Shaping Your Nails for Guitar

"Finally! A shaping your nails page with so much information and tips that are useable..."

Shaping your fingernails in the correct fashion is an important topic in the world of classical guitar. It is said that the playing of the guitar with nails began somewhere around the time of Aguado and most probably originated with him. Indeed, it was an exciting time in the development of Western music when many new conventions, such as the use of the metronome, became more widespread.

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Sooner or later, if you play classical guitar and want to have decent volume and good tone, you're going to have to use the nails of your right hand to pluck and play the strings. Sharon Isbin writing in her excellent Classical Guitar Answer Book said...

 "Classical guitarists can play without nails, but they should be aware that in doing so, they are sacrificing certain possibilities of tone color and projection - all of which affect interpretation and musical presentation."

So just how do you go about shaping your nails for the most effective sound? An important point is to make sure that you take care of your basic health because the health and strength of your nails is directly related to overall body health. Like many topics in classical guitar there is always conjecture, debate, disagreement and differing opinion and shaping nails is no different. This is healthy and will ensure that classical guitar stays vibrant and relevant as we move further into this new century.

There is always a core of knowledge from which our standard practices spring. Core knowledge that has stood the test of time over many centuries. If you follow the basic tenets of what I'm about to tell you, you won't go far wrong. If you need to make adjustments to suit your physical shape or mental approach then don't be afraid to do so. Let's begin!

When shaping your nails it mostly depends on what you feel comfortable with. The most common methods are shaping your nails to follow the shape of the fingers themselves. Shaping the nails like this gives a more angled shape to the nails. Here is a little diagram of nail shaping from one of my favorite classical guitar books...

Picture courtesy of Classical Guitar Pedagogy

You can see in the top picture that the nail follows the natural curve of the finger. If you turned the finger around so that the nail is pointing away from you, you would see that the nail length is just a few millimeters above the finger itself. In other words if you hold your finger at eye-height, you should just see the fingernail protruding above the flesh.

If you have it much longer than this, it tends to catch on the strings and can be very awkward. If you have it much shorter than this you tend to miss the string itself when playing.,  The other angled method as seen in the lower diagram is used to produce a "very dark, warm sound" according to Mr Glise.

I can attest to this as I have shaped my nails like this on many an occasion. I often tend to reverse that angle as well, making the protruding part on the left of the nail rather than the right hand side. It just seems to make me feel more comfortable as I feel I can get a good "grip" on the strings.

Whether you use either of these methods when shaping your nails is based on personal decisions of finger shape, nail arch etc. Something that everyone can do to help their sound, however, is to use a very fine sandpaper to smooth off the nail, particularly the inside edge. Left raw, the nail can produce a very scratchy, uneven tone which is definitely what you don't want. Also, an un-papered nail could have uneven edges that slightly protrude, catching the string and causing some of those notes we all know as "clangers".

Having done all this you still must realize that it's not only the nail that plays the string. If you ever listen to Segovia (and who hasn't?), you'll notice that his very warm tone comes from a mixture of playing the strings with the flesh and the nail. He really perfected this technique.

Oh yes! You're right! Hours and hours of practice too:)) Here's how Anthony Glise explains the technique in his book...

"Using nails is somewhat confusing to beginners since they often assume that only the nail is used to sound the string. In fact, only the nail releases the string. When correctly placed on the string (at the exact point from which the finger will play), both the nail and the pad of the flesh at the fingertip will touch the string at the same moment - the pad will stop the string (much like the damper pad on a piano), and the nail will be simultaneously positioned to re-strike the string."

Don't worry if this sounds too hard or confusing if you're a beginner. With slow and concentrated practice this technique becomes ingrained in your playing. After a while,  it's like anything you do - second nature. Just like shaping your nails:)) I hope, this little discussion has made the topic of shaping your nails a little clearer.

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