If you’ve ever paid particular attention to some guitarists out there, you may notice that a few of them have long fingernails on just one hand, usually the picking hand. This is especially the case among classical guitarists, jazz players, and other nylon string users. Guitar players who have long nails include Antoine Dufour and Erik Mongrain. I’ve noticed that both of these guys often have long nails on one of their hands.
You may even see this phenomenon among flamenco-style guitar players. For the most part, it’s a strategy used by fingerstyle guitarists who play either an acoustic guitar or a nylon string guitar.
Some guitarists have long fingernails on their picking hand as a way of increasing the attack of each struck note.
In other words, the longer nail acts as a natural pick, where the end of the nail strikes the string alongside the actual finger, increasing the volume, attack, and overall strength of the note.
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Long Fingernails Are More Suited to Some Genres Over Others
As I’ve already mentioned, whether or not a player chooses to grow out their nails has a lot to do with the style or genre in which they’re playing.
Any guitar player who uses a nylon-string or an acoustic guitar, and who also utilizes fingerstyle, will likely benefit from longer nails on their picking hand, and as I’ve said in my article on nylons, they can be easier to play that way.
This will be more common in genres like classical, jazz, and flamenco, but less useful for metal, rock, blues, etc. It really depends on what kind of player you are and what sort of music you want to play.
Let’s say that you want to give this a try. In the following section, I walk you through some of the things to keep in mind.
Tips For Growing Out Your Nails
1) Wait 1-2 Months
I’d say that one month of growing out your nails on the picking hand is the right amount of time, maybe even 2 months. This should be enough to have the appropriate amount of length.
Experiment with what feels the best to you. Experiment with what increases the volume and attack of your playing without being destructive or just plain annoying.
2) File the Nails On Your Picking Hand
When it comes to increasing the adaptability and usefulness of your nails, it’s best to file them down a little bit with a file like this from Amazon.
This is more important on the picking hand.
One of the benefits of having a longer nail on your picking hand is that the nail gives another platform to strike the string, and as you release the finger from the fret, the nail smoothly rolls off of it.
It’s best to file the one side of your nail as a smooth slope.
It’s just an added point of pressure that gently rubs against the string and guides the string as it moves away. Try filing down the nails from a 90-degree angle, and from underneath, rather than from the side. Moreover, when filing the nail, use the curvature of the end of your fingertips as a guide for the direction and slope.
3) Fretting Hand Nails
When it comes to shaping your fretting hand nails, it’s best to keep them relatively short, but enough so that the white part of the nail is showing just a little bit.
This is what I do, and I find it’s the most comfortable, otherwise, they feel too sensitive. Ultimately, the fretting hand nails are the least important, and the goal should simply be to remove sharp edges and potential obstructions.
4) You Could Use Acrylic (Fake) Nails
It’s not uncommon for guitarists to get fake nails added to one of their hands. In other words, some players may actually go to a salon to get fake nails, like women commonly do.
It’s definitely not as common as simply growing them out, but it’s something worth considering, because not only will it save you a lot of time, but they’ll probably look a bit better too.
Mistakes To Avoid While Growing Out Your Nails
1) Avoid long nails on the fretting hand.
It’s not hard to understand why long nails on the fretting hand can create problems.
Fretting a note on the guitar is already a fairly sensitive practice that takes a long time to figure out when you’re first learning.
Having long nails on your fretting hand will actually get in the way of fretting the note, because if the nail is too long, it will literally obstruct the finger from pressing onto the fretboard, thus, making it more challenging to properly produce the desired sound.
An ideal scenario for the length of your fretting hand nail is to press a ruler up against your finger and ensure that the ruler doesn’t even touch the nail when pressing it up against it.
In other words, on the fretting hand, the nails should be as short as possible that way they don’t get in the way at all. Another rule of thumb is for there to be just a little bit of white showing.
2) Don’t Cut Them Too Short
The perfect length of your fretting hand nails is maybe less than one millimeter.
Careful not to cut them too short, however, because you might expose the more sensitive part of the nail bed, thus, creating pain whenever you fret the note.
3) Understand That Fingernails Aren’t Picks
A long fingernail shouldn’t be thought of like a pick. It’s just a much harder extension of the finger which increases the attack and volume of each note. If you do want to do something like this, you’d be better off using a thumb-pick instead like this one from Amazon.
One of the effects of a longer nail is that the nail scrapes against the string a bit more, and that’s all it really does.
It’s best not to think of it as a pick, because you won’t be using it in that way anyway.
4) Long Nails Aren’t Ideal For Tapping-Style Guitarists
By tapping-style, I mean guitar players who don’t pick any of the strings with their picking hand, and instead, press on the frets with their right and left hand as a specialized technique.
The reason for this is self-evident. If nails on both of your hands are long and sharp, it’s going to be more challenging to actually fret the notes without interference from the picking hand’s nails.
Keep this in mind, or at least understand that you might have to make changes to your tapping technique to make this work.
In other words, you may find it best to adjust your fingers at more of a parallel angle in order to properly fret the note with the end of one’s finger.
With that said, there are people out there who have long nails on both hands and still employ the tapping technique, like John Butler, for instance.
5) Not Cleaning Them
If you are going to go this route, make sure you keep them nice and clean, for real.
How you keep your nails clean is basically by washing dishes in your sink and also using one of the contraptions that many nail-clippers come with – the little piece of steel with a hook on it.
It’s designed to adequately dig underneath the nail and give it a proper cleaning.
You don’t want to be creeping people out with big long nails that are filthy – or maybe you do.
6) Avoid Peeling Fruit With Long Nails
If you have really long nails, it’s best to avoid peeling oranges and other fruits like that with your nails.
The reason is that the outside layer of the fruit will get stuck under the nail and look REAL nasty.
Just cut them up, or clean them thoroughly after.
YouTube Video Tutorial
All-in-all, I hope this was helpful to you. Fingernails can actually be fairly important when it comes to playing the guitar, especially if you’re a finger-style guitarist or even if you’re trying to nail a solo (more on these here) and your nails get in the way.
How long or short nails are can either be an advantage or an impediment to how you play and how your playing sounds.
It ultimately depends on what style and genre you like. Try it out and experiment with what sounds best.