Alright, basically I need some advise/help here, I've been playing guitar for sometime, but mostly with a pick, I've yet to really ever dive into finger-picking. The random stuff I do practice I do with my fingertips, no nails. Is this generally accepted for general acoustic finger-picking? And I know classical is said to require nails, but can you get away with it if I don't use them? or will it just bite me in the ass later?

And then when you do use fingernails, are you supposed to just use your nail or let the strip hit your tip and nail, and the nail is purely for greater precision and volume? Oh and last question, is a nail require on your thumb? From what I've seen of proper technique your thumb is practically parallel to the string while finger-picking/playing classical, so I don't see how having a nail there would make much of a difference.
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Last edited by GNRrocka at Sep 9, 2008,
The string is supposed to roll of the tip of your finger and a tip of your nail is supposed to hit the string at the end for a greater sound. My guitar teacher showed me how you're supposed to file down the nails for classical and it's the nail is supposed to go down at an angle towards the thumb and a little piece of nail is supposed to stick out from the other side.

It's hard to explain. A lot of people don't pay attention to it, but when I did it the first time the sound and the ease of playing classical guitar just shocked me. Really does make a difference, at least to me.
There is obviously plenty of good reasons why almost all classical guitar players use nails.
They allow more precise playing, better attack, control of tone and better speed when required. There is also the 'rest stroke' to consider which would be cumbersome without nails.

You will notice classical guitarists keep their wrist higher than their knuckles and thumb. This allows easy playing with the thumb nail and keeps the fingers almost perpendicular to the strings so you are playing with the center of the fingernails, especially when the guitar neck is held higher. Just like learning to drive a car, it does seem difficult and strange though when starting out, but you quickly get used to it.

Most pickers who learnt on steel string guitar have their wrist low, often rest part of their hand on the bridge or use their pinky resting on the sound-board. Very poor techniques compared to correct classical technique developed over hundreds of years by masters to what it is today.

Having said all that, sure you can play classical without nails if you want too, but a year of practice down the track and you will become well aware of the limitations.
Last edited by Akabilk at Sep 9, 2008,
The nails do provide better tone and such. If you can keep them. None of the people I know with classical styled nails have a job 50 feet away from a desk, though I can't say it's impossible. Too much trouble for clumsy ol' me, who breaks nails with a vengeance.

And, hey, Tarrega played without nails.
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Last edited by Free to Guitar at Sep 11, 2008,
As a classical guitar player, I grew my nails and started using them properly about two years ago. It was like night and day - speed, accuracy, dynamic control all came so much easier. Nails aren't as good for steel strings though, the strings just end up shredding your nails. Also, nails impede your ability to play bass with your fingers (something I do miss).

If you want to persue classical guitar seriously, I'd strongly recommend you start using your nails. Otherwise, it may not be worth the effort.

Exactly how you use the nail is a matter of choice. Generally you use a little flesh but mostly nail to hit the string. My nails are shaped somewhat like the end of a rounded off plectrum, protruding about 3-4mm from the ends of my first three fingers (the pinky isn't used). Nails are generally used on the thumb too, my thumb nail is longer (6-7mm) as I find it easier to use that way. As you point out, the natural orientation of the thumb isn't so good for playing, you have to hold your palm further from the strings and reach toward the strings a bit more. This way your fingers end up at more of a 45 degree angle along the string. Any more questions, feel free to message me.
shigidab0p is right to identify that certain things are easier to execute using nails. However the sound of flesh attack has much to recommend it.

Claims such as better tone etc as applied above to nail attack are purely subjective and I've found that most classical guitarists who make such claims have never seriously played without nails. I don't just mean for the week or two it takes to recover from broken nails etc. For a trained classical guitarist to re educate themselves to the change can take many months.

As a professional I play with nails because it's easier and more expedient. I'm happy enough happy with the flesh nail combination used by the majority of my classical peers. I strongly dislike nail "alone" sound.

But I infinitely prefer the sound of true flesh attack, when it is executed by fingers suited to it. This ia an important caveat. Round-tipped fingers struggle but finger tips tapered to the nail produce a superb flesh attack sound. IMO opinion such flesh attack is far fuller in sound and certainly more robust than nail attack. It far thrums with an earthy vitality. Flesh attack also allows for full crescendos whereas in my experience nails often disintegrate into a progressively thinner and "naily" sound the more they are pushed in volume. Surprisingly many guitarists are so used to the sound of nails that they subliminally filter this effect out, in much the same manner as many simply don't hear the string whistle they create. All these comments need to read realising that every anatomy is slightly different and a great full sound can ocassionally be obtained with nail playing too. <wink>

The bottom line is that it is up to you. For amateur playing flesh is perfectly adequate and can eliminate much of the hassle associated with maintaining good nails. But it is more difficult to master (especially some techniques such as tremolo and (very) fast scale work, which will require more effort than others) and it will not produce the same sound as nails. It's a different palette.
I hardly ever use my nails when I fingerpick. I just don't like the way it sounds.

...of course... I don't HAVE fingernails...

...but when my fingernails were long, I would still not use them when I fingerpicked. It just sounds 'sharp' if you know what I mean.

Of course, it is all just personal preference. I don't think anyone would be enough of an asshole to criticize a fellow musician on their technique, unless it was truly bad.

So just do what you want, mate. If you like the way it sounds without nails, then just do that.
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I have never been trained as a classical guitarist, so I do not know much about the style of playing in general, however, I am an avid fan of fingerstyle blues. I like classical guitar, alot really, but never got around to learning it myself, especially since I am self taught. While it may not be your cup of tea, acoustic blues sounds better to me without finger-nail attacks (I have tried both styles) because it gives it a deeper more rounded tone. That said, the attacks are not as clearly defined as they are with fingernails.

I perfer the rounder tone, so I play without nails.
I know you wanted to know about classical playing, but I figured a self-taught bluesman would add depth to the conversation. Funny thing is though, that what I have found myself, is essentially what others have said, so it is fairly universal, not just stuff taught to you by a classical teacher.

My advice is to try it both ways. You may not have long nails that can be used to play lightning fast arpeggios or get the dynamics and articulation right for Bach's "Bourre in E minor", however unless they are recently trimmed (like, less than two days ago) they are probably long enough to try plucking them on a string, try plucking with just the nail, then finger, then try sliding both across. Find which sound you like better. If you like nail sound, then grow them out and spend a ton of your life worrying about breaking a nail, but get an amazing tone. If you prefer the rounder tone, like me, then just go ahead and do what you have been doing.

You mentioned lightly in your post about general acoustic fingerstyle playing, which I take to mean everything but classical that is fingerstyle. Things are alot less specific once you get out of the classical realm. A good song to play and showcase non-fingernailed blues fingerstyle is "hey-hey" by Eric Clapton from his unplugged album. It is all played on one guitar, and while it takes a little to get used to playing different parts at once, is the a good starter acoustic blues if you really start liking fingerstyle like I do.

Hope I helped man,
I've been mostly fingerpicking for 3 years and I play a lot of classical. Preludes, marches, walzses and stuff like that. (Currently working on Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata...oh man, the stretches you gotta do for that, it's so beautiful though).

Anyway, I HAVE nails on my picking hand just to make it easier to hit the strings but I don't grow them out as long as asshigidab0p does, maybe 1-2 millimeters...and I've had no problem. After playing long enough my nails became tougher so they rarely break, even though I play steel string acoustic and the sound I get isn't "naily" at all.
i dont know how familiar with the romeros you are, but they advise beginning classical players to learn without nails. the nails can impede in your learning, because depending on how serious you are about playing, the nails may or may not be beneficial at this point.