The purpose of ‘nails’ in fingerstyle

Posted by on Jun 8, 2013

I say ‘nails’ because there are plenty of things that can substitute for real ones; thumb and finger picks, plastic or acrylic nails, nails made from ping pong balls or the fabric that comes with traditional nail repair kits. I have tried them all!

But let’s be clear about the purpose of nails and why most of us don’t just use the flesh of our thumb and fingers. Incidentally, I am (more or less) talking exclusively about acoustic guitar styles and performance as I don’t think nails are as critical on amplified instruments. So, here are the purposes:

* tone production: acoustic guitars played without nails just sound too mellow, not bright enough; not enough presence. Actually, you might like that…but I don’t; at least under most circumstances. Incidentally, I think nail-less fingerstyle on electric guitar works well especially if it’s something like Jazz but that’s another story!

* volume: an acoustic guitar played without nails sounds mightily quiet. Nails make it sound louder! Again, if amplification is available then it’s not an issue but I am talking about acoustics

* The third purpose has something to do with being a part of the technical approach to playing any sort of fingerstyle. I would contend that the nail is an essential part of that technique – how often do you read that – in classical terms – the string must be struck on the left side of the nail (and flesh), runs along the nail and departs around the centre. Well, if that isn’t an integral part of technique then I don’t know what is. Frankly, without nails, doing a free-stroke style means having to dig your fingers in a bit more to grip the string. Not ideal!

So, there it is…three good reasons for having some kind of nail whilst playing unamplified acoustic guitar in a fingerstyle way. What nail solution works best is an issue I will leave to discuss another day!