Finding the best nail shape and length is a trial and error process that frustrates many fingerstyle guitarists. There is no greater difference between guitar players than their nails. The physical features of nails can vary from finger to finger on the same hand. This guide describes the most common nail shapes and lengths and looks at the nails of 4 virtuoso guitarists.
The four basic fingerpicking methods
There are 4 basic ways to fingerpick a guitar. You can use nails only, nail and flesh combined, flesh only, or artificial devices such as glue-on nails or fingerpicks.
1. Flesh and nail combination
The majority of guitar players today use a technique that combines flesh with nail to pluck the string at the same time. The advantage is more volume and a greater variety of tone colors.
The 2 main nail shapes are rounded and angled (ramped). Rounded nails follow the contour of the fingertip. They allow for more tonal variety because they can contact the strings using the rounded edges on either side of the nail.
The nail and flesh combination of playing was popularized by Segovia in the early 20th century. His influence may be one reason this technique is so widespread today. Famous luthiers of the era tailored their guitars to suit Segovia's playing style, and many classical players try to emulate his sweet warm tone.
Segovia recommended that nails be 1/16 inch to 1/8 inch long above the fingertip (as viewed with the palm of the hand at eye level)..
Note that Segovia's nails are wide. He has no skin folds on the sides of his nails, and could play on either side of his fingers to produce different effects.
Ramped nails are filed to an angle that slopes up from right to left as you face the palm of your hand. The advantage of ramped nails is that they pluck the string with more nail surface and produce greater volume.
Russell has skin folds on the sides of his fingers. His thumb nail is extra long, too. He plays with his hand pronated slightly so he can punch the strings hard using angled nails and flesh together.
2. Nails only
Nails-only players use long nails and do not touch the strings with their fingertip flesh at all. This technique requires precision in order to avoid sonic debris that can occur when nails hit strings. Skilled guitarists who use only nails can achieve a brilliant tone with good volume.
Bream's nails, including his thumbnail, are long in this photo. His hand position is very different from Segovia's. Even with his long nails, Bream can still get some flesh on the string. Virtuosity does what it wants to.
3. Flesh only
Flesh-only players use no nails at all and are rare these days, which is a shame. Some of the great 19th-century masters, such as Carcassi and Sor, played without nails. They believed the flesh-only technique produces a warmer and more beautiful tone. Flesh-only players must use more power in their stroke to get the extra volume that nail players have.
4. Artificial nails
Artificial nails are popular with concert performers and guitarists who tend to wear down their nails quickly. Steel-string players often use thumb and fingerpicks to gain volume and help protect their nails.
Chapdelaine, who plays both classical and steel-string guitars, uses artificial nails to help preserve his natural nails. You'd never know it from listerning to him. His acrylic thumbnail in this photo is long to give him a bigger sound.
These basic nail shapes and lengths serve as a starting point for guitarists who play fingerstyle. I would suggest filing your nails within a 1/16 inch to 1/8 inch above the fingertip.
Nails are the right length when the fingertip pad and the nail can strike the string together and follow through in a smooth motion. Finding the right nail shape and length is a process that every fingerpicker must go through. The experience should be an enjoyable one.
Not everyone's nails are favorable for picking.a guitar. Nails that grow in a hook shape, for example, will snag on the strings. Some people have a large gap under the nail plate where the fingertip skin joins the nail. This causes the string to catch in the crevice. Nails can also have too much side to side curvature. And they can be too soft, too brittle, or too thin to play the guitar with. Many players are unable to keep their nails long because of their work.
People whose nails are not suited to fingerpicking should not despair. They can use artificial nails, fingerpicks, or just cut their nails down and play on the flesh. Fingernails should never be the determining factor in deciding whether to play the guitar.
The edges of the nails where they meet the string should be as smooth as glass. Use a 4-way file to rough-shape them, smooth them, and polish the edges. Some guitarists use fine-grit emery paper (available at most hardware stores). Glass files work well, too, but they cost more and are breakable. Any beauty supply store should have them. Nails that tend to hook can be filed flat from the underside of the nail.
Diet is important. Some guitarists take special vitamins and homeopathic supplements. If you use moisterizing cream in the winter, make sure to slather it on your nails, too. They're like your skin, except thicker.
My nails are a bit long but not so long that they catch on the strings or sound clicky. The nail plates are wide and there are no skin folds on the sides. And very little side to side curvature of the nail. I have played using everything from fingerpicks to bare flesh over the past 40 years, and they all work well.
Ashby (Bridg) Allen
Note: You can view large versions of these photos by scrolling to the bottom of my About Me page and clicking the link for fingernail photos.