Classical Guitar and fingernails: My2C

In the world of classical guitar, the use of fingernails has become a standard.

But as I have already discussed in a previous article, there are also excellent musicians who have chosen not to use fingernails.

One above all is Rob MacKillop, who based his technique on an approach similar to the lute, without using fingernails, with extremely fascinating results.

Unfortunately, the approach ‘full flesh’ which I believe can offer very stimulating stylistic possibilities is hardly ever treated by ‘official’ teaching.

And also, in the mentioned teaching literature, there are often conflicting approaches regarding the use of fingernails.

The attack on the string

The attack on the string, for example, does not put agree the major textbooks.

Just to name a few:

Mauro Storti, in his “L’Arte della mano destra” and Angelo Gilardino in the “Nuovo trattato di tecnica chitarristica” reccomends that the contact of fingernail on the string should take place immediately:

From “Mauro Storti — L’Arte della mano destra”:

It should be noted that the finger pad is useful only for stopping the string, which should definitely get in touch with the fingernail from the first moment. For this purpose the fingernail must be left grow for its entire length so as to form the contact edge indicated by the arrow. In the absence of that edge, in fact, it would produced two clicks on the string due to its initial sliding on finger and subsequent collision with the nail, resulting a bad sound. So even for the thumb, with the difference, due to its different position, that the contact point is located at the center of the edge.”

From “Angelo Gilardino — Nuovo trattato di tecnica chitarristica”:

The space between the contact point and the junction point must be backed from the nail, which has the following functions:

A) Attack to the string immediately after that is stabilized by contact with fingertip.

B) Bend the string.

C) Supplying to string, when the release begins, a sliding route that avoid the risk of an instantaneous release.

In contrast Scott Tennant in “Pumping Nylon” and Ruggero Chiesa in “Guitar Gradus” recommends an initial contact with the fingerpad and only after an attack with a fingernail:

From “Scott Tennant — Pumping Nylon”:

In order to achieve a full, or “fat” tone, we must give special attention to the angle of the fingertips to the string. Note that when the fingers are initially placed on the strings, only the flesh makes contact. The nail makes its contact when pressure is applied.

From “Ruggero Chiesa — Guitar Gradus”:

Pluck the string with the fingertip immediately next to the fingernail, which comes into action with a fast, short pulse. The finger is brought inside, and immediately returns to the starting position.

The ‘naked fingertip’ approach

From Rob MacKillop Website:

The fact is that nail-less playing demands a different technique to the one you learned before. The good news is that it is not a difficult technique, and once acquired you will have a strong-sounding technique, with a consistently good tone. No more worrying about the health and well-being of your nails, no more ping-pong balls (some will know what I mean!) or hours spent polishing and shaping.

Do note that some flesh players grow their nails just long enough to provide support for the finger pad, but not long enough to make contact with the string. This might look like they are playing with a short nail, but that is not the case.

My approach

I am broadly in agreement with Rob MacKillop.

I started to study the guitar using the nails, and I pursued this approach for all my training course, trusting to the advice of teachers (all linked to the school of Segovia), without taking a look to other schools of thought (for instance the Tarréga method).

I recently decided to try a different direction: I cut my fingernails and I started to try a ‘lute oriented’ approach, with a rotation of the right hand to the outside (in contrast with the style of Segovia) and then with an attack over the string maded with the outer part of the fingertip.

The result was astounding: the more relaxed approach, without unnatural curves made from the wrist (fuck off the gravity and the ‘lets drops the hand’) has given me an agility and a sonority that I had never experienced.

Moreover, the attack on the string made without fingernails has allowed me to build the soft and round sound that I’ve been looking for.