Today we'll talk about something that so many guitarists overlook – yet it can create major (and immediate) benefits in your guitar sound, sound cleanliness, and ease of playing. The secret is in your FINGERNAILS my friends, your guitar nails.
Let's get down to business. I am a right-hand guitar player, so if you are a lefty and play a lefty guitar – switch things around.
Is it better to have longer or shorter nails for guitar?
I prefer my guitarist finger nails short – they're less likely to break or get in the way of everyday life, and you can still play fingerstyle guitar if you trim them properly.
Guitar Nails – The Left Hand (Fretting Hand):
We will start with the short and more obvious one – the left hand that you are fingering the chords with. This one should be TOTALLY clipped all the time.
I clip mine once every 3 days max, and dammit, I really don't know why so many people do not do that themselves, but I always see guitarists with huge left-hand fingernails buzzing all over the guitar and struggling to nail (pun intended…) the chords just because their fingernails get in their way by not letting them fully press the string to the fretboard, touching other strings and etc.
Just make sure you're always on top of that and have them clipped and nicely maintained – the benefits are well worth these 30 seconds once every 3 days.
Guitar Nails – The Right Hand (Picking Hand):
* If you play only with a guitar pick so right now this part might not be relevant to you, but I suggest you keep on reading since you might think differently in a minute.
Now this one is more prone to personal tastes, but here's what works for me, and not only works, but since I started clipping my fingernails this way – I found out that I sound really awesome when fingerpicking (also called “fingerstyle“. btw click on the link to watch the “top 7 fingerstyle players on YouTube”) – so much that I almost totally switched to playing exclusively in this way, and since then I started liking my sound 4 times better!
On songs that do need a pick – I usually use my index fingernail as a pick (as you can see here on the 12 string guitar in my Knockin' on Heaven's Doors cover):
How Long Should My Fingernails Be For Guitar?
So what I do with my picking hand is I keep them always between 2-2.5mm long (about 0.01 inch).
That means that when I clip them I do that very carefully to not screw them up and cut too much and to not create sharp edges that will get in my way of playing and make things uneven. Growing them to even longer than that can sound good and I know a lot of guitarists do that but to me, it feels too long and out of control, and also gets in my way of everyday life when I am messing around with other things that do not happen to be a guitar. Like my smartphone screen for example.
I'm not a huge fan of fake nails for a couple of reasons. First it's a pain to take them on and off. You have to use glue and while acrylic nails are strong, inevitably they will chip. This is why my girlfriend has to go to the nail salon almost every week (and she's not even playing guitar with them)!
More importantly, you can't precisely control the length of a fake nail as you could with a natural nail. Your guitar's action (the height of the strings from the fretboard) may be lower or higher than mine, and therefore you'll want to adjust the nail length accordingly.
What if I break a nail?
This is the one time when I think an acrylic nail can be useful. but if you do break a nail the simplest solution would be to just use a pick and wait until it grows back. If you split the nail you might try super glue to hold it together.
The Benefits of Fingerpicking:
The 2-2.5mm length works perfectly for fingerpicking rock songs, blues, folk, flamenco guitar and for either electric, acoustic or classical guitar players. Make sure to cut the nails in the most circular shape you can and without “sudden bumps”.
When you start fingerpicking suddenly many new doors become open to you on the fretboard because you can play multiple strings at a time – kinda like a piano! I suggest giving that a test even for just a few weeks, you might discover that you like that new sound.
And yes, if you never really practiced fingerpicking so you might suck at the beginning but it's going to be history with some practice just like anything else on the guitar and soon you will start sounding much better. AND you can still always get back to the pick even if just for some songs.
♣ Hippie Tippie: You can totally clip off the long nail of the right pinky since you never use it anyway as a guitarist, but only the other 4. Also, you can cut off the right side of the thumbnail on the right hand, since you only use the left side to pick the bass strings. By doing that, it will be easier to use a phone with a touchscreen. And remember to always keep your guitar maintained and with fresh strings.
Fingernail Clippers & Files:
First of all, I hope you already have a good nail clipper or a nail file – if you are a man so you are probably using a clipper right now which should be fine as long as it is still sharp, pretty new and does its job well.
A worn out clipper will leave weird sharp and uneven textures on the edge of the fingernail which would make playing feel a bit weird in the first day or two after clipping. You can avoid that awkward feel by getting a new good clipper if you need one. Also, consider filing the fingernails on the right hand, this can give some more precise results.
Amazon's best selling clippers: I recommend getting one of the smaller ones with a pretty flat arch – since they allow clipping with greater precision. (whether your nails are on the bigger or on the smaller side – it doesn't matter)
These are my ways of maintaining my nails – start paying attention and your guitar life are going to become much smoother.
Thanks for reading! Peace and have fun, and you are welcome to watch this “twin” video-article from my YouTube channel.
Do you have other methods of taking care of your nails to keep them in top guitar shape? Please tell us in the comments – we love hearing new ideas. Thanks!