More on Fingernails and Fingerpickers

By Mark Hanson

January, 1999

Hello, everybody. I have revised my article on fingernail care for guitarists, originally written in 1996 for the Soundhole website, and later revised for the Accent On Music site. Here it is!

After a few years of playing with fingerpicks and a thumbpick early on, I have long been an advocate of the flesh-and-fingernails approach, mostly using classical hand position. Of course, I realize that there are about as many opinions on how to pick as there are players, but I thought I would pass along what I have learned in my 40+ years of playing and teaching, plus what I have learned from spending time with some of the greatest pickers in the world.

First I wanted to let you know that our Accent On Music Guitar Fingerstyle Guitar Seminar in Portland, Ore., is healthy and happy. We have hosted a wide array of great fingerstyle players and teachers at the seminar, which started in 1998 with our first guest artist being English fingerstyle virtuoso John Renbourn (of Pentangle fame). Since then, guitarists of the stature of Tommy Emmanuel, Laurence Juber, Pay Donohue, and Alex de Grassi have joined us.

In addition to us teaching eager and willing students at these seminars, I have most of a week to observe these players' talented hands and their approaches to fingernails. Renbourn, for instance, grows his normal nails out substantially, but doesn't pick with them in concert. He glues contoured pieces of ping-pong balls to the underside of the natural nails. This gives him consistent tone from one finger to the next, and the nails' support behind the ping-pong balls as he picks. John is also very careful with his hands in everyday life.

Many players have a manucurist afix acrylic nails: Alex de Grassi, and my duo partner Doug Smith, to name two. Other players use no fingernails at all, only skin: Laurence Juber gets world-class tone and projection out of his guitars using only the skin on his fingertips for picking.

You can find more information about fingernails here.

Tone Production for Fingerpickers

We guitar players are funny creatures. When we get together, instead of talking about dominant 7th chords and minor subdominant modulations (what?), we often talk about our fingernails. Some of us are blessed with rather strong nails, and have a light-enough attack that the guitar strings don't rip our nails to shreds. But there will be a time in everyone's guitar-picking career where the point of attack on the strings--whether it be your nails, skin, or fingerpicks--will give you trouble.

How do you deal with this? I've been picking with my nails since 1970, and I've had the opportunity to ask some of the greatest players on the planet their perspective on the subject as well. Here are some insights and recommendations:

If your use fingernails to pick, make sure that you touch the string first with the skin of the fingertip, and release the string with the nail. If you touch the string only with the fingernail, you will likely produce a thin, twangy tone, compared to what the skin can produce. Think of it this way: As you pick, your skin touching the strings provides the richness of tone, and the nail provides the brightness, and some extra volume, perhaps. If you want to produce a really great tone, that's the way to do it.

Also, be as relaxed as you can be with both hands. Many players have too much tension in their hands as they play. This leads to poor tone, fatigue, and inaccuracy. It can also lead to shredded fingernails. Use only as much muscle as required to pick and fret the strings.

Nail Care

When I first started fingerpicking, I used fingertips without nails. I had a very soft sound, without much projection. I remember a friend introducing me for an unamplified performance by saying: "Mark's a really good player, but you have to be really quiet to hear him because he plays so softly."

That comment prodded me into learning how to project my sound. First I tried metal fingerpicks and a plastic thumbpick. I used those for a few years, and they worked well. But they were a nuisance. I would lose them, or not have them when I wanted to play, and so on. And the inherent metallic clacking of fingerpicks bothered me. Then I heard someone play with skin and fingernails. It was a beautiful sound. So I put my picks away (except for my thumbpick, which I used for another 15 years) and proceeded to grow my nails.

Knowing nothing about fingernail care, I was surprised early in my fingernail experimentation when I broke one throwing a pass in a touch football game. Trying to play fingerstyle guitar with one nail missing is like driving down the freeway with a flat tire. I then set out to discover how to repair and strengthen my nails.

People suggested that I eat gelatin to strengthen my nails. So I dutifully made jello--although I hated it--and ate it daily. I quickly tired of making jello, and got even more tired of eating it, so I looked for other nail-strengthening possibilities.

The first solution (literally) that I found is still my favorite, even though it is no longer on the market. It was a light-blue-colored protein fortifier that came in a nail polish bottle. It was marketed as "Wonder Nail" by Revlon. This liquid solution actually soaked into the nails and was invisible within minutes of application. No shiny nails that I would have to explain in the grocery store line! I believe it was organic as well, so I wasn't dealing with any chemicals that I didn't want in or on my body.

For me, Wonder Nail really worked. I used it twice a day for three weeks, and my nails became so hard that they wouldn't break! If I caught one on something, the nail would tear away from the skin before it would split! Ouch! I hurt myself a time or two before I learned to be careful. After that I used the product three times a week to maintain the hardness.

Had I known that Revlon was going to discontinue the product, I would have bought a lifetime supply. But, unfortunately, it seemed that my mother-in-law and I were the only two people in the country who used it. If any of you out there find some leftover stock lingering in a drug store, please buy some for me.

There certainly are other products available that you can try if you need to strengthen your nails. One is "Onymyrrh," a 100% organic liquid that has been used for decades to strengthen horses' hoofs. It is made by DeLore under their Natural Additions line. Spread it on, rub it in, wash your hands (it's a little sticky at first), and you can't see it at all. (Item #ON-6P, American Intl. Ind., Los Angeles, CA 90040). After a few months of using Onymyrhh you'll be ready for the Kentucky Derby!

Please be aware that these products and ones like them may not work for you. The Mayo Clinic Family Health Book states: "There is no scientific evidence that gelatin capsules, calcium tablets, or other vitamin or protein products improve and strengthen your nails." Here are a few more suggestions for developing healthy nails: eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep and exercise, and wear rubber gloves when you wash the dishes and the car.

Damaged Nails

Even though I have strong nails, I do crack one, or break one off occasionally. When that happens, I try to salvage as much of the nail as I can. My latest scheme for a cracked nail is to cover the crack with a thin silk patch, moistened in cyanoacrylate (crazy glue). The product I use these days is called "Silk Save-A-Nail" by Jonel. It is available at most pharmacies and grocery stores.

To repair the cracked nail with the silk patch, start by cutting out a piece of silk that covers the crack generously. (Try to cover as little of the natural nail as possible, however.) Put some liquid glue on the nail, place the silk patch over it, then position it with a tool (a wooden stick, or instance). Let the glue dry, then put more glue over it.

When the glue is completely dry, the silk patch is as hard as a rock. My cracked thumbnail--which takes a lot of abuse--held up very well recently with a silk patch. I put two patches of silk on that crack to really reinforce it.

If a cracked nail is beyond repair, but still a usable length after the damaged part is trimmed away, I often will trim the other nails back to approximately the same length as the damaged one, so that I get the same kind of attack on all of the strings.

If I can't salvage a broken nail, I glue on an artificial nail. This is an ugly process, and can actually be dangerous. So be very careful if you proceed with this. I don't like to glue on artificial nails, but a badly broken nail can take 2-3 weeks to fully grow back, so let's talk about artificial nails next.

Artificial Nails

What you will need: Artificial nails, crazy glue, nail clipper, emory board, eye protection, a small wooden stick (like a pencil).

Warning: Crazy glue is highly toxic and extremely adhesive. You don't want it on your skin, in your eyes, or in your bloodstream. Also, your natural nail becomes soft and weak underneath where the artificial nail is glued. So only cover a bare minimum of natural nail, not the entire nail. Wear eye protection when you use crazy glue. You don't want it in your eyes!

Attaching an artificial nail

First, trim your natural nail back so that it is smooth, and does not protrude past the end of your fingertip. Since you are going to glue the artificial nail on top of the natural nail, you need the natural nail to be short so that it doesn't come in contact with the string before the artificial nail does.

Next, trim the artificial nail to the contour of your fingertip, so that it protrudes off the end of your finger about 1/4 inch. (Once the nail is glued on, you can trim it further with a clipper and an emory board so that it is the right length. Don't glue on a nail that is too short!) Before attaching the artificial nail, file down its back edge until it is paper thin. (The "back" edge is the part that is closest to your cuticle.) That will keep the artificial nail from hanging up on a string if you ever strum with the backs of your nails.

Now you are ready to put one small drop of crazy glue on the center of the nail near the tip. Don't use too much glue. If you do, it won't adhere properly, or will ooze out and make a big mess.

Once the drop of glue is on your fingernail, lay the fake nail on it. The glue will spread underneath the artificial nail. Use a small wooden stick to hold the artificial nail on your natural nail as the glue spreads and dries. (The stick is often provided in an artificial nail kit.) If you use a finger to push, you'll probably glue your hands together! Crazy glue is incredibly adherent and attaches in an instant. If a little oozes out from under the artificial nail and touches another finger, your fingers will stick together. If you glue your hands together, peel them very slowly and carefully away from each other. You can lose skin quite easily doing that. You can also melt the glue with 15 minutes or so of exposure to regular acetone polish remover.

Once the nail is attached, you may have to squirt a little more glue under the edges of the artificial nail if the glue didn't spread far enough. Push the edges down with the stick. Then use the emery board to smooth the back edge flat, and to make the artificial nail the right length and contour.

I find that the glue lasts a week to 10 days if I am playing a lot. When the glue weakens, the nail starts peeling off, or pops off all at once. A flying nail is always a surprise if you are in the middle of a performance. You can avoid that problem by making sure the artificial nail is glued on securely before you go onstage.

If my natural nail is still not functional when the artificial nail comes off, I simply glue the artificial nail back on with more crazy glue. Artificial nails will stay on longer if I am not playing as much--if I'm in article-writing mode, for instance, or in Hawaii on vacation. (I've only been there once, but I'm anxious to go again!)

Like most things, the process of attaching an artificial nail takes some practice to master. You may glue a nail on crooked, or in the wrong spot. If that happens, try trimming it so that you can pick with it. It won't be easy to take off for awhile. In any case, move slowly, and be conservative with the glue. That will help you avoid problems.

Replacing a badly damaged nail in a matter of minutes is a great feeling for fingerpickers. Once you master this process, you will enjoy the feeling of going quickly from a limping, flat-tired fingerpicker to one who is rolling on what feels like a new set of wheels.

Other Solutions--Ping-Pong Balls, Nail Salons, and Fingerpicks

Some great players use ping-pong balls as artificial nails. John Renbourn, as I mentioned, cuts fake nails from ping-pong balls. The late Chet Atkins and Michael Hedges did also. People who use ping-pong balls like the consistency of the material, and feel that it gives them an acceptable tone from the guitar. Renbourn travels with a small pouch in which he keeps his ping-pong balls, along with the fingernail accessories he needs to shape and attach them.

Another product that uses material similar to ping-pong balls is Player's Nails from Balcon Music (67-11 Yellowstone Blvd., Suite 1C, Forest Hills, NY 11375). When I had the great fortune of spending a day with James Taylor for the Frets Magazine cover story I did with him, I introduced him to Player's Nails. James' name is still in the Player's Nails ad.

Some of these players glue the artificial nail underneath the natural nail, which provides some support for the artificial nail as it is picking the strings. I don't use this method for this reason: if my natural nail is long enough to glue an artificial nail underneath it, it is nearly long enough to do the actual picking of the string itself. But, you should make up your own mind through experimentation.

Master English fingerpicker Martin Simpson visits a nail salon on a regular basis to have his nails "done." This works well for him, but, again, I suggest that you be wary of covering up your entire nail.

Another solution is fingerpicks. When I started with these, I used Dunlop steel fingerpicks, which I filed to a dull point. These days I use them only if I must play a 12-string vociferously.

Some new picks have come on the market recently, including the AlaskaPik, a plastic pick that fits over the fingernail and acts like fingernails. Taylor Guitars artist Chris Proctor uses these. Another product is the ProPik, a metal fingerpick with the flange hollowed out so that your fingertip actually touches and feels the string. These can be found at many retailers.

However you pick the strings, make sure that you have relaxed hands and a relaxed head. That is the secret to good playing! Have fun!