Fingernails for Classical Guitar: How I Shape My Nails

By popular demand: a post on filing your nails for classical guitar. To be honest, I hate teaching this topic because no one files their nails in the same way. However, this might be of interest and a starting point for students so I thought I’d give it a good stab. Make sure to see the bottom of the post where I have videos by pros with the opposite shape!

No guitarist is the same

What this post is not:

  • This is not a post on how to file your nails: the way I file my nails will not be the same way you file yours
  • This is not a definitive answer
  • This is not a static, unchanging, description
  • This is not a comprehensive look at all the ways to file your nails…only my way

What this post is:

  • How I file my nails for my guitar, sound, style, and personal preference
  • A possible starting point for beginners
  • An avenue for you to leave a comment at the bottom

Definitions & Tips:

Contact Point: This is where the string makes first contact on the fingertip. I recommend you have both the flesh and the fingernail touch the string at the same time.

Release Point: After the string travels up the ramp of the fingernail it releases from the nail. You have to make sure it releases easily if you want a good tone and ease of playing.

String Direction: The direction the string travels up the ramp.

Why Use Ramps? Whether your fingernails are curved perfectly or you create a long ramp, the idea is to push the string into the guitar. That is, just like a piano hammer pushes the string (rather than plucks it like a harpsichord) your nail pushes the string in toward the soundhole. This might vary depending on the sound you are going for but this is the basic idea which is similar to the motion of a rest-stroke.

Contact Point, Release Point, and String Direction

Below is a picture of my fingernails. You can see from the markings where the contact point begins and the release occurs. I’ve tried to keep the perspective from the player’s view so if you hold your hand up in front of your face it will look the same. I’ve also added a flip view for clarity.

fingersnails-front

fingersnails-back

 

i finger placement

i finger placement

 

i finger placement (outside view)

i finger placement (outside view)

 

m finger placement

m finger placement

 

m finger placement (outside view)

m finger placement (outside view)

 

a finger placement

a finger placement

 

a finger placement (outside view)

a finger placement (outside view)

 

I’ve found that most students respond well to my fingernail shape. It’s a good starting point for their own experiments.

Thumbnails: Here is where my students are 50/50 on their choice. Actually, many of my favorite guitarists use the opposite thumbnail shape that I use. Watch the below video to see my explanation. The reason I use this shape is that when I rest my nail on the string at the contact point it doesn’t move up the ramp until I apply pressure to overcome the resistance.

thumbnail-front

thumbnail-back

p finger placement

p finger placement

Here’s a video on how why I file nails the way I do:

The video is in two parts: first I show why I use the shape I do, second I take out nail-files and shape and buff.

A video by Thomas Viloteau with the opposite shape!

Via the online magazine Si Corde! Thomas Viloteau talks about filing and shaping the right hand finger nails. He shapes his nails in the opposite direction to mine. This is great as it shows the variety.

Video Link: http://youtu.be/KcU6ozYT61o

Fingernail Gear via Amazon:

Crystal file: Revlon Crystal Nail File – I use this instead of the 2 shaping sides below. Then polish with the buffer sides on the revlon shape & buff.

Multisided nail file: Revlon Shape’N Buff (3-Pack) has four high quality buffing surfaces to smooth nails and two filing surfaces to shape and finish nails.

Healthy HoofHealthy Hoof Intensive Protein Treatment – this is great for two reasons. One, it keeps the nails moisturized which will stop the nail from cracking or breaking. Two, the protein help the nail grow thick and strong.

Silicon Supplement: Florasil 4.7mg Silicon – Supports healthy skin, nails, and hair. Source of silicon for the maintenance of healthy skin, nails, and hair. Sweet, so improve your nails and look fantastic too!

Books on classical guitar nail shaping: Pumping Nylon  has a good blurb on how to do the nails and accounts for different types and shapes of nails. I’ve found it to be a bit confusing and not comprehensive enough. However, Charles Duncan has a lengthy explanation in his Art of Classical Guitar Playing.

How to find the correct shape for you:

  1. Come up with a set of exercises that represent a comprehensive example of guitar technique. For example: scales, arpeggios, slurs, rest-stroke, free-stroke, etc… Then make sure your nail allows you to play all the different techniques with ease. 
  2. Listen to your tone and find out why different nail shapes affect your sound.
  3. Experiment with different shapes to discover what works better for you.

Links to other sites and articles:

Argue Vehemently:

I know many of you will completely disagree with my article. However, please remember that this is how I shape my nails and I am not recommending you do the same. Everyone’s hands, technique approach, and sound are different so, therefore, our nails shapes must also be different.

What’s your thoughts and constructive criticisms on this? 

More lessons:

You might be interested to see my article on right-hand technique. You can find it at the Lesson Archive page.

Happy plucking (pushing!).

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13 Responses to Fingernails for Classical Guitar: How I Shape My Nails

  1. Jason D. March 8, 2013 at 1:31 pm #

    OK, I like this… BUT!
    The most important thing about nail shaping is that you don’t lose sight of playing the guitar. The seriousness with which I file my nails depends dramatically on how much time I have to play guitar, as that goes down, so does my ability to shape my nails. Normally, I just smooth them a bit, keep them the right length and go at it.

  2. Dave Pelham March 8, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

    No argument here. I do mine about the same, but my thumb seems to contact the string from the opposite direction! Hmmm…

  3. Bradford March 9, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

    Yes, the thumb is the one most people differ on!

  4. ROBERTO March 10, 2013 at 5:51 am #

    it is very subjective! the important thing is to play very well!!

  5. Gord March 10, 2013 at 10:52 am #

    OMGoodness! I have had my ramp going the wrong way for 30 yrs!…. being left-handed, I mis-read all the pix that have ramps. Thanks. I will dwnld and save the pix for future referrence.

    • Charlie March 11, 2013 at 7:12 pm #

      Gord, I a right handed player and have, like you, ramped my nails in the opposite direction. Just for fun, I’ll ramp them in the direction of this description and see if it makes a difference.

      My luthier has told me to not use my nails at all. I keep my pretty short so they are barely there yet I feel the tone and color is much better with nail than without.

  6. Viva Cassidy March 10, 2013 at 12:09 pm #

    Broke my thumbnail today, now I will be aware of bumping it for at least another week, and I’m sure other players have been there and vowed to catch a nail snag before this happens.

  7. Derek Arvidson March 10, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

    This is the most comprehensive and detailed coverage of nails I have seen to date. A much needed resource, many thanks for putting it together in such a thorough manner!

  8. Bradford March 11, 2013 at 7:25 pm #

    Don’t forget that if you perform in halls your sound is less harsh from the further from the guitar you get. Sometimes the sound your after is not the one you hear but rather the one from the back of the hall.

    Depends on how/where you play…

  9. Anthony E Strong January 13, 2014 at 7:25 am #

    I am a newcomer to the guitar, at 73 years of age, and I wish to learn classical (I am also attempting to make a classical guitar). I did read that one way to define your nail shape was to fold a piece of emery paper 2″ square and fold it in half, place this over the G (3rd) string and then proceed to ‘play’ with your hand. This will wear the nail that is in contact with the string and give to a guide on where and what shape to file them. Like every thing else with classical guitar I find nail shaping confusing as there does not appear to be any definitive answer.

    Tony

  10. Phoenix March 20, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

    Thanks.

  11. Nir K April 25, 2014 at 3:15 am #

    Hello – I enjoyed reading your article.

    I have a site dedicated to all the things that are related to Classical guitar
    I would like to ask for your permission to translate your article to Hebrew and post it.
    Obviously I will keep your copyrights and add a link to this article…

    you can check it at http://tenor.co.il/articles.html

    • Bradford April 25, 2014 at 8:03 am #

      Heavy credits and active link at the very top of the article please! Otherwise go for it.

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