For centuries, guitarists have discussed whether to use fingernails or flesh on the right hand to pluck the strings.
I get asked about this often, so I figured a blog post was in order!
(Even though this is intended for guitarists – this may interest you even if you are a non musician.)
In this post, I’ll talk about sound basics, amplification, tone, volume, the history of nails, and practical considerations like nail care.
There are pros and cons to each way of solving the right hand technique “problem”, and ultimately either approach can work, perfectly well.
What’s Important in Music?
Before we dive in we must ask “what’s important in music?”
The further you go in to making music, you’ll find that what really matters is your “musical flow”, your groove, and your tone.
Nails or no nails, good groove, melody and sound are the final goal of making music.
Is Music Made of “Particles” or “Waves?”
In quantum physics we see that light and sound can behave as “particles” or “waves”.
The “particles” of technique (single notes) become a “wave” of sound when heard in succession (melody and groove).
Mature, seasoned musicians listen to music as “waves”, whether it’s their own playing or someone else’s. Regular non-musician listeners hear music as waves too! They hear “the song” and groove.
It’s only us musicians who listen for particles, details, and licks – for the most part!
My teacher used to tell me “you can fool the musicians, but you can’t fool the people!” This is why!
If we think of and hear music as a “wave”, music on guitar is totally possible with or without right hand fingernails; the single notes are just “particles”.
It does not matter which “tool” sets the strings into motion (flesh or nail) once you hear music in “waves”.
Your musical flow and personal “sound” will ring through no matter what technique you use.
The Basics of Sound Travel
When we pluck a string there is a distance between the vibrating string and the listener’s ear. The question is – how much distance? A few feet? 10 Feet? 25 feet? 100 Feet? More?
- High frequencies and low frequencies travel differently through air.
- Treble or “highs” do not travel very far, they die out at a few feet’s distance.
- Bass or “low” frequencies travel very far! (I can hear hip hop bass from cars blocks away in my NYC apartment no problem).
In the traditional concert hall setting (a classical guitar with no amplification) the highs will usually start to die out and “round off” when they start reaching the audience.
That’s one of the reasons fingernails work well for classical guitar (not to mention nails work better on nylon strings as well.)
As we get closer to the guitar the sound of nails may seem harsher because we’d be hearing more highs.
Get it? The highs die out with distance.
What About Amplification?
Once amplification comes into the picture, everything changes.
There is less “distance” between the plucked string and the listeners ear, because the guitar “pickup” captures the guitar sound ON the guitar.
This “close up” sound is then made louder. It is “as if” the listeners ear is closer to the guitar.
How does this affect the “tone”?
There’s usually a “brighter” sound to deal with once we use amplification, (the highs get no chance to die off in the air) so we’ll need a new way to “round off” this sound so it is not harsh and too “trebly”.
We have 2 options for fixing the sound.
- Do we adjust the sound at the origin (finger & string contact)?
- Do we adjust the sound at the delivery point (electronic tone / eq adjustment )?
My experience over years and years has shown me over and over – if you start with a good “originating sound” just with your fingers and strings, you’ll be in good shape tone wise no matter what.
Garbage in, Garbage Out!
My experience has also shown me that correcting a fundamentally bad sound with electronics is pretty much, IMPOSSIBLE! Trust me on this!
Many guitarists (particularly in jazz) produce the small, brittle sound at the origin, and try to improve it by “rolling off treble” on the electronics. This sounds like someone screaming into a pillow. “Woofy” tone is not good tone.
So – producing a good solid tone is critical – then you don’t have to “hide the highs”. I find using the flesh to be my solution for producing a good solid tone at the “front of the sound chain” or “origin” – a nice attack, and I can let the highs stay there for nuance.
It works well for amplified guitars to do it this way.
(Even if you use nails, just make sure you are making a nice sound at “front of the sound chain”, meaning your fingers and the guitar.)
How To Produce a Good Tone – In General
Of course words are merely a pointer – but I suggest this – with the flesh of your thumb, pop the string in towards your belly button and get the string to vibrate in & out 90 degrees to the top of the guitar (not up & down between the floor & ceiling!)
Go for “maximum” comfort volume.
Now listen for the fullest sound you can get, and experiment purely with sound. Try to set the string into motion this way, by pressing the string in towards your belly when you play.
Now make your fingers – with or without nails, sound like that! 🙂
What About Speed & Nails?
There are different kinds of speed.
- velocity – lots of fast notes
Don’t confuse “velocity” with “tempo”.
It’s certainly easier to do fast arpeggios and tremolos with nails since they can get “in and out” of a note faster. Flesh requires you to “pop” the note with a deeper sound – tougher to play fast.
Nails win here.
Fast “tempos” come from within the musician, so that’s a rhythmic issue, and quite different from razzle dazzle techniques like tremolo. A little razzle dazzle is good, but it’s not “fundamental” to making good music.
Tempo is flow and groove – and has nothing to do with nails or flesh.
A Brief History of Flesh vs Nails
Fernando Sor and Mauro Giuliani played with flesh.
Tarrega played with nails and toward the end of his life played with flesh.
Segovia – due to his greatness and popularity – became the “standard” for many players, and used nails and called anyone who didn’t do it his way “an idiot”.
In the fingerstyle world Doyle Dykes, Pete Huttlinger, Clive Carroll – use nails. They are all awesome!
Tommy Emmanuel, Joe Robinson, Michael Fix use flesh and they are awesome!
Interesting point – Virtuoso Pepe Romero advised classical guitarists to play with flesh for at least one year to understand the basics of producing a sound, even if they choose nails later.
Nail Care and Breakage, and Practical Considerations…
Nail care is a whole “way of life” and I remember when I was a classical player as a teen – all the nail care using super “Krazy” glue, cutting ping pong balls as fake nails and gluing them on, sandpaper – was for me, a total hassle.
I think caring for nails is a pain in the neck. I play with flesh only, and sometimes a thumbpick.
I tour A LOT. I’m in and out of airports, trains – with guitars & baggage – and it would be easy to break a nail. I’d simply rather not stress and be gluing nails minutes before a gig!
I’ve heard of classical players having to cancel gigs due to nail breakage. Of course they probably say they have the flu though. 🙂
Case closed, for me. No nails. It’s a hassle, and I intentionally built my solo technique style around the practical considerations of not wanting to deal with the nail care problem.
Final Words of Advice
No matter what you choose, just make sure that…
- You are producing a FAT sound that originates from a deeper place than just the surface of the string.
- The front of your note should be like a “plump grapefruit” – not a cat claw!
- You “pop” the string into motion and love the sound you make playing a single note on your high E string. (treble strings tell the truth about your tone.)
- If you don’t like your sound, seek to fix it at the finger and string origin point – not the amplifier or eq knob.
- Don’t worry about speed. That’s a lower priority than tone.
- Listen to all great musicians on other instruments and go for a strength and center in your tone like theirs.
- Commit to your choice whatever it is and practice. It can take years to develop technique, so be patient.
- Listen attentively to the sound you are making, all the time.
P.S. My all time favorite guitarist is Wes Montgomery, and he played jazz guitar with his thumb only, no pick!
There’s more than one way to do it.
Pick one way and stick to it!
Play groovy and with a good sound originating on the instrument, and you’ll be in good shape – with or without nails!