Guitarist playing fingerstyle guitar and singing
Playing fingerstyle guitar with nails actually involves contact with both the fingertip and the fingernail.

Are you confused about fingernails and if you can play fingerstyle guitar with long, short, or even without nails? Here's the complete guide to understanding fingernails to play fingerstyle guitar.

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. 

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.

Classical guitarists often keep their fingernails quite long; it's a different story when it comes to fingerstyle guitar. Long fingernails have the added advantage of better volume and better tone quality.

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 nails, and the only reason to keep short nails is if you do a lot of tapping and percussion. This however, isn't the style that I teach in Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now!

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.

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

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.

Use a nail file or fine grit sandpaper  (between 400 to 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.

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 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. 

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

Can You Use Fake Nails to Play Fingerstyle Guitar?

If you have difficulty maintaining your natural nails, options include fiberglass wrapping to strengthen your nail, using acrylic nails or getting fake gel nails which you have installed at a nail salon.

Artificial nails can provide a durable and consistent surface for plucking the strings.

Investing in professional manicure services or artificial nails can significantly maintain the quality of your nails for fingerstyle guitar playing.

You will still have to shape the fingernail to fit your playing habits, often by using a set of nail files which are more abrasive than the fine grit sandpaper that you use on natural nails. 

Boy playing fingerstyle guitar
I only use artificial nails as a replacement until the natural fingernail grows back.

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.

How To Use Acrylic Nails For Fingerstyle Guitar

The method for creating your own acrylic nails for fingerstyle guitar involves mixing a liquid (called a monomer) and a powder together, and then applying this to the surface of your nail. Mixing the liquid and the powder together creates a process called polymerization.

This is a chemical reaction where the monomer (liquid) molecules combine with the polymer (powder) molecules to form long chains.

Once you have combined the liquid monomer and acrylic powder, you can apply the solution to your fingernail nail to form a hard, sculpted nail.

Sungha Jung uses a clear or transparent polymer which matches the color of his natural fingernails. His preference is for the Harmony ProHesion nail sculpting liquid and powder.

What Kind Of Fingerpicks Does Sungha Jung Use?

Sungha Jung doesn't use fingerpicks. Instead, he strengthens his nails with acrylic nails, a technique he learned from Japanese guitarist Kotiro Osho. This guitarist popularized nail attack.

Sungha Jung does occasionally use a thumb pick to play certain songs, such as those by Tommy Emmanuel. This isn't only for the Travis picking pattern but also for the bass groove.

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.

Man with dreadlocks playing fingerstyle guitar
The choice of fingernail vs no fingernails ultimately comes down to personal playing preference.

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.

Can You Play Fingerstyle Guitar Without Nails?

Yes, you can cut your nails and instead use the pads of your fingers to pluck the strings. If your fingerstyle guitar playing involves heavy usage of alternate techniques, you may consider not having any fingernail at all.

Tommy Emmanuel keeps no nails, but his fingerstyle playing involves the use of a thumb pick, hybrid picking or percussion.

Note that if you switch from playing guitar with fingernails to no nails at all, this will affect the tone quality and possibly your right hand technique as well.

Guitarists who play exclusively with finger picking, such as Clive Carroll or Sungha Jung, tend to have longer nails. Experiment with nail length and nail shape.

If you find that your nails get caught on the strings, file them and remove the parts that "hook" onto the string.

Ultimately, when starting out, I recommend keeping at minimum a very short fingernail. I like the benefit of fingernails with improving tone production and control. If you have short nails, you can still play fingerstyle guitar effectively.

I talk about effective use of fingernails in the first lesson of my course Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now!