One of the most defining characteristics of classical guitarists is our fingernails. Finding the ideal shape and length for your own nails is a process that can take years of trial-and-error. However, for those of you giving this whole “long nails” thing a try for the first time, it’s important to start with a baseline from which you can make your own experiments. In her tonebase lesson “On Nails,” Bahar Ossareh shares her foundational approach to nail length, shape, and the tools every guitarist should use on their journey to finding fingernail fulfillment!


Outline

  1. How long your nails should be
  2. Nail shapes
  3. Tools for shaping your nails
  4. The three basic steps to shaping your nails

How long your nails should be

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 everyone…

If your nails are too short, more surface of the skin will touch the string and therefore cause friction, especially if you’re hands are sweaty. You also may struggle to catch the string with your nail when plucking a note.

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.

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When determining the correct length for your nails, you should not be looking 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.

Nail shapes

Shapes that make GOOD sounds.
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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 the moving the tip to the right as in the other two. In his lesson on Sound Production, Aniello Desiderio also recommends all beginners start with what he calls a “half moon” shape.


Shapes that make BAD sounds...
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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.

Tools for shaping your nails

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Metal, crystal, and ivory boards are great for major shaping changes, taking down the corners of your nail, and smoothing out cracks.

Multi-sided buffers are especially convenient because you have pretty much everything you need to shape and polish your nail in one tool.

Sandpaper is helpful for minor shaping changes due to it’s flexibility and because it comes in different amounts of “roughness.”

Polishing papers are useful for the last step to give your nails a shiny edge. These can be found in most carpenter stores.

The three basic nail shaping steps

  1. Start with a medal file and work on creating one of the 3 shapes listed above. At the same time, be sure to remove all sharp edges.
  2. Make small adjustments with a buffer, removing any excess material on the underside of the nail.
  3. Finally, polish each side of the nail with sandpaper.


Pro Tips:
  • It is important to file and buff not only the nail but also the skin where it touches the string to remove any built up callus.
  • An additional shaping trick is to put the sandpaper on the guitar strings and pluck normally (like this). Doing this helps polish the nail in the exact place it normally touches the string.


Of course nails are merely the first step to creating a gorgeous sound on the guitar. Stay tuned for Bahar’s follow up lesson where she discusses the mechanics for producing a beautiful sound. Until then, check out our other blog post on general nail tips below!

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Guitarist

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