Guitar Nails

Aaron Shearer

When the guitar is well played, perhaps its most attractive characteristic is its tone. Tone production, however, is also one of the most problematic areas of guitar study. Poorly trained students produce a poor tone which is immediately evident during performance. Since your overall aim is to avoid anything which will hinder your effectiveness as a performer, you need to approach tone production with special care.

While a wide range of tone color is possible on the classic guitar, this range of tone color isn’t your present concern. Rather, you should aim to develop an optimum basic tone which, through training, you can produce by habit. This basic tone will eventually be your point of departure for using the guitar’s full range of color.

Principles of Tone Production

Although everyone’s basic tone varies, most guitarists agree on its more desirable qualities. Full-bodied, mellow, and warm are more desirable qualities — thin, hollow, and metallic are less desirable.   The quality and power of your tone depend on the following three principles:

Tone Perception

The tone you produce reflects the tone you perceive as desirable. You’ll develop your perception by criti­cally listening to yourself and others. You’ll clarify and refine your tone perception as you progress.

Nail Condition and Use

Your tone depends on both the condition of your nails and how you use them.

Touch and Movement

Your tone depends on how your thumb or finger contacts the string, and on the direction and force of its movement when sounding the string:

  • The left tip and nail rim of the thumb or finger must be placed firmly against the string the instant prior to sound­ing the string.
  • Movement must be sufficiently firm to drive the string obliquely inward at the instant of the stroke. Thumb or finger movement must not be deflected by the string’s tension.

Tone Quality and Your Nails

You should begin using your nails as soon as they’ve grown to an adequate length for effective shaping. Sounding the strings with the nails requires different finger move­ments from those used when sounding the strings without the nails. By using your nails from the beginning of right-hand study, you’ll avoid forming habits which must eventu­ally be replaced.

A tone is produced at the precise instant the string departs from your nail. How gradually or abruptly this departure occurs is a crucial element of tone production. The depar­ture of the string from your nail is affected by three main factors:

1) The movement of your thumb or finger

2) The shape of your nail

3) The position of your right hand

Nail Condition and Use: The quality of one’s tone also depends on both the condition of the nails and how they are used—upon touch and movement. Throughout this discussion of Tone Production, the Prepared-Stroke is assumed (See pp.7-8 of the Text). Basic nail shaping should be done with a diamond-type file and to achieve clarity of tone, the edges should be carefully polished with an extremely fine grade sandpaper or emery board (buffer).

Use of the Nails: Use of the nails in tone production centers on acquiring a secure, basic technique resulting in habits of playing with ease, security and conviction—essential qualities which powerfully influence tone in musical expression.

Sound is produced at the precise instant the string departs from the nail. How gradually or abruptly the departure takes place is a crucial element of tone production.

Nail Shape and Approach to the String Causing a Gradual Departure which Yields a Mellow or Full-Bodied Tone:

Nail Shape and Approach to the String Causing an Abrupt Departure which Yields a Bright or Thin Tone:

Nail Contours and Shaping

Further Considerations Regarding Nails


Although the preceding illustrations may prove helpful by providing basic information related to the shaping of nails, students need to be aware that there are important aspects of this subject which cannot be adequately explained in writing or through a video. The reason is individual variability. There are important considerations that are so variable that they can only be dealt with through the guidance of an experienced teacher:

The depth of the separation between nail and flesh at the tip of the finger and the shape of the tip itself, whether somewhat pointed or quite full and rounded. All attempts to deal with these highly individual issues in writing have been unsatisfactory.

  • Texture: either too soft or too hard which can strongly affect tone and be conducive to chipping or wearing. These potential problems are highly variable and sometimes require extended applications of either firming or softening agents. In rare instances medical specialists diagnose such problems as due to dietary deficiencies and recommend corrective procedures involving one’s diet.
  • Nail curvature or contour both lengthwise and sideways: these strongly influence the shaping, as the accompanying illustrations indicate. Exactly how to shape nails which differ significantly not only from person to person but also from finger to finger on the same hand, poses a problem which requires coaching and considerable experimenting.

In extreme cases of any of the preceding, the solution is to use artificial nails applied with special glue (both available where manicure products are sold) and, indeed, some fine guitarists have found these to be highly satisfactory.

Further, the quality of the tone can be altered markedly, depending at what point along the length of the string the stroke is executed. The nearer to the end of the fingerboard (at the soundhole) the stroke is executed, the mellower the tone; the nearer to the bridge the stroke is executed, the brighter the tone.

……..Aaron Shearer