For a classical guitarist, the right hand (or left hand if you are left handed) nails are arguably the most important ‘tool’ to hone and maintain in order to play well. As important as the bow for the violinist, the nails and their length, strength and shape transform the tone, versatility and ease of a guitarist’s playing.

Whilst there is no one way of doing your nails, and the optimal shape will be different for each player (based on the natural shape of the nail, the length and build of the fingers, and the desired sound and technical outcomes in the hand), this article will give some practical tips for how to improve nail health and offer nail shaping information which should be used merely as guidance for discovery through personal critical observation.

Nail Care

Strong nails are essential for a classical guitarist as nail breakages and imperfections can monumentally alter sound production. 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 it is paramount that a guitarist eats a balanced diet full of foods that promote and support keratin production in the body; eggs, onions, salmon, sweet potatoes, sunflower seeds, mango, garlic, kale and carrots.

Alongside this, many guitarists also supplement with biotin; aB-complex Vitamin which promotes healthy cell growth and aids in the metabolism of protein building amino acids (Adequate Intake recommendation for adults in30mcg per day), Iron, Magnesium, Omega 3, Vitamin C or Zinc; which promotes rapid cell division and growth (Recommended Daily Allowance for zinc is 11mg and 8mg for men and women respectively).

Besides paying attention to nutrition and diet for healthy nails, it is also incredibly important that guitarists take good care of their nail hygiene, brushing gently with a nail brush when washing hands to avoid fungal infections of the nail beds, avoid rubbing hand sanitizer into the nails or nail bed, use soaps and creams that do not strip the hands of natural oils and natural moisturizers that rehydrate the nail bed and cuticle when hands are dry.

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, and 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 vain, 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.

Nail Shaping Products

When it comes to the tools used for shaping the nails, luckily there are only a few options, all with their own uses and advantages.

1. Metal/Glass Boards

Used for the first step of the nail filing process, these coarse 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 and while glass or crystal glass files stay etched a lot longer and give a smoother finish than metal files, they are much more breakable.

2. Multi-sided Buffers

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 draw back 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.

3. Sandpaper/Polishing Paper

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 and softer the paper and therefore better for polishing the nail.

Nail Length

Nail length is one of the most hotly contested conundrums in the classical guitar world, but the secret is that there is no right answer. As with everything when it comes to music, the process is, and should be, completely personalized, after all, we all have different physiologies and goals, and we all play in absolutely different ways.

However, as a general rule there are benefits and draw backs to both short and long nails.

Short nails facilitate depth of sound, as contact to the string is split almost evenly between nail and flesh, this allows for nuance in the control of the right hand, however, if the nails are too short players run the risk of catching on the string with the flesh, particularly if the player has sweaty hands, and not being able to move through the string fast enough, leaving certain right hand passages lumpy.

Long nails on the other hand are easier to move through the string which allows the player to perform fast passages efficiently and lightly, but they are more prone to playing related breakages, day to day damage, and can produce a brittle string sound.

Ideally guitarists find a happy medium between these two, obtaining the flesh/nail attack balance, preventing the nails from unnecessary breakage whilst also moving quickly through each string.  

Nail Shape

The true fact about nail shape is that there are no ‘facts’ about nail shape. As a classical guitarist, much of your observation on the instrument and in your practice will be searching for a shape that works for you and that gives you the best results whilst facilitating playing ease and efficiency. However, whilst there is no ‘true north’ when it comes to shaping, there are some principles that you can stick by to align yourself in your discovery.

  1. Use your current string attack point as a point of departure for your nail shape, not the visual. 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.
  2. That being said, try to avoid jagged edges, points and right angles. What looks smooth will usually sound smooth, anything that looks like a weapon or something you would not want to touch will not usually create a beautiful honey sound.
  3. 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.

Points for Consideration

Take care to constantly observe the status and outcomes of your current nail shape, and remember that optimization is a lifelong process, and one that changes with your physiology as you get older, with each different piece you play and also with your ever developing technical facility.  

When it comes to anything on the instrument we really must take every piece of information we read with a pinch of salt. Whilst there is a lot of information, especially on the internet, concerning how we should maintain our nails for optimal sound production, the most informative information we can find is already at our fingertips - literally!

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Guitarist

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