Many beginners of the classical guitar wonder if having nails is a must to learn the instrument. Perhaps because they are unable to grow or maintain healthy nails due to some medical condition or do not wish to have long nails for any reason, they would like a clear answer. I’d been wondering about this issue too for some time, although I’m quite happy with my nails.
Is it possible or desirable to play classical guitar without nails? Most certainly yes. While using nails serves the majority of players well, using only the flesh of the right-hand fingers gives a warm emphasis to fundamental tones rather than secondary tones. It requires experimenting to master a sound that many find pleasing. Accomplished artists like Rob MacKillop and Virginia Luque famously built their careers without using nails.
No method book written in the last hundred years recommends playing with flesh alone. But substantial opinion is gaining strength today that playing without nails, done right, is a valid method for both amateurs and concert artists. Mainly due to the success of the leading non-nail players, the movement is gaining ground steadily.
But first, what’s the deal with using nails?
It wasn’t always like this. During the classical period, famous for the substantial repertoire we still play, the great composers Fernando Sor and Mauro Giuliani played with flesh, not nails. Sor was dead against the use of nails. His good friend, the virtuoso Dionisio Aguado, unusually for the time used his nails to play. He believed using nails helped him to play the fast passages.
Although he was contrite in later years and confessed to Sor that were he to start all over again, he’d choose to play with flesh than nail. Tarrega played with nails earlier in his career but toward the end of his life played with flesh. His famous pupil Emilio Pujol was a serious advocate of flesh over nails and instilled that preference in his students.
So no-nails, only-flesh playing was the general convention for centuries although players using nails were also there in every age. So what happened? Nylon happened!
The invention of nylon strings after World War II replaced the gut strings of yore. Gut strings were damaged by the use of fingernails (unless you were Aguado) and using flesh was practically a given. The sound of gut strings was an intimate sound ideal for small salons and the guitar itself was more suited to small spaces.
As the nylon-strung modern guitar evolved into a powerful, post-Torres concert instrument, it could take on large concert halls. The need for volume and projection was fulfilled both by the modern instrument and the modern material, nylon.
So much so the conventional belief became nails give volume and projection to nylon strings. Using nails is the ‘proper’ way to play the modern instrument to get a punchy tone. Nails are virtually the standard for classical guitar playing.
Segovia – due to his greatness and popularity – became the go-to standard for many players. He advocated the use of nails (and flesh, to be fair) to anyone who cared to listen.
A famous concert artist like Sharon Isbin had this to say: “Classical guitarists can play without nails, but they should be aware that in doing so they are sacrificing certain possibilities of tone color and projection – all of which affect interpretation and musical presentation.”
The vast majority of classical guitar players, even today, use nails for tone, volume and projection.
On the other hand, the beauty of no-nails playing
Upright bass players, lutenists and harp players can both get a good sound and play virtuoso repertoire with no fingernails. It is now the turn of classical guitarists, at least a few of them, to get back to their own origins. Among noteworthy artists who play (or played) without nails in the last century or so are the following:
- Julián Arcas
- Francisco Tárrega
- Daniel Fortea (pupil of Tarrega)
- Emilio Pujol
- John Schneiderman
- Hector Garcia (student of Pujol)
- Vahdah Olcott-Bickford
- Phillip de Fremery
- Manuel Cubedo
- Virginia Luque
- Rob MacKillop
There are quite a few women, relatively speaking, who feature on such lists over time. This is somewhat surprising giving the norms of an earlier time favored them having long nails in social contexts and otherwise. Vahdah Olcott-Bickford was the founder of The American Guitar Society, which eventually became the Los Angeles Guitar Society. Her husband reportedly said, “Tell them the truth, that in all your life, you have never clawed at a guitar with your talons!”
If you want to hear the warmth and expressiveness possible on a classical guitar without the use of nails, look no further than the talented Virginia Luque.
Abstract Tango performed by Virginia Luque
Listen to the rising voices in favour of the sound of nailless playing.
I like the sweet sound of my fingers touching the strings. The sound created is mellow but the volume will still be satisfying if you play with force.
You will get a softer and in many ways a more beautiful tone if you cultivate your playing without nails. However you might miss some of the higher frequencies. To compensate for this you can see to it that you always play with fresh new strings.
You are producing a FAT sound that originates from a deeper place than just the surface of the string. The front of your note should be like a “plump grapefruit” — not a cat claw!
My opinion in the end is that the flesh sounds are just more in sync with the instrument’s potential to generate beauty.
Simon Powis, an accomplished classical guitarist who runs the Classical Guitar Corner Academy, says: “What nails provide is more volume, a faster action and arguably more tonal variation. However, for many it is impractical to have long nails due to work, sports or perhaps they just don’t want long nails. You can get a perfectly beautiful sound without nails.”
Rob MacKillop, who unofficially spearheads the no-nails movement, is a Scottish artist whose talents encompass the classical guitar, lute and vihuela among other instruments. He strongly believes there is no reason for a player to feel obliged to grow nails to play classical guitar, no matter the type of music. Although he thinks playing nailless requires learning a new technique.
Emilio Pujol, Tarrega’s famous student and an ardent promoter of playing without nails, in his much-respected method Escuela Razonada says: “Since the fingernail is hard, and varied in its surface, thickness and consistency, it imparts to the string a penetrating brilliance, quick and rather metallic. Without the nails, however, the string is struck by a smooth, subtle and sensitive object, both thicker and wider than the nail, and which gives a sound of greater softness, fullness and purity.”
“The sound produced with the nail is inimical to the fundamental sound and favorable to the secondary sounds, as opposed to the full and pure sound produced with the flesh of the finger, which is totally favorable to the fundamental sound and not to the secondary ones.”
According to Pujol, the nail brings out less of the fundamental and more of the upper partials while the flesh gives a more pure fundamental sound. Upper partials are the treble end of the sonic spectrum, the ‘secondary sounds’ as Pujol calls them. Nails make the sound more trebly. No nails make for rounder, warmer notes.
Listen to the unmistakable warm sounds of MacKillop’s guitar. They are remarkable.
Endecha y Oremus (F.Tarrega) performed by Rob MacKillop
What’s the technique of playing without nails?
The fact is that nail-less playing demands a different technique to the one students conventionally learn. There are many no-nail players who believe that playing with the bare and fleshy tips of fingers leads to calluses, which makes for easier playing as though each of the fingers is now a thick, hard plectrum.
As you spend more time playing with flesh, you will develop some small amount of callus which can aid in tone production. Your tone will improve over time.
MacKillop vehemently disagrees with growing calluses. He keeps his fingertips smooth and supple by using creams to keep them that way. He has always held the belief that smooth fingers produce a smooth sound inasmuch as rough fingers produce a harsh sound.
It is true for the complete beginner that there exists no real method or formal approach that deals with the complexities of no-nail playing. But Rob MacKillop’s website is a fitting start for anyone venturing on this path. He lists players, backgrounds, videos and technique tips in some detail. It is a great resource for players of all levels.
MacKillop encourages even practicing guitarists to try the no-nails method by giving it a good try over a few months at least. He suggests Savarez White Card strings that “have a slightly rough feel, which gives the flesh more security, and they sound similar to gut and are inexpensive.”
Rectified nylon strings, as against the regular smooth nylons, are ideal for fingerstyle playing. Savarez, La Bella and other makes have their variants of rectified nylon. Their texture allows the fingers to grip the strings a bit more.
Also, try using lower-gauge strings or tune down a half-tone. (Tune the low E string to Eb, the fifth string to Ab and so on.) It takes a few months before a current player of the guitar feels totally comfortable with the new technique.
MacKillop shares his way of mastering the no-nails technique in the short video below. (Although he is quick to point out that there is no one way to learn the classical guitar. With or without nails, there are many ways to teach oneself.)
Playing without nails | By Rob MacKillop
The final call is yours
We have come a long way since the pros and tutors and academies looked down upon the practice of no-nails playing. This style of playing is considered neither superior or inferior to the regular nails + flesh playing but a different style, valid in its own right. It is also considered a path full of experimentation and challenges. Resources by way of methods and courses aren’t really tailored to this technique and the player will often fend for herself.
That said, there are more and more tutors who are quite encouraging of students who follow this less trodden path in search of its unique beauty. For those students with nail problems like weak or brittle nails and not willing to try out artificial stick-on nails, the legitimacy of playing without nails should be a welcome development.
To keep some perspective on this, at the end of the day, it is even doubtful if a non-player of the classical guitar can readily tell the difference between the warm sound of fingers versus the bright sound of nails!
It is said that Emilion Pujol of no-nails playing fame told one of his students in exasperation, “I don’t care what you play with, play with your foot if you want!.”
Allen Mathews of ClassicalGuitarShed says it simply: “Bottom-line: Just play the guitar.”
Classical guitar with no fingernails | By Classical Guitar Shed
If you’re keen on finding resources to learn classical guitar online, check out my review of 5 online courses that you should absolutely consider. For a more formal study including grades – like piano or violin exams – read my guide to board exams for classical guitar.
Happy fleshy times!