Also, thin picks are better for beginners since the picks are more flexible, thus making it easier to adjust to using them.

Bottom Line

Having fingernails adds loudness and a deeper tone to your guitar. This is why you’ll see fingerpicking and classical guitarists with long nails. Some people, on the other hand, find nails to be annoying or irritating. The beautiful thing about fingernails is that you can always grow them out.

David Sandy

Hey there! My name is David Sandy and I'm the founder of Sandy Music Lab. I've been playing guitar for several years now and created this site to be able to share and explore music with others. Check out my recommended guitar gear!

Recent Posts