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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Hoof: Healthy 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.
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:
- 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.
- Listen to your tone and find out why different nail shapes affect your sound.
- Experiment with different shapes to discover what works better for you.
Links to other sites and articles:
- Christopher Davis on guitar nails, includes a video
- Davis: Classical Guitar Fingernail Basics
- Rob Reid on Playing The Classical Guitar Without Nails
- Davis: Damage Control: Salvaging Torn Fingernails
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?
You might be interested to see my article on right-hand technique. You can find it at the Lesson Archive page.
Happy plucking (pushing!).