Shaping Nails For Guitar

Ever wondered why you aren't getting that lovely clean, crisp, warm tone from your guitar when you fingerpick? Maybe this will help.

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The shape of a guitarists fingernails play an important part in classical guitar mainly, but also in the various other types of guitar if you fingerpick. In this article I will explain how you can shape your finger nails to get a great sound from your guitar. Before we start, if your nails aren't protruding over the ends of your fingers, there isnt much in you reading this article. Yes, they really have to be that long! Your thumbnail should be the longest, long enough to cause alarm when your friends see it. Equipment you will need: 01. A diamond/sapphire dust nail file. Usually about 1 from superdrug or the U.S alternative. 02. A nail buffer with various types of roughness on it. (Smooth Nail, Remove Ridges etc.) 03. (Optional) A fine grade glass or sandpaper. 04. Your guitar in front of you. Ok, so your nails should be long enough to catch on the strings when you play by now, which is a good thing (sort of) as it means that your technique is correct, just your nails are too long lol. I will start with the method that I use to shape my nails. Firstly, sit with your guitar in your usual position and place all your fingers (that you play with) and your thumb on one string, with your thumb in front-nearest to the frets. Then, keeping them in the same position, bring them up off the string and up to about eye level. Your fingers should still be together, and they should still be in a line. Grab your nail file, being carefull not to move your fingers, and run it across then ends of your nails. You should now have a small flat bit on the ends of all your fingers, not your thumb. Next, choose which finger to concentrate on shaping. The reason we use a diamond edge nail file to shape our nails, not a metal one with a pattern, is because the metal ones damage the nail, they tear away the layers. As does cutting them, and using emory boards. I always tend to start with my index finger, so I will use it as an example. Get your nail file and place it paralell with the mark you made earlier, on the underside of the nail, at an angle of about 45 degress. Then file. The aim is to get the largest, flattest area possible that will strike the string, giving the cleanest sound. The warmness and tone will come later. Then, once you are satisfied with the underside of your nail, smooth off any edges or corners that may catch the strings. Basically, you want the area that you've smoothed off to be the only thing that touches the strings. Once you have done all that, get your nail buffer and smooth and shine the edge of your nail, taking care to get all of the underside smoothed and shined. This will make a nice smooth sound, and will help prevent the strings catching if you pick it wrong. Do the same for all your fingers, its the same method for all of them. Once you are entirely satisfied with your fingers, its time to move on to your thumb nail. I find this nail the hardest to shape, but it is the most worthwhile if you get it right. Place your thumb and fingers on the string, the same way you did before, and bring them off the strings in a line, the same as you did before, and mark your thumbnail in the same way as your fingernails, but rotate the file about 15 degrees to the outside of your hand, away from your index finger. This is the most important part of shaping the thumbnail. I repeat, rotate the file about 15 degrees away from your index finger, but still keeping it in the same place on the nail. Then file it in the same way, keeping the file at about 45 degreeson the the underside of the nail. Then treat the nail in the same way aswell, with the nail buffer, smooth then shine XD. That is one method of shaping your nails, the other method is similar, but instead of using the nail file to mark your nails, you fold a square of fine grade glass or sandpaper over a string and play a few free strokes on it. This will mark your nails also. Your nails should now be very smooth and rounded, but they wont be perfect. Each persons fingers are different, and I can only give you a guidline as to how they should be shaped. The only way that your going to get a decent sound is by fine tuning them, by constant tweaking and experimenting while your playing, until you are happy with the sound. Also, if you listen to a classical guitarist called Segovia, his tone comes a combination of nail and flesh connecting with the string, not just the nail. If you make a mistake, dont panic, just wait a week or two then try again :D If you ever break a nail so that its hanging off, stick it back on with superglue and it will knit itself back together. Also, you may find it easier if you have no nails on your fretting hand, as they sometimes catch on the strings or something. Hope this helps, -Rob

59 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Stilo
    This article is kinda wierd, but this aspect of guitar playing is often underestimated, as well as finger stretching and arm warming ups to prevent injuries. I hope Ultimate Guitar is not going to become Ultimate Cosmo though
    D$MONEY
    i understand the whole classical music thing, like having a long nail on your thumb would help your sound and give it more of a actual picking attack to it..... But as far as other genres go...i doubt the length of your nails has anything to do with it. D$
    bortbort
    Jeesh some real ***** here huh? Ya'll dont wont to finger pick, fine, no need to comment then. Thanks for the tips. I've always just used whatever was around, a clipper with a file, emery board. Perhaps this may perevent so much nail breakage Sure the guys that only play pop, rock, and metal wont care about something like this, then again they probally coulnt play a classical peice if there life depended on it.
    hemi-san
    i made a habit of biting so this is useless for me. i wasnt aware intill awhile back that a good fingernail has white on the end. besides you can buy finger picks at a store
    osamabanana
    i play abit of everything and i think fingers work well. but i don't go to this much trouble. everyone always asks why one hand has long fingernails and the other short
    xxadamnxx
    good article, i remember being forced to finger pick in jazz band but now i use my fingers (along with a pick) in virtually any style i play in. a very very helpful techinique to have down.
    z4twenny
    "Sure the guys that only play pop, rock, and metal wont care about something like this, then again they probally coulnt play a classical peice if there life depended on it." man i love me some metal and this comment really pissed me off, i play classical style music too but i use my thumbs and hybrid picking instead of using long finger nails just cuz i bite'em off.... i wonder if this kid can use his pick and other 3 fingers all at once .... :-/
    inXP
    The problem is that it takes so long to grow fingernails. I cut my right hand nails last night actually. For those who are interested I used fingernail clippers.
    inXP
    actually I cut my left hand nails. I gotta get that down.
    zleftyguitarist
    UM for those that dont know the word "noob" should only be used for online games or whatever. lets keep that word out of enything guitar related.
    kevhead
    John Butler plays with his nails incredibly well One of the most impressive guitarists i'v evrr seen.
    Sebbibaby
    You know, people actually write books about this.. Nails are crucial for classical guitar and flamenco. Most of the techniques can't be done without nails. The nails are also important to improve speed.
    twistedskater
    for a bunch of you morons im in school for clasical guitar and will be attending berklee school of music Tremolo is when you go through the P A M I P is your thumb I is your index M is middle finger A is your ringer finger many of oyu shcool learn the classical style and techniques that many composers used left thhuymb prompley behind the neck of the guitar proper possions etc
    pigglesworth wrote: Rock God #1 wrote: Over the years, I've taught myself how to do all of the techniques that you can do with a pick (eg, pickslides with my nails and artificial harmonics and tremolo picking). Although, I have never had to shape my nails because i just plays with them as they are. Tremolo picking with your fingernails! I'd like to see that.
    twistedskater
    I actully love to play metal and i pklay clasical guitar well also
    z4twenny wrote: "Sure the guys that only play pop, rock, and metal wont care about something like this, then again they probally coulnt play a classical peice if there life depended on it." man i love me some metal and this comment really pissed me off, i play classical style music too but i use my thumbs and hybrid picking instead of using long finger nails just cuz i bite'em off.... i wonder if this kid can use his pick and other 3 fingers all at once .... :-/
    9_11_4
    yay one advatntage to being a female guitarist is peple wont give you queer looks for having longish nails.. Hehehe i think i'll give this a try just for the sheer hell of it.. XD great atricle.. shame no pictures included
    cortez0
    actually, my guitarteachers explained me something like this. I have my fingernails really long but about the shape I don't care.
    milipou
    the article is very informative. Obviously some of you are ignorant of how important good nails are to classical guitar sound. Yes, it does require a whole article as the nail shape is so detailed in getting a good sound.
    shortymike
    Having long nails r great for music were you have to strum as well as finger pick with all your fingers very quickly and i think all you idiots that think this article is a waste of time should get stuffed. Do what you gotta do to make it sound good.!!!!
    frenetic
    dwnbowden wrote: Buy finger picks!
    It's been awhile sense you posted that comment but I feel that it should be said that it's difficult to achieve much tonal variety with finger picks because there is no flesh contact with the string. Also Leo Kottke, once an advocate of using finger picks, has for the past several years cultivated natural nails because he developed muscular/tendon problems in his right hand which he attributed to his reliance on finger picks. By the way, great article.
    tainedvampiress
    i understand what hes saying, i am learning classical guitar in school, and i have a nylon string acoustic. my teacher actually took me aside and brought out his nail file and buffer and showed me how to do my nails to get a good sound. lol but it really helped, although i have really weak nails so they tend to break all the time and it's really annoying =[ i am prolly going to get those nail hardening nail polishes hmm...but being a girl i dunt think that should matter hehe peace
    progrock
    U.P wrote: im pretty sure this didnt require a whole article
    People write books on this stuff just to let you know
    HughF
    Anyone else find it hilarious that this whole article is about doing your nails...?
    imLoUsY
    LOL interesting to see so many ignorant people! Heard about classical guitar? What about flamenco guitar? I've heard all kinds of comments that you can play without nails for such styles, but you're sacrificing alot of details and advantages. There's a reason that practically all performing concert guitarists use nails. To add on, the nails aren't supposed to be LONG, they're slightly protruding to produce optimal tone. And yes, in regards to classical guitar, nail filing isn't as simple as you think. Good job, ignore the ignorants!
    U.P
    im pretty sure this didnt require a whole article
    pigglesworth
    Rock God #1 wrote: Over the years, I've taught myself how to do all of the techniques that you can do with a pick (eg, pickslides with my nails and artificial harmonics and tremolo picking). Although, I have never had to shape my nails because i just plays with them as they are.
    Tremolo picking with your fingernails! I'd like to see that.
    cipherdivine
    Avoiding metal files is very important but instead of a diamond one I strongly recommend using a glass file. They cost about 4€ (~2,50 Pound / 5 US$) but they do the least damage to your nail and once you used one you will never want to use anything else.
    robryan
    U.P wrote: im pretty sure this didnt require a whole article
    You'd be surprised just how hard it is to get yuor nails in just the right shape to hit thr strings cleanly. And Stilo, me too lol
    bobthemonkey14
    The only guitarist I know of that does this is Jason Mraz...if any of you have heard of him. Very folky-type poppish music.
    M4jorpiz
    using your fingernails requires skill unlike using picks i suggest that you guys should atleast try using your fingernails before putting the whole idea down
    the agony scene
    Gibson_Rocker13 wrote: now we need an article on how to play guitar with your teeth
    does that chip our teeth like real bad
    Rach29
    why's everyone bein so snotty about this? i think it's helpful this guy thought this would help people and it has. he's spent time makin this column and then silly little people say things like
    U.P wrote: im pretty sure this didnt require a whole article
    i'm sorry, but i just get annoyed when people give negative comments. nobody's forcin you to read the article. nobody's forcin you to do what the article tells you to do.
    monkey_dancer
    Aye...Cool article. One day (ie when I don't have a girlfriend who'll kill me) I'm gonna follow your advice, and try this. At the moment, short nails are more comfortable. An article on playing with teeth would be funny. Why would it chip teeth? Teeth should be stronger than mere guitar strings.
    Rock God #1
    I have used my fingernails to play guitar ever since i first picked one up. I can still use a pick as well as my fingernails, but i prefer to play with my fingernails. Over the years, I've taught myself how to do all of the techniques that you can do with a pick (eg, pickslides with my nails and artificial harmonics and tremolo picking). Although, I have never had to shape my nails because i just plays with them as they are. However, i have to play with another finger when i cut one of the nails off, because you get a blunted (quieter and scratchier) sound. Still, if you have to shape your nails to play, then go for it.
    metal_man12
    pigglesworth wrote: Rock God #1 wrote: Over the years, I've taught myself how to do all of the techniques that you can do with a pick (eg, pickslides with my nails and artificial harmonics and tremolo picking). Although, I have never had to shape my nails because i just plays with them as they are. Tremolo picking with your fingernails! I'd like to see that.
    see: paco de lucia
    Rock God #1
    Tremolo picking with your fingernails! I'd like to see that.
    Is it that you don't believe me or that you would genuinely like to see it. If it is the former, then you obviously haven't tried it. If you had tried it, you would know that it can easily be done.
    Ibanezguy350
    U.P wrote: im pretty sure this didnt require a whole article
    agree, but it was still useful i just file them so theyre not too long
    Ibanezguy350
    Rach29 wrote: i'm sorry, but i just get annoyed when people give negative comments. nobody's forcin you to read the article. nobody's forcin you to do what the article tells you to do.
    whoa relax it wasnt an attack
    M4jorpiz
    picks are for complete newbs no offence using your fingers is hard to start unless thats how you started playing but once u get used to it... its easy you can play so much more notes that just using a pick in some cases its good to use a pick like if u are playing something made by someone who used one pinch harmonics are accually easy if u use the bottom of ur palm to hit get the string in the right spot