Fingernail Care for Guitarists

Recently, due to a workplace accident I sustained a thumb injury requiring 15 stitches, and lost some fingernails in the process. Since I play finger style guitar, this seems a debilitating (although temporary) injury. As the outlet for artistic self expression is considerably limited for the time being, I am compelled to process this event, reexamine finger and nail care for guitarists, and write about it in this blog article.

In about 1994 I was invited to perform at a friend’s wedding together with another more experienced guitarist who played folk finger style. A “strictly rhythm” person at that time, I had not considered finger style as an option for me, but was impressed by how simply she could interchange rhythm playing with picking patterns. This opened a door to tonal possibilities, of simultaneously combining two or three strings, coaxing different voicings out of a chord, in ways that are impossible (or difficult) with a flat pick / plectrum. Although a plectrum is a powerful amplifier, I became aware of, and began to dislike the clicking sound of the plectrum, and the limits of being constrained exclusively to up stroke /down stroke playing.

And so I grew my right hand nails, and began my journey by replicating the style I was exposed to at that wedding. Over time I developed a stronger tool-set of picking patterns including Travis picking, rolls, and Clawhammer. The current areas of study are to develop and incorporate alternate bass, percussive and American primitivist techniques into my style.

I generally do not allow my nails to become too long because I like to combine flesh with nail in the string pluck. This adds a thump like bass quality to the higher register sustained tones produced by the fingernail, providing for a more well rounded tone. With experimentation over time, I have found that I need to contour each fingernail to different lengths. This optimizes the available fingernail with the angle that my hand approaches the sound hole, allowing for tonal options by positioning for either play with no nail, combine flesh and nail, or play with the nail alone. The ring fingernail usually projects slightly over the flesh part, while starting from the middle finger, moving toward the index are each slightly shorter. The thumb nail projects in line with the flesh.

I have tried slip on finger picks, but these do not feel right. Some finger style guitarists will paint on a clear acrylic nail varnish to strengthen; others swear by artificial nails; others will superglue careful cut-outs of ping-pong balls; some repair breaks with superglue and toilet paper. These approaches are all correct if they work for you. I pro-actively avoid breaks, but in the event of a break, I will simply cut back the nail, reshape it, and allow it to grow again.

The steel strings on an acoustic guitar are much stronger than protein and keratin fingernail material, and with prolonged play do wear nails down, so nail maintenance is important. My care routine involves visually inspecting the edges for irregularities and gently filing with a steel nail file to maintain shape. I follow this with a three way buffer. I shape the outside half of the nail for the part of my hand that positions closest to the sound hole curving toward the inside that is furthest from the sound hole. I also keep the nails moisturized with a nail strengthening cream like “Hoof”, ordinary moisturizing cream, or petroleum jelly. Diet is an important factor for healthy nails, to include foods with nutrients such as Vitamins A, C, and B12, amino acids, collagen, and other essential fatty acids. I have found that taking a daily “Gelatin” supplement, and applying a product called “Hoof Nail Strengthening Cream” helps a lot. (Always consult your Doctor before altering your diet or taking new supplements).

So in conclusion, a process of proactive care, optimized filing and diet represent my fingernail care regimen.