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The Art of Nail Care

By Jason Fowler

Just as the thickness, shape and material of flatpicks influence the tone a platpicker achieves, the right hand nails of the fingerstyle guitarist greatly influence the resultant sound.

There are two basic categories of nail preparation: Natural and Artificial. The two approaches offer guitarists in various styles a nail surface which is capable of producing beautiful sounds from their chosen instrument.

Natural Nails

The cultivation of strong, resilient nails is the goal of most nylon string players, with the exception of many Flamenco Guitarists who prefer artificial nails for their exceptional durability. There are those whose nails are naturally strong and those whose nails are naturally thin and brittle. Research suggests that the cause of weak nails may be partially linked to diet. (For special nail problems and remedies, read The Prescription for Natural Healing by James F. Balch and Phyllis A. Balch).

An application of olive oil, Vitamin E oil or Vaseline morning and night (and after hand-washing and showering) keeps the nails flexible and prevents them from becoming overly dried out. If you wash dishes by hand or are using harsh chemicals, wear cotton-lined rubber gloves to protect the nails. Silica gel capsules may be taken orally to help promote strong nails (it is apparently used among the Hollywood elite for beautiful hair and nails).

Artificial Nails

Artificial nails are used by many guitarists either as a short-term solution to a broken nail or as their day-to-day "guitar nails".

A broken nail may sometimes be mended by carefully applying a small amount of crazy glue to the torn area. however, it is often better to file the nail down a bit and glue on a Ping Pong ball nail or a "Player's Nail" (pre-shaped plastic nails are available from Balcan Music, 99 Pond Ave. Suite 224, Brookline Massachusetts, 02146). The plastic nail is glued to the underside of the remainder of your own nail with Crazy Glue and then shaped and polished as usual. These are a great solution to a broken nail or for those who simply cannot achieve satisfactory results due to thin, hooked, brittle or flat natural nails. Julian Brian remarked in his book A Life on the Road that Player's Nails sounded somewhat better than his own and that he kept a whole box of them in his guitar case.

Many steel-string fingerstylists (including Don Ross, Pierre Bensusan, Bruce Cockburn, Suzanne Vega and others) cover their nails with extremely hard coatings to prevent breakage and for durability. Don gets his acrylic nails applied at a nail salon; Bensusan uses Crazy Glue and Baking Soda (a full description of the process is to be found in his wonderful edition The Guitar Book); and Cockburn and Vega use a combination of Crazy Glue on the nail tips and a Sally Hansen hardener on the rest of the nail. There are doubtless innumerable variations on the techniques described above. It should be mentioned that all of these methods leave the natural nail extremely thin and weak if and when they are removed. A week or two of "letting the nail breathe" is usually necessary to let it repair itself.

Lately I've been using 3 Sally Hansen nail products to thicken my nail tips for aggressive steel string fingerstyle playing. The first is called nail primer which prepares the nail for the second stage; gel overlay. Basically, this is a thick Crazy Glue with a syrup-like viscosity which won't run all over your fingers. You put a large drop of the gel in the center of the tip of the nail, spread it with the neck of the bottle (or with a toothpick) then "cure" (harden and dry) the gel with Sally's Gel Activator Spray. More detailed instructions are included with the products. This method creates a thick, strong nail tip in minutes. The Gel Activator is a great invention as you don't have to wait 5-10 minutes for the glue/gel to dry.

Fingerpicks are a case of trial and error. It's difficult to achieve much tonal variety with fingerpicks because there is no flesh contact with the string. however, some players such as American Fingerstylist Chris Proctor, get great results with the relatively recent innovation called the "Alaska Pik". This type of fingerpick goes on over the finger and under the nail and may be shaped according to preference. Both plastic and brass varieties are available.

Leo Kottke, once an advocate of using fingerpicks, has for the past several years cultivated natural nails because he developed muscular/tendon problems in his right hand which he attributed to his reliance on fingerpicks for achieving the kind of volume and power he was looking for. He now eschews them and warns fellow guitarists about the possible consequences to the right hand.

Shaping the Nails

The only file suitable for the shaping of a guitarist's nails is a "Diamond Dust" file, the type that looks like it's got diamond dust embedded in its surface. These are inexpensive and available at any drug store. Stay away from emery boards and all metal files as they tend to rip the layers of nail apart and leave the edges ragged.

Nail length is a matter of preferences although 1/16th of an inch above the flesh, when viewed from the back side, is a common recommendation. The thumbnail is often longer - up to 1/8th of an inch.

The nails should follow the general curve of the fingertip and shouldn't have any sharp peaks or corners. Some players find a slightly angled shape works best for them. Experimentation is the key.

After rough shaping with the diamond file, the nails should be sanded with 600 Grade Silicon Carbide paper (available at any hardware store). This removes any rough, scratchy areas from the nail and ensures a smooth release from the string. If you've never sanded your nails before, you'll be amazed at how much the tone improves with this step.

You can go one step further if you like, and buff the nail edge with 800 Grade paper. This produces an incredibly smooth nail edge which is best appreciated on nylon strings.

For further discussion of nail care and dealing with problem nails you should read the chapters devoted to this topping in Pumping Nylon by Scott Tennan and The Natural Classical Guitar by Lee F. Ryan. Both books include illustrations and photos which are helpful in understand this material.

Good luck with your nails!

JF


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