Fingernails for Classical Guitar: How I Shape My Nails


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Fingernails for Classical Guitar
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By popular demand: a post on filing your nails for classical guitar. To be honest, this is difficult teaching topic because no one files their nails in exactly 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 exact 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.

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 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.



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:

A video on nails and tone with Matthew McAllister

Video Link & Source:

Fingernail Gear via Amazon:

Crystal file: Crystal Nail File – I use this first 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.

Protect + Improve: Healthy Hoof Lacquer + Protein Treatment: high gloss protectant, leaves an ultra shiny, satin finish with a strong UV protectant for strong, healthy nails

Fingernail Health Supplements: Oral Supplements for Nails– Supports healthy skin, nails, and hair. Read the labels folks or ask your doctor before buying.

Books on classical guitar nail shaping: The Bible of Classical Guitar Technique by Hubert Käppel has a good three pages of excellent text, plus it’s a great book to own anyway.Pumping Nylon by Scott Tennant 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. Also, 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 exactly 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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  1. 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. No argument here. I do mine about the same, but my thumb seems to contact the string from the opposite direction! Hmmm…

  3. 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.

    • 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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…

  6. Anthony E Strong on

    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.


  7. 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

  8. Thanks, this is useful info for someone who has never filed their nails. While learning “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” I figured I’d better learn a tip or two!

  9. Can’t believe I’m standing in a pub searching the web for nail care but hey 🙂 Thanks for the information, really helped! Played electric for many years but new to classical – as I have the brain capacity of Mr Bean the images did it for me! Cheers.. Graham.. Liverpool/England

  10. I just started learning classical guitar. My teacher says the right thumb initially contacts the thumbnail at its middle, and then slides off on the left side of the thumb. This whole fingernail shaping thing is really vexing a beginner, but it’s so important to get the shape right.

  11. i play fingerstyle guitar on a steel string and keeping my nails right to perform every day is the worst chore out of everything. i get them just right and it only lasts 2 days, not to mention my thumbnail frequently needs a fake nail glued on because all the repetitive bass plucking shaves it down faster than it grows. wish i could just have adamantium nails surgically installed.
    then oftentimes i cant get the good shape even trying. first it will have this overplucking going on where the nail gets caught too easily, making it very hard to play. then i will reform it only to get a scraping noise everytime i pluck. then i reform it and it becomes too short and i start missing strings and getting a raw fingertip. then naturally anytime i agree to help a friend move furniture or something i shatter one of my nails. haha this is the worst part of playing fingerstyle guitar

  12. Here is my problem: First of all, I am a left-handed player, but that’s not the problem. I have an unusual thumb nail that folds down somewhat on the side that makes contact with the string. If I point the tip of my thumb towards me, instead of the nail looking like this; ( it will look like this: (_ . That’s an exaggeration, to be sure, but I am limited by the keyboard symbols! Thus it will quite often snag the string creating a God-awful double-forte TWANG in the middle of a nice soft piano passage. I’m wondering if I should cut the nail short and glue on a guitar nail. What do you think?

  13. What happens if you generally don’t have nails? I very very short nails, mainly because typing with long nails is a big pain. Having just bought my first guitar today, I’m hoping it’s not going to be a big problem…

    BTW thank you for the tutorials so far. 🙂

  14. My issue is that my nails curve- especially my thumb nail. It curves to the point where the flesh of my thumb hits the string instead. How can I flatten it out without breaking it?

    • Hello Bacon Bacon…I am in no way a professional performer. That said, I (used to) play out a whole lot, weekly in fact, while I tended to my sheep farm here in central Maine.

      So, your thumb nail is not, in your opinion, acceptable. Well, then you’ve got to work with what you’ve got, not with what you wish you had. Who cares, other than you, that your nail is “different”. I suggest you work with it and get ‘your’ sound. You might be surprised with what you come up. Work with what you’ve got, chill, be open, chill…you will get a wonderful sound that will be yours. Your thumb is not a liability, it’s a gift. Just my 2 cts.


  15. Brian Stanic on

    Hi! I am a newbie and I am complimenting your terrific instructions / books with Frederick Noad’s book. I am trying to replicate the sounds/tones in your videos but I am having an issue with fingernail scratching sounds on the strings. Can you please confirm if this is mostly to do with my fingernails not being polished enough or a bad shape (they are just the normal shape at the moment). My technique would appear to be sound (re your advice), so I am thinking it may be the nails. Many thanks, hope you can advise.

    • Could be your nails. I mean there is some nail sound when we play but it usually isn’t heard by the audience. Study the article and a few other videos and see how it goes. Make sure to have great nail files with polishing sides. Also, some strings are noisier than others. A clear nylon string will have less noise than a rectified string or composition (sometimes).

      • Brian Stanic on

        Thanks for your feedback. I will try and improve the nails and see how it goes.By the way, I am using Augustine strings. Look forward to progressing through your Volume 1.

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