What Type Of Nails You Need To Play Fingerpick/Fingerstyle

When I was learning to play a song recently (Anji by Davy Graham – which you can see me play as part of my beginner guitar journey below)

I am learning guitar midlife, this video was a round up of my first months progress

,it had a finger picking section, which I attempted. What I quickly realized though is that I was not consistent on the picking of the strings because my nails were short. So I did some research about whether or not I needed long nails in order to play finger pick / finger style guitar.

Do You Need Long Nails For Fingerpick / Fingerstyle Guitar?

No, you don’t need long nails to play fingerstyle but it will sound better if you do. You can also use the fleshy part of your finger, finger picks, acrylic nails or artificial nails. Steel strung guitars are harder than nylon strings and so will wear down your nails quicker. Choose what suits your guitar, style and personal preference.

Longer nails are not used on the fret hand (hand that is on the fretboard) because this hinders the ability to hold the string down consistently. Longer nails are used on the strumming or picking hand so that it easier and more effective when playing.

However there are other ways that you can fingerpick guitar without growing out your nails and it is worth exploring these to find a method that suits you. Below I explore these and how they compare.

Long Nails For Fingerpicking

The reason that longer nails make the guitar sound better than short nails is because they allow more purchase on the string and a larger surface area which ensures more consistency in plucking. As a result you tend to get a crisper sound and can play harder and louder.

When you do grow out your nails though they will require more maintenance to keep them performing for you. Many classical guitarists grow out their own nails and will spend time, shaping them and strengthening them.

In addition not all our nails are the same, some are stronger than others, so some may have a hard time keeping their nails in shape without damaging or breaking them whilst others will have no trouble at all.

Our nails also grow approximately 3 mm a month so if you take a big chunk off your nail you maybe waiting a long time before you will be in a position to play like you once did.

So How Long is Long? And How Do You Maintain Them?

The length of the fingernail is personal preference, usually they are slightly longer than normal but not much so. However, if you have them too long they are more inclined to break. If you find they are catching on the strings then they will need to be filed down.

Tips to maintain your nails:

  • Keep the finger nails rounded: Edges are more likely to catch and then break the nail
  • File your nails rather than use clippers: You can control the shape a lot more
  • Repair minor damage: If you notice small fractures and cracks then use a nail file or you can get some nail strengthening polish.
  • Diet: Some recommend making sure you get your personal recommended amount of protein and calcium in your diet

As a beginner it is recommended that you grow your nails to 2-3 mm and then shape them, round them off. As time goes on and you improve and gain experience you will start to know what suits you better.

So How Do You Know If It Is Worth Growing Out Your Nails?

Well from the research I have done these would be the reasons why you would:

What type of guitar do you play?

If you play a classical guitar with nylon strings then it might be a good idea as they won’t damage as quickly as if playing a steel string acoustic guitar. Electrical guitars tend to have thinner strings so they might be ok if you have longer nails too.

How hard do you like to play?

Longer nails allows for a more aggressive and often quicker style. Again however if they break there could be quite a down period.

What sound do your prefer?

Nails make a crisper sound than flesh.

Do you do other things in life that might break your nails?

If you work in construction then it might not be worth it for example as you may damage or break your nails more often. Consider how you spend the majority of your life. If you are only playing guitar for a hobby is it really worth maintaining your nails for this?

How much time and money are you willing to spend maintaining your nails?

Longer nails are high maintenance, consider this when making your decision and the time you will have to spend looking after your nails.

What Are The Alternatives To Growing Out Your Nails?

There are alternatives to longer natural nails for playing the guitar, some suit different guitar strings to others.:

Flesh – If you have no nails at all, one that would look weird, two it doesn’t mean you can’t play a finger pick style. If you pick lightly and have no interest in changing sound intensity then the soft flesh part of your finger is perfect

Sound – Soft mellow sound, sweet tone but often described as ‘muddy’

Suited To – All types but steel strung will often mean callouses.

Real Nails $ – Playing on a nylon guitar like many flamenco and classical players will be fine with real nails. However if you are playing a steel strung guitar your natural fingernails can get shredded over time.

Sound – Mellow sound with more volume and power than flesh.

Suited To – Classical Guitar / Electric Guitar / Thin Gauge Steel Strung Guitars

Finger Picks $ – These are used predominantly to play blues or bluegrass related music. They produce a strong sound and with practice provide a high-speed potential. Also, a lot of Dobro and Banjo players use them as they provide a louder attack when you are playing an unamplified instrument. They have a learning curve as they are unnatural and can feel tight and clumsy for quite some time.

Sound – Powerful, twangy and more volume.

Suited To – Steel Strung Guitars / Banjos

Acrylic Nails $$ – Favoured by steel string guitarists, thicker gauge strings, those whose nails get easily damaged or are thin and brittle. These have always seemed odd to me, I just imagine they are uncomfortable and unwieldy.

However when it comes to playing the guitar they are a natural nail lifesaver and most professional guitarists swear by them. They are relatively cheap to get done at a Nail Salon but you may need to get them redone depending on how much you play, it could be every 5 – 6 weeks or it could be every 7- 10 days if you are playing a lot for long periods of time.

Your nails will still grow out with an acrylic over them and you will start to see you real nail behind. If you don’t like this look then you will need to get them ‘filled’ to hide this.

  • Sound – More power and volume than real nails.
  • Suited To – Steel Strung Guitars

Conclusion

As a beginner guitarist I can be described as a hobbyist at best so whilst I want to start off on the best foot when learning a new style, the research has shown me the way to go.

My lifestyle is quite varied and whilst I work in an office, I also garden a lot at home, have two young children, take on small construction projects and fix many of the parts of my old house that like to fall apart.

The recommendations are to choose one style and stick to it. I play an acoustic steel string guitar so I am going to play with flesh and my nails. If I need to I will grow them out 2mm or so and try and maintain them at this level. Any longer than this and I might feel like a vampire, my kids might think that is cool for a while though.

So when making your choice consider the implications of each method and how it best suits your lifestyle. Then once you have chosen, stick with it so that you can gain consistency in your playing style.

Related Questions:

What Equipment For Maintaining Nails For Guitar?

Diamancel Nail Files are made out of diamond dust, and are possibly the best nail files available.

Is There Anything You Can Do To Strengthen Your Nails For Guitar?

You can take supplements like Hair, Nail and Skin supplements. There are also nail hardening treatments that you can apply to your nails like nail strengthening polishes.

Should I do Acrylic Nails For Guitar Myself?

Generally it will be better to get these done at a nail salon / nail bar than doing them yourself. You can expect a better job done this person is doing them day in day out all day. You are only getting one hand done, it will be quick and the cost is relatively low, expect to pay somewhere between $10 – $2.0

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