One of the defining characteristics of any classical guitarist is the nails on their right hand.
In fact, nails are arguably the most important “tool” a classical guitarist must grow and maintain in order to play well. Much like the bow for a violinist, the nails have direct contact with the string. Therefore, the nails have a significant effect on a classical guitarist’s sound and musical expression.
While there is no one way of doing your nails, there are a few guidelines that will help lay a foundation from which you can experiment and find what works best for you. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know – from growing, shaping, maintaining, and beyond – to begin building that foundation!
Before we begin, let's watch this quick intro from Bahar Ossareh, which is taken from her lesson available on tonebase Guitar:
I. The Basics
VI. More Resources
I. The Basics
Why do classical guitarists have long nails?
The main reason classical guitarists play with long nails is it gives them a wide range of expressive capabilities. For one, nails allow you to play the guitar significantly louder than playing with the flesh of your fingertip. Also, nails allow you to play extremely quietly while still maintaining clarity and definition in your sound.
There are also a range of colors that can be achieved by using your nails in different ways. For example, playing with your nails perpendicular to the strings will produce a brighter tone while playing with them more parallel to the strings will make the sound warmer.
Well-maintained nails also provide some consistency in your playing. Once you have determined the length and shape that suits your playing best, you can maintain your nails in that way and ensure that the right hand feels the same every time you pluck the string.
Can you play classical guitar without nails?
While there are very few professional players who don’t have nails, it certainly isn’t a requirement that everyone who plays the guitar have nails. In fact, casual hobbyists – and especially beginners – may find that the extra step of having to maintain nails keeps them from practicing, so in that way, having nails can actually be a detriment.
It’s also worth noting that the history of classical guitar is filled with well-revered players and pedagogues who didn’t use nails, most notably the “godfather of classical guitar” Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909). Renowned Spanish guitarist Pepe Romero once said in an interview that he purposely learned to play guitar without nails in order to develop his sense of touch in the right hand.
At the end of the day, the choice is really up to you and comes down to your personal goals with the instrument. If you are striving to become a world-class virtuoso and want to compete in the biggest classical guitar competitions, then nails are probably the way to go. If you are just playing for pleasure and exploring the classical genre, nails are certainly not a requirement!
For more information on the history of nails and how to play without them, check out Brandon Acker’s insightful video below!
II. Nail Length
How long should nails be for classical guitar?
The length of your nails is very personal and depends on many factors including the natural shape of your nail, the size of your fingers, and your overall playing style. However, there are a few guidelines that apply to just about everyone.
Short nails usually mean more depth to your sound, as contact to the string is split evenly between nail and flesh, allowing for more nuanced control in the right hand. However, if the nails are too short, players run the risk of catching on the string with the flesh and not being able to move through the string quickly enough, leaving certain right hand passages lumpy.
Long nails on the other hand are easier to move through the string which allows you to perform fast passages efficiently and lightly. Longer nails also generally leave more room for error as there’s more nail to catch the string. However, they are more prone to playing related breakages, day-to-day damage, and can produce a bright or brittle sound.
Ideally, classical guitarists will find a happy medium between these two – obtaining a balanced point of contact with the string between flesh and nail while also moving quickly through each string.
(Click here to watch Marco Tamayo's free course on right hand virtuosity on the classical guitar)
Can I play classical guitar with short nails?
If your nails are too short, more surface of the skin will touch the string and therefore cause friction, especially if your hands are sweaty. You also may struggle to catch the string with your nail when plucking a note as there is less room for error.
If your nails are too long, the opposite will happen and your nail will touch the string without any skin contact when ideally you want a bit of both. Also the nail is more likely to break or bend during playing and day-to-day activities.
One thing to keep in mind when determining the correct length for your nails is not to look at the back of the nail. The best way to measure proper nail length is by turning your hand around and examining the white area on the underside of your nail, from the tip to the skin on the pad of your finger as shown above. This is the view of the nail that matters most because it’s what the string “sees” when you are plucking a note.
III. Nail Shape
How to shape nails for classical guitar?
The truest fact about nail shape is that there are no “facts” about nail shape. As a classical guitarist, much of your time with the instrument and in your practice will be searching for a shape that works for you and facilitates playing ease and efficiency. However, while there is no “true north” when it comes to shaping, there are some basic principles that you can stick by to align yourself in your discovery.
Let’s start with the good. What you see above are three shapes that will generally result in nice sounds — the latter two being slight deviations from the first. The bottom line is, if you are a beginner, you should aim for the first rounded shape and later experiment with moving the tip to the right as in the other two.
A general rule when it comes to nails is that you want to avoid anything that is sharp. Corners or pointy peaks on your nail will activate the higher frequencies of the string, causing the result to be bright and harsh. That is why all of the above shapes will result in bad sounds for beginners.
When shaping your nail, you should file not only the shape of the nail, but also the top side, underside of the nail and the flesh that will make contact with the string. It is important to file and polish all parts of the nail that will touch the string.
Want to see nail shaping in action? Below is a video of tonebase co-founder Chris Garwood demonstrating three nail shapes that all make good sounds!
Nail Shaping in 3 Steps
- Start with a metal file and work on creating one of the 3 shapes listed above. At the same time, be sure to remove all sharp edges.
- Make small adjustments with a buffer, removing any excess material on the underside of the nail.
- Finally, polish each side of the nail with sandpaper.
Iranian-Canadian guitarist Bahar Ossareh demonstrates these 3 nail shaping steps in the video below.
How do you shape your thumb nail for classical guitar?
It may come as a surprise to some that the shaping principles for your thumb nail are basically the same as those for your fingernails. Round shapes are generally better, sharp edges will activate higher frequencies, and so forth.
The main difference with the thumb nail is the point of contact with the string changes depending on the height of your right wrist. For instance, if you play with a more elevated wrist, the contact point will be closer to the tip of the nail versus a low wrist where the contact point will be further down the left side. Experiment with your nail shape at either of these two points.
One aspect of technique that must be considered when shaping your thumb nail is the ability to do both rest and free strokes. Usually if you can perform free strokes just fine with your thumb nail but get hung up on rest strokes, there is too much nail at the contact point and you need to shave a bit down. Once again, it’s about experimenting and finding a shape and length that allows you to use all of the technical possibilities at your disposal.
What are the best nail buffers?
When it comes to the tools used for shaping the nails, luckily there are only a handful of options, all with their own uses and advantages.
Used for the first step of the nail filing process, metal or glass boards are perfect for filing the nail into the ideal shape for playing. Metal files are compact and durable, but do eventually wear down over repeated use. On the other hand, while glass or crystal glass files stay etched a lot longer and give a smoother finish than metal files, they are much more breakable.
Multi-sided buffers are a staple for every classical guitarist. Not only are they cheap, easy to use, and compact, but they are accessible in almost every beauty store or pharmacy – perfect for those of us who are scatterbrained! Buffers provide an all-in-one nail shaping and smoothing station. The only drawback is that certain shapes do not lend themselves to reaching underneath to smooth the underside of the nail. When it comes to multi-sided buffers, try to choose ones that are long and thin as opposed to block shaped, this should help you get to every crevice of the nail that needs to be polished.
Sandpaper and polishing paper are favorites among the top guitarists in the field as they are compact, efficient and can be used in numerous ways to file the nails to optimum shape and length. Sandpaper – which is used mainly for shaping of the nail – is usually found in 500-1500 grit, whereas polishing paper will be anywhere between 1800 and 12000 grit, the higher the number the finer the paper and therefore better for polishing the nail.
How to find the correct nail shape for you?
A trick for finding your correct nail shape is to use your current string attack point as a point of departure for your nail shape. The best way to do this is to place your sandpaper over a string of the guitar and play a few notes on the sandpaper covered string, this will show you where the nail is touching the string the most, after this you can file the edges so that they are round and smooth.
Here is a video of French guitarist Thomas Viloteau demonstrating this technique:
How to fix hooked nails?
Nails come in all shapes and sizes – ones that often aren’t completely ideal for playing the classical guitar. One common nail type that guitarists struggle with is when there is a “hook” in their nail where it curves down almost like a beak. One guitarist who has found a way around this particular issue is Scott Tennant and he addresses it in the video below.
In his reply, Scott suggests three options for people with hooked nails:
- “Ironing” your nails using a hot surface
- Filing your nail with an extreme ramp to cut through the hook
- Playing at a more parallel angle to the strings
IV. Nail Strength
How to strengthen nails for classical guitar?
Strong nails are essential for a classical guitarist as nail breakages and imperfections can seriously alter your sound. In order to keep nails strong, every guitarist should have adequate vitamin, mineral and nutrient intake in order to support the growth, formation and strength of new nail cells.
Nails are mostly made up of Keratin, the same fibrous, structural protein that makes up the skin and hair. In order to keep nails strong it is important that the body produces enough keratin to keep the nails growing strong and fast. Therefore, any guitarist looking to strengthen their nails should eat a balanced diet full of foods that promote and support keratin production in the body including eggs, onions, salmon, sweet potatoes, sunflower seeds, mango, garlic, kale and carrots.
Alongside this, many guitarists also supplement with biotin (a B-complex Vitamin which promotes healthy cell growth and aids in the metabolism of protein building amino acids), Iron, Magnesium, Omega 3, Vitamin C or Zinc (which promotes rapid cell division and growth). As well as this, classical guitarists should avoid drinking too much coffee, focus on staying hydrated and avoid soaking the nails in water (particularly soapy water) until the nails become soft.
In the realm of “nail strengtheners,” little has been proven to suggest that they improve the strength of nails themselves. Users should always treat with caution any product that uses Formaldehyde, Toluene or Dibutyl phthalate to strengthen nails because while these toxic substances may have temporary hardening effects, they are likely to dry out the nail bed and cause brittleness and breakage over time. In the same vein, if you must wear nail polish for any reason, make sure that when you remove the polish you use a nail-polish remover that is acetone-free to avoid breakages and drying out the nails.
Fake nails for classical guitar
For those who struggle to maintain natural nail shape and strength, fake nails are a good alternative. In fact, many notable guitarists exclusively use fake nails and are able to achieve a consistent, beautiful tone. There are several different techniques for making fake nails including building a new nail from scratch using acrylic powder or simply purchasing acrylic tips and gluing them onto the nail bed.
In the video below, Italian guitarist Giulia Ballare demonstrates how to properly glue and shape an acrylic nail tip.
Removable nails for classical guitar
While removable nails are more commonly used on steel string guitars, they can also be used on classical guitars and are worth experimenting with for those who would prefer not to have long nails – either natural or fake. Removable nails can also be used in a pinch if you break a nail or want to allow it to grow longer without it wearing down during long practice sessions.
Here are a few removable nail brands worth trying out:
- Alaska Pik: Flexible artificial finger and thumb picks that can be personalized and shaped to your liking.
- Rico Nails: Non permanent adhesive that works great for attaching an artificial nail – created by guitarist and pedagogue Rico Stover.
- Tiptonic: Slip-on artificial nail that utilizes a “dual-lock mechanism” to stay in place on your fingers.
V. Nail Maintenance
How do guitarists maintain their nails?
In addition to paying attention to nutrition and diet for healthy nails, it is also incredibly important that guitarists take good care of their nail hygiene. A few ways of doing this include brushing gently with a nail brush when washing hands to avoid fungal infections of the nail beds, avoiding rubbing hand sanitizer into the nails or nail bed, using soaps and creams that do not strip the hands of natural oils, and using natural moisturizers that rehydrate the nail bed and cuticle when hands are dry.
How to fix a broken nail?
A ripped or broken nail can be very problematic for a classical guitarist, especially if it happens right before a performance. In the case that the nail isn’t completely torn off, a simple fix can be done using super glue and a bit of toilet/tissue paper.
First, put the ripped nail back in its original position taking care not to break it any further. Place a drop or two of glue over the crack. Then, take a thin small piece of the toilet paper and press it into the glue using a toothpick or pencil. Be careful not to get too much glue on your other hand. Allow the glue to dry and apply another layer or two to ensure it is secure. Use a buffer to file away the excess glue and sandpaper to smooth it out.
If the crack intersects with the part of your nail that makes direct contact with the string, there will often be a “click” in your sound as the string passes over the crack. If this is the case, it’s often better to get a fake nail put on and allow the fingernail to grow back underneath.
How to protect nails during practice?
While there are plenty of ways to damage your nails, one of the most common ways can actually be from playing your guitar. This becomes especially problematic when you’re getting ready for a performance and practicing more than usual.
One technique for protecting your nails during long practice sessions is to put tape over your nails. This is a method used by many famous guitarists, most notably Manuel Barrueco who posted this video to Facebook demonstrating how he applies the tape to his nails.
Another method for protecting your nails both in the practice room and outside is to apply a small amount of super glue or nail hardener to the area where your nail first makes contact with the string. This is often the spot where the nail wears down the fastest, so providing support in that specific area can help protect it.
VI. More Resources
We hope this article helped lay the foundation for your fingernail explorations going forward! The topic of nails is a never ending conversation for classical guitarists of all levels, so don’t ever be afraid to continue learning and trying out new things.
To that end, here is a short list of resources we have found very insightful and highly recommend:
Fingernail Lesson for Classical Guitar by Bradford Werner from “This is Classical Guitar”
Total Guide To Classical Guitar Nail Care Products by Nylon Plucks
How to Grow and Shape Classical Guitar Nails by Classical Guitar 101
10 Tips For Terrific Nails by Chris Garwood from “tonebase”
Maintaining nails on the classical guitar is vital to developing a good sound. However, good nails don't do the trick on their own.
Developing a good sound on the guitar requires practice and a good ear for tone quality, as well as good teachers to direct your ear and interpretation in the right direction.
We developed tonebase just for this.
On tonebase, you will find in-depth courses and workshops with the world’s top classical guitarists, covering a wide range of subjects such as repertoire-specific lessons, classical guitar technique, and more.
And as a bonus, members receive invitations to weekly live events, a forum of fellow passionate guitarists, and custom annotated scores and workbooks.
Click here to sign up for a free 14 day trial and discover how tonebase can level up your classical guitar tone.