Your classical guitar will sound as good as your technique, your strings and the guitar itself. Right? What’s there to argue? Yet, most of us forget our sound quality also relies heavily on the actual stuff we bring into contact with the strings: our fingernails.
Thin nails produce a brittle sound. Strong and thick nails produce a robust sound. If you are blessed with great genetics in this regard, good for you. If you are not, read on.
Many of us need help. There are many nail care products – from acetone-based cosmetic products (not good) all the way to products meant for horse hooves (very good). From nail files to MicroMesh pads to nail protein to replacement acrylic nails, there is a wide range of products to maintain and groom your guitar-playing fingernails.
A better diet for stronger nails
How do you strengthen your classical guitar nails?
It starts with the basics, the boring stuff. Protein, calcium, magnesium, zinc, sulfur, omega-3 fatty acids, and an array of other nutrients are necessary for hair and nail health. Silicon, naturally found in oats, is a great help in adding luster to hair and strength to nails. So have your daily oatmeal.
There are many nutritional supplements of varying efficacy. You’d do well to consult your physician or nutritionist regarding what may apply to your particular condition. Diet and dietary supplements are important in getting us to speed on healthy nails. Start here first and make sure you’re covered. As the old saying goes, you are what you eat.
I’ll also add that daily I take a multivitamin (for men), extra Vitamin D (in lieu of sunshine!), fish oil supplements (good cholesterol), and lots and lots of biotin (hair and nails). I’ve not had a broken nail in over a year. — Forum member at Delcamp
Some pro players talk about Biotin (vitamin supplement pills for nails and hair) being very effective for their nail strength. You can find a popular brand here at Amazon.
Protein nail creams to the rescue
There are tons of creams which classical guitar players swear by, especially those with brittle or weak nails. Some of the most popular creams are cited below.
Onymyrrhe: Till some years ago, this was pretty much like a miracle worker. Everyone from leading players to forum members everywhere claimed magical benefits for Onymyrrhe. And then it just disappeared from online places like Amazon and Strings by Mail and others. Word has it that the manufacture of this plant-based myrrh extract has been discontinued. The only reason for mentioning it here is that if you get lucky and find it – somehow, somewhere if you lay your eyes on one – just get it! The rave reviews haven’t stopped on its nail strengthening qualities, even though the product may have.
Nail Defense by Orly: Nail Defense by Orly is technically a polish, which you can find here at Amazon. It seems like a protein liquid that goes on the nails, but it dries and stays on like a polish, although it doesn’t flake off the end of the nail. Players who use this product apply two coats for effective results. Their nails get thicker and stronger and the natural nails are much improved with use. Most players also take their vitamin supplements along with this polish and report great results.
ZNailtiques Nail Protein: There is a Formula 2 version and a slightly stronger version, Formula 2 Plus. It is a “treatment for problem nails… salon-tested formulations offer special combinations of ingredients, including hydrolyzed keratin and protein in combination with gelatin and calcium to build a healthy nail foundation.” The specialty classical guitar strings retailer Strings By Mail stocks this as one of its main products in the nail care section. SBM used to stock the legendary Onymyrrhe some time ago, incidentally.
Hard as Hoof Nail Strengthening Cream: This is an inexpensive and good product. If you want one of the best nail conditioners, that “grow nails, strengthen nails and condition cuticles all in one cream”, you can find it here on Amazon.
Mane ‘n Tail Hoofmaker Hand and Nail Therapy Cream: This may not be the cheapest but players claim great benefits of not just nail strength and firming but overall hand moisturizing and care. By the way, products of this kind generally show horse visuals on the packaging as also have ‘hoof’ in their names. This one was apparently originally made for horse hooves, but horse owners noticed their own nails improving while applying it to the horses! Talk about a perfect product demonstration. You can find it here on Amazon.
Healthy Hoof Protein Treatment: This one has a few thousand favorable reviews on Amazon and is also the one guitarist and teacher Bradford Werner of thisisclassicalguitar.com prefers for his own use. He mentions on his site that it “makes my nails stronger, more flexible, and moisturized (so they bend instead of crack).” I’m aware of many classical guitarists using it too and are totally happy with it. Check it out on Amazon.
Myrrh Essential Oil – A Divine Rejuvenation of The Mind & Body: This is a product from Gya Labs more aimed at the aromatherapy market but it does have the famed myrrh oil that many claim is so perfect for moisturizing and strengthening nails. You can find it here on Amazon.
A basic daily nail regimen
Get into a daily pattern that devotes some minutes to nail care. You can brush your nails daily with a fingernail brush that is made for cleaning nails. You can find it at a drug store or hardware store. Use the one with soft bristles and brush your nails for a few minutes every day. Your nails will become tougher.
Some players believe that just playing guitar makes the nails tougher. As a popular online forum member says: I inherited paper-thin nails, but my toenails are hard and tough, apparently from wearing shoes all the time. The more you use a part of your body, even if it hurts, the healthier it will be. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Even a simple, age-old ritual like soaking your right hand in lukewarm olive oil at night can produce great results over time. Soak for about 10 ten minutes or so, don’t rinse. It is basic moisturizing, really. Like hair, nails turn brittle and chip away when not kept moisturized over a long time. Pay more attention when winter sets in along with the dryness.
Use a cream to keep nails moist. Avoid alcohol-based or acetone-based products that are commonly available from famous cosmetics brands. Anything that dries is not good.
According to veteran classical guitarist and tutor Douglas Niedt, “Do not use nail polish or any nail hardener or nail improvement product containing alcohol, formaldehyde, acetone, etc. Translation: don’t use 99% of the nail improvement products that are manufactured by large cosmetics firms. Such products may produce short-term improvement but over time will damage your nails.”
As part of your daily nail care regimen, some self-awareness while going about daily jobs is a must. Wear gloves while washing dishes or other activities with the potential to cause nail damage. Doug Niedt talks about teaching himself to be very careful in the vicinity of a car. He has broken or chipped his nails while at the wheel, checking the boot, opening the door, etc.
Here is some great advice on nail care by classical guitarist Antigoni Goni.
Nail care tips by Antigoni Goni
Filing, buffing and shaping nails
Along with proper nail care for strong nails, it is the shape of the nail that produces quality sound.
How long should nails be for classical guitar? How do you get the perfect nail shape?
A good nail file is a good start. A crystal or glass file, like this one at Amazon, is particularly effective in that you can file in both directions without chipping the nail. Abrasive paper, sometimes called nail paper, can be wrapped around a nail file for polishing the edges and under-edges of nails. A commonly available 4-way buffer works equally well too. Avoid buffing the tops of nail, it can thin them down. Only buff edges and under the edges.
Micro-Mesh sanding paper is also a great option for buffing. This usually comes in a set of different grits from a coarse 1,500 all the way up to a very fine 12,000. Check out this set on Amazon.
A well filed and buffed nail gives the roundest sound, using an angled attack on the strings. The skin of the finger advances and touches the string slightly ahead of the nail. That’s the ideal motion for the best sound.
Instead of buying these items individually, you can buy nail kits that combine multiple products. Strings By Mail has a Nail File and Micromesh Buff Kit which has a 3.5” nail file (in a cool suede sheath), 6-pack Micromesh paper set in different grits and a foam block all packed in a drawstring, black velvet pouch. The whole kit is small enough to be tossed into your guitar case.
On the shaping of nails, talk in recent times has been one of ramping the nails from low to high as against simply following the curvature of the finger. An exercise book like the famous Scott Tennant’s Pumping Nylon talks about nail shaping in a clear and helpful fashion, discussing four basic nail shapes that people have and how to ‘ramp’ each of them to good advantage. Check out Pumping Nylon on Amazon if you’re interested.
There is an informative and engaging discussion by Bradford Werner on his site thisisclassicalguitar.com on fingernails. He talks about his ideas of ramping each nail with illustrations and explanation. Check out his advice on finger nail shapes on his site. The great thing here is that, on the same page, he has video links to other classical guitarists like Mathew McAllister, Thomas Viloteau and Tatyana Rhyzkova talking about their views on the subject.
Perhaps the coolest video on what nail shaping is all about is the one by guitarist William Kanengiser. If you haven’t seen the humongous nails video, you must.
Fake nails to the rescue
With the best of preparations, the worst sometimes happens. A nail breaks hours before a performance. No protein supplement or Micromesh buffing is going to help. You can’t wait for a natural nail to grow itself into place. The only solution: fake nails.
This is a hugely popular option which shows that the chipping and/or breaking of nails is more common than we might assume. Acrylic nails (of ghostly white fame) are fairly common with acoustic guitar players who play fingerstyle but not so prevalent with classical guitarists.
A well known DIY solution uses ping pong balls. It turns out that the consistency of these balls pretty much matches our fingernails, especially the thumbnail. With some glue and scissors, you are very much in business in a matter of minutes – if you know what to do (and also have a ping pong ball handy.) If you don’t know how exactly this works, here are some clear cut instructions to guide you:
Ping pong ball solution for replacing a damaged nail.
If you need commercial solutions, there are quite a few out there. One of the popular solutions in artificial nails is from a company called Guitar Player Nails. They have over 25 years of experience in making nails for guitarists (including classical guitarists) and claim no harm in any way is caused by using such nails.
Fingernails are made from keratin, they say, with no nerve endings or pores. So it does not hurt to cover the natural nail with fingernail glue, and whatever material you may prefer (ping pong balls, acrylic nails, etc). Some world-class guitarists like Eliot Fisk and Grisha Goryachev use these nails regularly, so perhaps they have a point. Their best selling Instant Nail Kit is supposed to sound and feel as good as natural nails.
With some experience on how to fix them, removing an old ‘nail’ and fixing a new one in its place is a matter of about 5 minutes. If you’re giving performances for a living, this is a handy and stress-free solution. You can check out their products at guitarplayernails.com.
Classical guitarist and teacher Douglas Niedt believes that another popular product RicoNails is just perfect. This system, according to its inventor Rico, was developed “because I wanted to escape from the ‘toxic cycle’ of cyanoacrylate glue (Super Glue), acrylics, gels, wraps, etc. All these systems of artificial nails currently available are bad for your nails.”
In place of Super Glue, this product uses an adhesive that is not permanent, goes on and off the nail with ease and is “not toxic”. Touted to be a more organic, safer option, RicoNails has its set of adherents who swear by it. You can check out the Rico Emergency Nail Kit over at Amazon.
By and large, unless in an emergency, classical guitarists avoid going the fake nails route, Eliot Fisk notwithstanding. Once the natural nail grows out, a classical guitarist is most likely to discard the fake nail and get back to using the natural nail. This isn’t the case with many fingerstyle acoustic guitar players who have no issues at all using artificial nails for as long as they wish.
There is a larger question that must be addressed: Are nails essential at all for playing the classical guitar? A majority will say yes because that’s what they are used to and that’s what they’ve been told.
But there is a growing minority of nailless players at the highest levels who will strongly disagree. See my article Playing Classical Guitar Without Nails to understand the issue better and how this is a real option for those who don’t or cannot have good, long nails for whatever reason.
With good, strong nails (and a good, strong technique) you can explore the exciting world of high tension strings to develop your personal guitar sound. Read my article Why Use High Tension Strings? for tips on how to go about it.
Happy nail caring!