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Musicians love to experiment, and we will do anything to improve our performance even if that means that we have to walk all our lives with long fingernails on our picking hand.
People that don’t know anything about guitars or don’t know that I play the guitar always give my nails weird looks, and before any of you get any bad thoughts, I keep mine squeaky clean!
One thing I’ve noticed is that once they know I play the guitar they always ask me the same old question.
Why do guitar players have long nails?
Some guitarists let the nails on their picking hand grow longer and use them instead of a pick because they can have better control over a larger surface area when fingerpicking. Longer nails can also produce unique tones, and a crisper sound when plucking, as well as more volume, and attack.
Long nails can have a great impact on your sound, but how long is long, and do you actually need long nails to play the guitar? These are the kind of questions that we’ll be exploring today!
Why Do Guitar Players Have Long Fingernails?
We’ve talked about fingerstyle and strumming and how you can play these guitar techniques by using your fingertips or a pick, but that’s not all.
It’s common to see acoustic and classical guitarists use their fingernails instead and that’s because nails can make a great difference when it comes to sound.
Fingertips usually produce a soft sound, and you can hear the notes come out warm and mellow. This can work great for those of you who are looking for softer chords.
A guitar pick on the other hand can increase the dynamic range of the guitar, which means that you can get louder and softer, particularly with a flatpick. It’s easy to recognize the brighter sound that a pick helps produce because it has the ability to sharpen the attack on the strings.
While fingernails are also great at creating sharp and bright sounds as well as aggressive ones, guitarists that prefer to use their nails do it not because they want to ditch the pick, but because nails offer something different.
When you are using the long nails on your picking hand you still hit the strings with both flesh and nail instead of just striking them with the pick. This way you increase both the attack and volume of the note.
One more thing to keep in mind is that depending on the position of your fingers and the length and shape of your nails you will be able to produce different sounds. Some notes might sound more tinny, bright, or warmer and smoother, all with the help of your nails.
More so, for some including me, fingernails can be a thing of convenience. If I had a dollar for every pick I’ve lost during my long life of playing the guitar I would have been, you guessed it, a millionaire.
Thankfully you can’t lose your nails like you can lose a pick, but I do also understand that with nails you risk breaking them, luckily mine are pretty thick and it basically never happens.
Do You Need Long Nails To Play The Guitar?
You don’t need long fingernails to play most guitars and most guitar styles. However, if you want to play the classical guitar then you do need long nails because it will help you play the guitar significantly louder and give you more tonal variation.
I don’t like being tied to just one style, that’s why while I do mostly use a pick, I do keep the nails on my strumming hand slightly longer in case I might want to incorporate my fingernails, without losing the ability to use my fingertips if I want a softer sound.
I also want to mention that if you’re someone who mainly uses nylon strings then longer nails might actually work better with techniques like fingerpicking. You also don’t have to worry about your nails breaking because nylon strings are much softer, and gentler compared to steel ones.
That being said even with steel strings you can incorporate your nails, just as you pluck the string with your fingertip, and you move your finger upward you can use your nail to brush the string. This way you can achieve more control and brighten the sound.
Unless you are a classical or flamenco guitarist long nails are in no way necessary. Even when it comes to fingerstyle long nails can get in the way of strumming, tapping, and slapping techniques that you may want to incorporate.
At the end of the day, whether you decide to grow the nails on your picking hand will depend on what kind of guitarist you want to be and the type of music you want to play.
How Long Are Long Nails?
What might seem like a long set of nails to you might seem short to others, and I’m not talking just about the long acrylic nails that you can get at the nail salon, I’m also including the guitar community.
Some guitarists might consider a nail that extends slightly over the edge of their fingertip as long, while classical guitarists can let their nails grow just over 1/16-inch (2mm) or almost 1/8-inch (3mm,) and their thumbnail can be just over 3/16-inch (5mm) long.
Going over that point in length might create a tick or click as your fingertip is holding the string and your nail is touching the string while plucking. You may also hear some scraping, while that can of course happen if your nails are shorter, it is, however, harder to control when they are much longer.
Ideally, you should keep your nails fairly short, and they shouldn’t go beyond the length of your finger, otherwise, it will most likely get in the way, especially if you are just starting your guitar journey.
I do want to mention that there have been guitarists that rocked the long acrylic nail style like Dolly Parton, we will talk about her in-depth later, so I will just say this, in her case, she had to work around her long nails.
So, while it’s not impossible to wear very long artificial nails and play the guitar you will have to change your playing style especially if you intend on keeping the long nails on both hands.
Can Long Fingernails Make Playing The Guitar Harder?
How hard or easy playing the guitar with long nails is going to be will depend on the type of music you want to play.
If you have long nail extensions on both hands then chances are that you’ll have a really difficult time playing the guitar no matter if it’s fingerstyle or fingerpicking. I might even have to say that it will be impossible, especially for a beginner.
Even if you are using a pick with long acrylic nails they might still catch on the strings and worst case scenario you might end up hurting yourself.
Classical guitarists, as well as hybrid pickers and banjo players often keep the nails on their picking hand slightly longer to help them with fingerpick. But for guitarists that only want to use their fingertips to pluck the strings even the slightest nail can create a problem since they might snag on the strings.
Can I Have Long Nails On Both Hands And Still Play The Guitar?
Having longer nails on your picking hand makes sense, I mean if you are going to use your nails instead of a pick they better be longer than the fleshy part.
The fretting hand on the other hand is a very different story. You don’t pluck the strings with your fretting hand instead you press them down and really long nails can create unnecessary problems.
Especially for someone who is just learning how to play the guitar long nails will make it harder for you to get your hand in the right position, they will most likely make it more difficult to press down the strings and they’ll dig into the fret or catch strings that you didn’t mean to touch.
Even if you are an experienced classical guitarist who is used to long nails, a fretting hand sporting a set of long acrylics will most likely get in the way.
However, nothing is impossible if you set your mind to it, at least Dolly Parton as I’ve mentioned earlier, proved that you can be a great guitarist with extraordinarily long nails.
Fretting a note properly takes a long time to learn without nails, but Dolly Parton as you can see in the video plays as if she didn’t just come out with the longest nail extensions out there!
To achieve such skill and mastery while wearing long nails means that you will have to alter your style to accommodate the nails on your fretting hand, but also on your picking hand.
Slapping and tapping will be a major problem and you will need to break buckets of sweat when practicing.
That’s because you will have to press your fingers at a low angle just to keep the edge of your long nails from touching the string. Not only that but you will also need to have the skill to deliver notes that ring loud and clear.
Fretting on a small angle without producing fret buzz is possible with practice, but it will require a lot of work on your dexterity and the position itself can cause joint pain.
What’s The Ideal Fret Hand Nails Length?
Dolly Parton is one of a kind and it’s really hard to compete with her in so many ways, and that includes the nails on her fret hand.
If you don’t aspire to have long nails like her then the best thing you can do is keep the nails on your fretting hand short. That means that your nails should not extend past the tip of your fingers.
I know the asymmetry between your two hands might feel strange and even off-putting at the start but believe me you get used to it.
I also want to mention that over-trimming can also be a bad thing. If your fingernails are cut too short then you are likely to experience discomfort and even pain as you press your fingers against the fretboard.
Can I Use Acrylic Nails To Play The Guitar?
Maintaining long nails is not always possible, some people have brittle nails that break easily while others just can’t stand the feeling of their own nails going up against guitar strings.
No matter what the reason might be acrylic nails can be a great alternative to growing out your own nails. You can actually get acrylic nails made for guitar players and these babies can withstand steel strings.
If you are a flamenco guitarist or someone who plays more aggressively acrylic nails are a durable option and they can offer a lot of flexibility in the sound and tone, you can produce.
If you are going for acrylics, make sure to keep them relatively short, just like you would with your own nails, and you can either keep your fretting hand free from acrylic nails or keep them even shorter.
What Styles Are More Suitable For Longer Nails?
If the guitar style you are playing involves fingerstyle techniques and fingerpicking, then long nails can work in your favor.
You will notice that classical and flamenco guitarists as well as country and jazz musicians keep the nails on their picking hand longer.
Depending on the length and shape nails can give you a lot of room for experimentation, they can produce a loud and bright sound.
In flamenco techniques like the Rasgueado use the back of the nails and the fleshy inner side of the finger to produce a rhythmically precise and rapid strumming pattern. Golpe is another strumming technique where you need to use the tip of the nail.
When it comes to sound plenty of guitarists benefit from having longer nails on their picking hand, especially if they’re going for notes that have more presence.
How To Play Guitar With Long Nails?
First, you need to decide what style of music you want to play and then you can see whether that style requires or will benefit from you having long nails.
Classical and flamenco guitarists rely on their long nails; however, they still keep their nails relatively short. They just need to be long enough to pluck the strings.
You can also have long nails on your picking hand even if you rarely use them because it will simply keep you open to the possibility of incorporating your nails in a specific fingerstyle or fingerpicking technique or hybrid picking.
If you want super long acrylic nails on both hands then you need to learn how to work around them, but you might be limited from playing more harmonically interesting chords.
How To Grow Out Your Nails?
Whether you believe it or not, growing out my nails was actually the easy part. You simply have to stop cutting them. What’s fascinating during this process is that length is something you can experiment with until you find what works for you.
But you also can’t let your nails grow out indefinitely and you can’t keep their natural shape. The secret of long nails that are actually useful to a guitarist is shaping because the shape will affect the tone and sound.
You need to use a nail file, buffer, and sandpaper to give your nails the perfect shape for what you need. You also need to make sure your nails have no dents, and that the edge is smooth.
As Bradford Werner explains on his channel there are different nail shapes out there that work for different guitar techniques, and you have to discover what works for you before you settle on one.
Once you find your shape it’s important to maintain it, and you need to also make sure that your nails remain healthy and strong.
Humans love to decorate their nails and experiment with different lengths, and funnily enough, so do guitarists only in our case nails are mainly a tool that helps us pluck the guitar strings.
Of course, you don’t have to have long nails to play the guitar, but if you are a classical and flamenco guitarist it’s definitely expected of you.
Long nails can add some versatility to your performance, or they can hinder it, that’s why the best you can do is experiment and find out for yourself if having longer fingernails is the right thing for you and your music!