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Here's the complete guide to understanding fingernails to play fingerstyle guitar.

Are you confused about fingernails and if you can play fingerstyle guitar with long, short, or even without nails?

Playing fingerstyle guitar with nails actually involves contact with both the fingertip and the fingernail. Because of this, as long as your fingertip touches the guitar string, you are plucking the guitar strings correctly.

Playing fingerstyle guitar with nails helps with tone production and precision. The nails act as natural guitar picks, allowing for a sharper and more defined sound. However, it is not necessary to have long nails to play fingerstyle. 

However, if you do choose to play fingerstyle with nails, here is what you need to know.

Do You Need Long Fingernails To Play Fingerstyle Guitar?

Although many fingerstyle guitar players have long nails, you can successfully finger pick with very short or with no nails at all.

The choice of fingernail vs. no fingernails ultimately comes down to personal playing preference. Many fingerstyle guitarists prefer to play with short nails or even without nails at all.

If you have short nails, you can still play fingerstyle guitar effectively. Shorter fingernails require less care and are less prone to breakage than longer nails. 

In addition, if you are used to playing guitar with long nails and one of your fingernails happens to break, this can affect your playing style.

You will either have to find a solution with artificial nails or adapt to playing with an unfamiliar nail length.

We will talk about how to prevent nail breakage and fingernail substitutes further on in this article.

How Long Should Your Fingernails Be For Fingerstyle Guitar?

Although the length of the fingernail for finger picking ultimately depends on your playing style, my personal preference is to keep a shorter fingernail for the plucking hand, except for the thumbnail, which I grow a bit longer.

Guitarists often keep their fingernails quite long. Long fingernails have the added advantage of better volume and better tone quality.

A picture of the thumb nail which is quite long, the right length for guitar playing
Photo by Jill Reed from Flickr

However, long fingernails require more care and maintenance, and are subject to breaking or damage after long periods of playing.

My personal opinion is that fingerstyle guitar sounds best when playing with fingernails. The only reason to keep short nails is if you do a lot of tapping and percussion. 

How To Shape Your Nails for Fingerstyle Guitar

Use a nail file to shape your nails into a smooth curve that follows the natural shape of your fingertip.

If the centre of your nail points downward, you'll want to eliminate that part of the fingernail by filing straight across the centre of the nail.

An image of the tips of the fingernail which should be straight across

Be cognizant of the area of the nail that enters in contact with the string. This is the part of the nail that should be perfectly smooth in order to improve contact with the string.

If you aren't sure which part of your fingertip touches the string, avoid filing your nails for a period of time. Then, play some finger coordination exercises, such as the spider exercise, on the lower strings. 

Afterward, examine your fingernails and check the spot that looks rougher than the surrounding area. This is the part where your nail enters in contact with the string.

Use a nail file or fine grit sandpaper (1600) to make the fingernails the desired length. In Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now! you will see my exact technique for filing your fingernails to the correct shape.

How Do I Strengthen Fingernails For Fingerstyle Guitar?

If you choose to play fingerstyle guitar with nails, even with very short ones, you will need to consider maintenance. Playing metal stringed guitar, as is often the case in fingerstyle guitar, will wear down the fingernails faster than with nylon strings.

Fortunately, fingernail maintenance for fingerstyle guitar is relatively easy.  The simplest thing is to protect your nails and avoid situations where they may shatter or become cracked.

Always pay attention to regular nail care after performing for long periods on steel string guitars, especially after playing aggressive techniques such as rasgueado.

I only use artificial nails as a replacement until the natural fingernail grows back.

Does Nail Polish Help Strengthen Your Fingernails?

Using nail polish is a terrible idea if you want to care and maintain your nails for fingerstyle guitar. The lack of moisture and oxygen caused by painting over your nails will weaken them over the long term.

Instead, consider applying moisturizer that contains Vitamin E to your fingernails every evening. Pure oil such as olive, castor or coconut oil can help keep your nails and cuticles hydrated. If you live in a dry climate, apply these on a regular basis to keep your nails from becoming brittle. 

An image of the fingernails of the right hand which are dry and peeling
Frequent use of moisturizer can help prevent dry or peeling nails.

You can also consider taking a nail and hair supplement such as Biosil® if your fingernails are prone to shattering.

Like with nail polish, be aware that adding anything semi-permanent to your nails will weaken them, so if you choose to go the fake nail route, this will generally be a long-term thing.

It may not be easy to switch back to regular nails after using fake nails for a long period of time.

Is It Better To Grow Your Nails Or Use Finger Picks?

If you don't want to grow your nails or use artificial nails, you can also choose to use metal guitar picks that attach to the ends of your fingers.

There are also plastic finger picks called Alaska picks that fit underneath the fingernail. These are supposed to be closer to natural fingernails.

However I have never had much success with these finger picks. I much prefer to grow out and use my natural fingernails, or use artificial nails if I break a fingernail.

Some players use the flesh of their fingers to pluck the strings, and not the nails to pluck the strings. I recommend using fingernails to start, as this will give you better control over the sound that you are producing with the guitar.

I am not a purist and I believe every guitarist should play the instrument as well as he or she sees fit. I also believe that we should strive to learn to play both with a pick and fingerstyle, as both techniques have a long and varied history in guitar playing.

Pros and Cons of Fingerpicking With Fingernails

Ultimately, in playing fingerstyle guitar, you will have to determine what allows you to comfortably and effectively produce the desired tone and control.

Pro: Enhanced tactile feedback

I feel that I have much better control over the strings when I play fingerstyle guitar with fingernails. However, you may find that you have more consistent tone and control regardless of nail length or condition.

Con: Less versatility in playing styles and genres

Some techniques, such as tapping, are easier to play with no fingernails at all. This is because it’s easier to hit the string directly with the fingertip of the plucking hand instead of avoiding hitting the string with the fingernail.

Percussive techniques are also better without fingernails, as aggressive percussion can shatter your fingernails if you hit the guitar body hard enough.

Pro: Less Finger Pain

Playing without nails will require more callous on your picking hand fingertips. This can lead to increased finger pain, especially when starting out.

Fingernails add an extra plucking surface to your fingertips, which means you may not feel any pain at all in your plucking hand.

Con: Requires Maintenance

Playing without nails or with very short nails reduces the need to focus on fingernail maintenance, such as filing your nails or avoiding biting.

If the sound you are producing with fingerstyle guitar isn't of very good quality, or isn’t very loud, you may have to adjust the shape of your fingernails.

Although playing without nails may result in a slightly softer and less defined sound compared to using nails, your sound will overall be more consistent because the shape of your fingertips won't change over time.