Fingernails and the Classical Guitar

Some of you might be the lucky owners of glossy, easily grown right hand fingernails strong enough to pry construction staples out of walls. If you are, you are the envy of those of us with less-than-perfect fingernails. 

Are your nails so thin and fragile that an hour's practice removes the corners where they strike the strings? Are your nails quick to hook and catch on the strings? Do your nail tips peel back in layers? Or maybe they split horizontally below the quick, promising a long and risky growing-out period. 

Guitarists tend to be very attentive to their fingernails. They are, after all, functionally parts of our instruments, and integral to the quality and character of the sound we produce. Meticulous nail care is fundamental. 

Fingernails are specialized skin appendages. They grow continuously. If their rate of growth is slowed by an acute illness or some other stress, they become thin and get dips or valleys across the nail plate. With age people often develop longitudinal nail ridges. 

Nails grow fastest in the young. Growth rates decrease with age and/or with poor circulation. It may take four to six months for a fingernail to grow completely out from under the cuticle to the beginning of the free edge. 

Fingernails have three layers of keratinous tissue. Keratin, a fibrous, tough protein, is produced by skin cells. The three nail layers are laid down by different parts of the nail matrix, which is the area of growing cells behind and under the cuticles, under the side folds of the nails, and under the lunula. Keratin laid down on the roof of the nail is moderately hard and is produced by cells under the "cuticle" and under the folds at the sides of the nails. The harder middle layer is laid down by the cells under the lunula. The basement of the nail is softer keratin, produced near the center of the nail bed. The developing nail is forced down the nail bed as new cells are added. The cells become compacted and hardened by keratin. 

Each layer has a different structural orientation. This arrangement helps to keep them from breaking under everyday activities. The nail roof looks a bit like overlapping tiles oriented in the nail plane. The fibers in the denser middle layer are oriented parallel to the free edge of the nail. The thin basement layer is like the top layer. Near the free edge of the nail, the very top and bottom layers thicken and wrap around the middle layer, protecting it from splits parallel to the nail edge. Clipping or filing a nail all the way back to the nail fold removes this natural nail wrap and increases the chance the nail will split parallel to the free edge. 

Although they are firmly compacted together, the three layers can separate from each other, peeling back in layers. This condition occurs more in women than men. It is exacerbated by repeated wetting and drying of the nails and loss of protective normal nail oils. Soaps and detergents, nail products like acetone-containing polish removers, and the chemicals in some polishes leach out nail oils. It also can occur in some medical disorders. One example is when there is decreased thyroid gland function. The most important preventive treatment for peeling nails is to keep them well oiled and to avoid repeated wetting and drying. 

Nail Care : Some Dos and Don'ts

  • Don't push your cuticles back with a hard tool. Doing so may damage the matrix, the part that generates new nail and makes the nail proteins.
  • Do push damp cuticles back gently with a towel over your finger.
  • Don't use acetone-containing solvents on your nails.
  • Do use non-acetone containing solvents to remove nail products.
  • Don't get solvents like gasoline, turpentine, etc. on your nails.
  • Do wear protective gloves when working with solvents.
  • Don't repeatedly wash/dry your hands and nails. Do wear protective gloves when house cleaning, doing dishes, etc. Do keep your nails well oiled to minimize their drying out excessively.
  • Don't spend a lot of time in chlorinated swimming pools. Do keep your nails well oiled if you do.
  • Don't cut back your cuticles. You may damage the nail growth matrix. You may wish to avoid professional manicures, or ask your manicurist NOT to cut back your cuticles, but to oil them and gently push them back.
  • Don't file nails all the way down to the nail bed at the sides. Doing so takes away the natural nail wrap that protects from horizontal splits.
  • Do invest in a really good nail file.
  • Do invest in very fine abrasive paper like that sold by the Classical Guitar Store as nail paper. Wrapped over a nail file (business card, credit card), it can polish the edges and under-edges of your nails. A four-way nail buffer works well too. Buff only the edges and under-edges of nails. Buffing the tops on nails will thin them.
  • Don't reflexively reach out to do things with your right hand. Think! Do figure out how to do nail-risky things left-handed.
  • Do rub oils into your nails several times a day and always after washing your hands.

Nail Filing and Oiling 

The roundest sound is achieved by using a slightly angled nail attack in which the skin of the finger very slightly precedes nail contact with the string. If nails are filed at an angle that brings the attacking nail parallel to the string and if the tip beyond it is not too long the nail will slide neatly over the string without hooking it, and will elicit a nice, round sound. Very smooth nail edges facilitate the process and contribute to achieving a nice tone quality. 

You need not spend a fortune on fancy nail oils. Even lip balm will do and is easy to carry around. Hard as Hooves Nail Strengthener Cream is an inexpensive and good product. If you want one of the best nail conditioners, Onymyrrhe, (no longer available at the Classical Guitar Store) is a product that you can rub nightly into the matrix areas (lunula and cuticle area) of nails. A bottle is expensive, about $25, but lasts for nearly two years.

If you do all of this, and still have fragile nails, you can strengthen just the tips by painting on nail glue (the brush versions are most convenient) and dipping your finger tip into nail acrylic powder (available at most chain pharmacies). The powder sticks to the glue and becomes rough and semi-transparent. Sand this layer smooth. Apply a second layer of glue over the powder. Then, when it is dry, sand and buff the edges and the entire area. If you play flamenco guitar, you will probably have to yield to the glue and powder method over a larger part of your nails than just the tips. Use this method on only about one-third of the surface of the nail.

There is a down side to glue and powder. When the reinforcement falls (peels) off, it sometimes takes a portion of the layer of fingernail to which it was bonded with it. The remaining nail will be somewhat thin. So you will be stuck with a permanent cycle of glue and powder. But it makes for nice, strong nails for playing. I, personally, routinely use the glue/powder regimen only on my thumb nail, unless I have an unfortunate nail fracture on one of my fingers.

Nail tips and false nails use nail glue over even more of the nail surface. More nail ends up thinned-out, and the false nails CAN pop off; as can pieces of cut up ping-pong balls which often don't fit well on some people's finger nails -- although some world-class performers swear by this method.

There are many web sites devoted to nails and nail care for guitarists. Richard (Rico) Stover (of the Barrios collection) has an emergency nail system that uses non-glue adhesive, high-quality synthetic nail, and back-up transparent surgical tape. He has also published a book, The Guitarists Guide to Fingernails, Mel Bay Publications, Inc. It is very informative and provides information about many available nail products.