Losing chunks throughout intense practice sessions, breaking off sections whilst opening a door, worrying about them every time your hand makes sudden contact with anything…these are just some of the perils of having a guitarist’s fingernails. It’s worth every moment of it for the tone quality that can be obtained from a well-shaped, strong nail, but growing and maintaining them is no easy task. Nail files become a constantly-carried accessory, and the question of whether they’re too long or too short never seems to have a simple answer.
Those of us who pluck nylon strings find the advantage of nails simply irreplaceable, but can they work as well on steel? I’ve often found that fingerpicking steel strings can leave me with a much shorter and more jagged nail than I had to begin with. The use of finger picks and thumb picks is something that divides a lot of guitarists, some of us never gaining the same level of comfort with them as we do with our own fingers.
So now the question is: If we don’t want to artificially elongate our fingers, can we artificially strengthen their natural extensions? Many of us have the misfortune to naturally possess weak nails which will struggle to withstand a Bach prelude on nylon strings, let alone a Delta blues number on steel. I have at various times used nail strengthener, even if my purchase of such a product does gain some bewildered looks from staff in cosmetic shops who are clearly unused to men showing such an interest in nail care.
Results have been mixed, with breaks sometimes being in larger chunks, meaning that when I do lose a bit of a nail I lose nearly all of it. However, recently I have started applying colourless nail mat, and it seems to be working quite well, giving my nails more resistance and increasing their ability to move through strings with conviction. The success of nail mat seems to depend to a very large extent on the level of its application, as overdoing it simply results in it all peeling off soon afterwards and often bringing part of the natural nail with it. Subtlety is key, with reapplications every few days generally keeping things in decent nick.
Having said all this, accidents will always be inevitable. Nobody’s life is sufficiently sheltered that they will never suffer the consequences of hastily opening a tin of beans or peeling an orange and leaving part of their precious nail behind in the process. So another dilemma is what to do when such ill luck strikes. David Russell, the current leading light in the world of classical guitar, has been known to repair breaks with a complicated combination of superglue and a strip of ping-pong ball, with flamenco fusion pioneer Juan Martín doing something similar with silk. Yours truly has learned from experience that superglue alone certainly won’t suffice, leaving unsightly and smooth-pluck-destroying blobs on either side of a fracture that unfailingly breaks again before too long.
There are two reasons why the care of nails is a cause of such constant attention: length and shape. The two must always be kept in order, otherwise their existence will do more harm than good to the guitarist’s tone. Long enough to easily connect with and release strings but short enough to be strong is a tricky balance to obtain, and the actual length required for this varies from one guitarist to another. It helps if the middle finger is very slightly longer than the index, with the ring finger slightly longer again, in order to compensate for the index finger’s closer proximity to the strings. As regards shape, opinion has often been divided, with this particular player finding that a rounded, smooth nail works best.Whether or not to use nails is an issue that might never have a simple answer for steel-string fingerstyle players, and how exactly to condition them will always be an area of debate and intrigue for pluckers of steel and nylon alike. For the time being I myself will persist with a semi-circular shape and applications of nail mat every few days, as it seems to be working for me.
Ciaran Elster is a classical guitarist and has received a Performance Diploma with the Associated Board (DipABRSM) while studying for several years in the Dublín School of Guitar. He also achieved Second Class Honors: First Division in a four-year Bachelor of Music degree in Trinity College Dublin, in which Musicology was his specialty.
Ciaran has a wide range of knowledge on many topics relating to the world of classical guitar. During his university studies he completed a dissertation on the rise of the classical guitar repertoire in the early part of the nineteenth century, and he gave presentations and wrote essays on topics such as the modern and traditional influences in the music of Leo Brouwer, the nature of Francisco Tárrega's influence on Francis Kleynjans' Arabesque en forme de caprice the parallel development of both the guitar as an instrument and the blues as a genre. As well as being able to write about the historical aspects of classical guitar he is also aware of more modern tendencies such as Milos Karadaglic's albums and commercial videos and the cross-genre collaborations of guitarists such as Manuel Barrueco and John Williams.
Ciaran is fascinated by early music and pre-guitar instruments such as the vihuela, Baoque guitar and lute, and he is always seeking to research their current-day usage as well as their origins and history.
Ciaran currently lives in Huelva in the south of Spain and has been studying flamenco through private lessons. Ciaran is also passionate about blues music, in particular that of the acoustic guitar. He has extensive knowledge of its development from players such as Charlie Patton and Mississippi John Hurt through the likes of Robert Johnson and Son House to the transformation carried out by players such as Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker.
He currently plays in an amateur band specializing in Latin American folk music.