One of the most difficult aspects of learning to play classical guitar is developing strong, well manicured fingernails on the right hand. Much of this difficulty arises because no two guitarist hands are quite the same. What works for one guitarist’s nails may not be right for another guitarist.
Having said that, I can tell you that the most common complaint I hear from first-year classical guitar students is that their nails aren’t strong enough. Many guitarists struggle with nails that either break too easily during day-to-day activity or that wear down too quickly to allow for enough daily guitar practice.
I too struggled with this issue. This is another one of those cases where guitar lessons can focus on turning a weakness into a strength. I used to think that my fingernails just weren’t genetically up to the task of proper classical guitar playing. Not just that they seemed thin and weak, but the shape of my nails also seemed to not match up with what more experienced players’ nails looked like. Now, after years of research, trial and error, the nails of my right hand are very strong and (as a result of the increased strength and thickness) my nails are much straighter than they used to be.
Let me now share with you a few EXTREMELY VALUABLE tips that I learned along the way. What follows is not a comprehensive guide to guitarists’ nail shaping. For that I refer you to your guitar library which hopefully contains the standard books which cover this topic (by Noad, Shearer, Duncan, Tenanat, etc).
1.) REVLON TREAT & BOOST – I think men can still have a hard time learning the importance and application of product to their fingernails because historically this has been thought of as a feminine thing. Well toss all those gender-normative stereotypes in the garbage, cause this stuff works! This is sort of like a clear coat of nail polish. I have tried many similar products and found Revlon’s Treat & Boost to be by far the best. At around $7.50 a bottle it is about twice as expensive as the Sally Hensen product that I know a lot of guitarists’ use. But in my experience it is totally worth it. I apply this to all five fingers of my right hand once a week and a bottle generally lasts me about 2-3 months so that $2 /month isn’t going to break my bank account.
2.) ESSIE MATTE ABOUT YOU – This is a Matte finish top coat that I apply after the Treat & Boost. I started off applying this for purely aesthetic reasons. The Treat & Boost leaves your nails pretty glossy and I didn’t like how that looked. Especially since I only use it on one hand! So I started putting this on after. Once it dries it looks as if you have no product on your nails. It also feels like it adds another layer of protection. This is the only matte finish top coat I’ve tried. There are others out there which may work better. But this one works great for me.
3.) Gloves and general cautiousness – Once your nails get into the proper shape for guitar playing they become very sturdy. But while they are growing into the shape there is a very high risk of getting chipped or dented which can prevent them from forming a strong shape. So it is very important that, while your nails are growing out, you take care of your right hand. I have a few pairs of BMX biker gloves – one in my home, one in my car, and one at the studio. This way if I am ever tempted to get into some manual type work, I ALWAYS have some protective gloves at my disposal. Aside from manual work, I avoid using my right hand to do most day-to-day things: opening doors, pushing elevator buttons, pulling wet clothes out of the washing machine, etc. This kind special care is most needed while your nails are growing out. Now that my nails are in good shape I don’t have to be quite so careful.
4.) Other Guitar Styles – Many guitarists aren’t just learning to play classical guitar. When I first started to seriously study classical guitar playing, I was also trying to develop technique & repertoire in rock, jazz, and folk fingerstyle genres. Particularly rock and folk fingerstyle playing can take a toll on the right hand nails that purely classical players don’t have to deal with. The steel strings of a folk guitar will really tear up your nails until you figure out the correct shape and stroke. Also right-hand tapping techniques used in rock and metal can cause horrible dents in your nails. My advice is to take it easy and be very carful with these styles. Pay attention to how they affect your nails. Maybe try using finger picks or Riconails to protect your natural nail until you develop the proper shape/stroke. Most importantly, don’t give up. It is entirely possible to become proficient on all styles of guitar. There will be setbacks as you learn but your nails will grow back and you will learn to be more careful.
For whatever it’s worth, I think it is best to develop the proper shape and stroke on classical guitar. Once you’ve really got it down, you can then apply the classical right hand technique more or less exactly to the folk guitar with minimal wear and tear to the nails. This doesn’t work so well the other way around.
So those are some hard-won tips that I had to learn through painful trial and error. I hope that they help you if you are trying to grow out your nails for classical guitar playing. If you have any questions/comments on this subject please leave them below.