A great amount has already been written about fingernails and how to get the best sound from a classical guitar. Anyone who has even scraped the surface of discussions will know about the age-old classical guitar debate of ‘fingernails versus no fingernails’. This post simply gives one viewpoint and assumes a preference for using fingernails. (Note: If anywhere on this web site you see reference to ‘nails’ you can assume the author is not referring to metal pins normally used to hammer together pieces of wood but instead the commonly used abbreviation for fingernails!)
Fingernails and how they are used will affect the effectiveness of tone production on the classical guitar. As well as being able to control the amount or volume of sound, fingernails play an important role in changing the tone, or in other words the timbral characteristics (bright, dark, warm, brittle, harsh, soft, gravelly, etc) of musical notes.
Evidence suggests that fingernail shape, size and strength is a matter of genetic luck. There are some people who easily grow perfectly formed, strong fingernails and others who cannot. Sometimes, regardless of how strong the nails are, they might be crooked and not ideal for guitar playing. Often it is possible to rescue a fingernail by careful filing and shaping. It is understandable though that some guitarists prefer to play without fingernails. No-nails guitar playing is possible but a topic beyond this particular discussion.
There is also the option of using artificial fingernails which can be successful although not necessarily the most ideal for all people. It depends a lot on individual preference and willingness to work with artificial fingernails.
Assuming there is no problem with nail growth and general condition, nail care is the next important factor. Keeping the fingernails in good condition ready for playing guitar involves keeping them trimmed to the optimum length and shape, and polished not only removing roughness but also ensuring nail edges are as smooth as possible.
Fingernail shape is important and takes some imagination to perfect. It is a detailed process beyond this discussion. However, a very simple explanation of what is needed is this. Guitarists often describe filing a flat edge or ‘ramp’ diagonally on one side of the fingernail. Imagining your hand is pointing away from you with the palm facing the floor, right handed guitarists file the ramp on the left side of the nail and left handed guitarists will file the ramp on the right side of the nail. (Note: This is the usual method but some guitarists have been known to play using the opposite side of the fingernail, requiring a different right hand technique from standard.) Also remember there should be no sharp edges, including the ramp edges.
Some guitarists recommend carrying out a small amount of fingernail care (perhaps a very light filing and polishing) on a daily basis to ensure that they are ready for playing at any time. That said though, you need to take are not to file and polish your fingernails too far. There is always a point when they will become too short and not ideal for playing. But do not be too concerned because, unless you have difficulty growing fingernails, they should regain some length in several days time or perhaps a week.
Knowing the correct fingernail shape and length comes with experience. Understand exactly what is required can take a lot of trial and error. It’s important to listen carefully and observe what works and what doesn’t. It also helps to have an idea of what you are aiming for. You might want to produce a sound like a fabulous classical guitarist you’ve heard on YouTube or CD recording. That is the usual scenario which can be helpful although it can be unrealistic to expect to sound exactly the same. The best outcome is if you can find your own sound that is unique and special to you.
There is much more to the matter of preparing and using fingernails to play classical guitar. This post simply offers a general understanding of some of the issues. Remember you can learn a lot simply by observing and listening to experienced guitarists. If you still haven’t found the perfect solution you might have success seeking advice from a guitar teacher. However, it’s important to realise that advice from teachers depends a lot on their own personal experience, training and personal preferences. What you are told can vary a lot from one person to another. It is ultimately up to you to decide what works best for you, your hands, your fingernails and your senses.