Fingernails are often an overlooked aspect of playing the guitar. More time and attention is usually given to learning new musical concepts and gear-related concerns.
Because the guitar is played with both hands, fingernail maintenance actually proves to be quite important. However, proper maintenance will likely take a little more effort than chewing your nails down to the nub.
Read on to learn about whether you can have long nails and still play guitar.
Is It Harder To Play Guitar With Long Nails?
Quick side note before we start, I’ve had some readers ask about the easiest way to learn guitar. I’ve shared that here for those that are interested.
Ok, back to the article.
The answer to whether or not you can play guitar with long nails greatly depends upon the hand that has the long nails. It will be significantly harder to properly fret a clean note/chord with long fingernails on your fretting hand.
The reason for this is that your fingertips are required to be used to push the string into the fret. In order to do this, the fingers themselves become angled so that the nail is pointing at the fretboard.
It is likely to see, in this instance, that having fingernails longer than your fingertip will hinder your ability to play clean and precise notes. Your nails will come in contact with the fretboard and prevent you from pushing the string in the correct way.
However, having long nails might not necessarily be a bad thing for playing the guitar. Keep reading to learn about the possible consequences and benefits of having long nails.
Is It Better To Have Long Or Short Nails For Guitar
As previously mentioned, it is not ideal to have long fingernails on the fretting hand. Aside from the aforementioned drawback to having long nails on the fretting hand, there is still one more major disadvantage.
Even a fingernail that is slightly too long has the ability to cause injury. Occasionally, the force of having to press the string down will create tension on the fingernail itself.
What happens is that the space between nail and finger can tear open, which can be extremely painful when performing bends during a guitar lead. Fortunately, in cases like these, some super glue can prove to be a quick remedy.
However, having long nails on the picking hand could prove to be of great benefit. This style of playing will give your guitar a unique style. Many fingerstyle guitarists, especially those of the Flamenco and Classical guitar traditions, will grow their fingernails out to pick the strings.
Compared to having fingerpicks that you attach to your fingers, fingernails provide a more crisp and articulate sound. It also feels more natural to play.
What About Playing With Acrylic Nails?
Regarding fingerstyle guitar, it is absolutely possible to play with acrylic nails. In fact, many seasoned professionals actually prefer to do this.
The reason people use acrylic nails is that they prevent your actual fingernail from accidental breakage. Your fingernails can take a good amount of time to grow out to the desired length, and that kind of time isn’t always available.
The reality is that acrylic nails are incredibly durable, especially when compared to a fingernail. Fingernails are extremely prone to damage, particularly when continuous contact with steel strings is involved.
Should an acrylic nail break, it can be easily replaced with little cost. Depending on how well the acrylic nails hold up in playing conditions, they could potentially last a couple of months.
You likely wouldn’t want your acrylic nails to be too terribly long, though. You will have an easier time playing if the nails are rounded to a point, similar to a guitar pick or fingerpick.
Should I Cut My Nails To Play Guitar?
Your fretting hand should always be well-manicured. Because of the constant fretting, your nails will need to be properly trimmed as low as possible.
Although not usually thought of, a high-quality manicure set can be a valuable guitar accessory. These usually have small cases, which can be stored in your guitar case or equipment bag.
Having a manicure set will allow you the ability to upkeep your fingernails on a continual basis. You might even start to find the value in having a well-manicured set of fingernails.
Properly Trimming Nails
As hinted, there is a proper way to cut your fingernails. You will need a set of nail trimmers to cut the nail. A good rule of thumb is that a small white-colored line at the tip of the nail is likely the longest the nail should be.
Properly trimming and maintaining your fingernail area will ensure that you will be able to properly fret the guitar every time you play guitar. It also helps to prevent any injuries.
After trimming, a fingernail file should be used properly to round off your fingernail. This will also remove any unevenness and sharp edges.
Sharp nail edges could be a hindrance during play. Depending on the location, a string could get caught on the edge, with feels very uncomfortable.
The edge of your nail could dig into the side of your finger during play. This will ultimately either bruise or cut your finger. It will hurt every time you use your finger to fret.
If you have a manicure set, it is wise to go a few steps beyond basic fingernail trimming. In fact, most of the extra care doesn't take too much time when you are already tending to your nails.
Cleaning the dirt underneath the fingernails can go a long way to help prevent a massive build-up of funky gunk on the fretboard of your guitar. You’ve likely seen a guitar like this, and having to clean one can be a pain.
You can also take care of any hangnails that may be present. While not usually a problem, they can become painful depending on their location.
Can You Play Guitar With Fake Acrylic Nails?
The guitar can indeed be played with acrylic nails. We have already discussed the picking hand exclusively, but the fretting hand does have some possible solutions.
Country megastar Dolly Parton is a living example of how this can be possible. Dolly is well known for being lavishly dressed on stage, often wearing makeup and other accessories.
As acrylic nails tend to be longer, it likely isn’t best to keep your nails too long, especially on the fretting hand. However, Dolly Parton has managed to find a solution for this as well.
Solely based on the chord fingerings, E standard tuning generally requires more independent fingers to be used than compared to an open tuning, such as open D.
With open D tuning, a major chord can be easily played by barring a few strings with a single finger. This allows the nail to have length without digging into the fretboard.
Yet, if open D isn’t your thing, you can likely still play in E standard tuning. It just requires a little adjustment, which could potentially create bad playing habits.
What you will need to do is play more with a more flat-fingered approach, rather than using the exact fingertip. This creates a small amount of space that can allow a slightly longer nail.
The reason it can create a bad habit is that your playing will not have the definition and clarity as it would using fingertips. Anything repeated over time without thought behind it eventually becomes a habit, which can be hard to correct over time.
What Should You Do?
One of the greatest aspects of being a guitarist is the freedom it allows every individual to express their unique identities. Quite often, a guitarist’s persona will extend far beyond just the notes they play on their instrument.
With that said, you are free to do as you please with regard to your fingernails. On paper, the benefits of having short nails far outweigh the benefits of long nails.
We’ve gone to great lengths to explain the disadvantages of having long nails. Read on to get a better idea of the advantages of short nail length.
Advantages of Short Nails
Having short nails will give you the ability to properly fret your guitar. It will also help to prevent finger injuries that could prove temporarily detrimental to your playing.
Short fretting-hand nails will also allow your finger calluses to develop properly and in the correct location. Finger calluses are an invaluable asset to a guitarist, as it is commonly said a guitarist’s tone lives in the fingertips.
Short nails on your picking hand also have some advantages. Namely, this allows you to be able to comfortably use fake acrylic nails for fingerpicking. You wouldn’t need to worry about having to grow your nails out.
Another advantage of short nails on the picking hand is that you will be able to hold a regular guitar pick more comfortably. Depending on the type of picking grip you use, long fingernails could dig into your hand, or extend past the pick itself.
Don’t Be Afraid To Try New Things
If you’ve ever been a curious guitar player, you’ve likely thought about what it would be like to grow out your fingernails for fingerpicking. Perhaps you’ve tried to grow them but grew impatient.
This is fairly common, as it is a natural tendency to want shorter nails if the habit already exists. In this case, you are encouraged to try acrylic nails on your picking hand.
Of course, if you are a male, you might receive some unwanted flak due to social expectations of perceived gender normalities. You shouldn’t let this dissuade you, as it is quite likely that some of your favorite guitarists rely on acrylic nails.
The best thing about experimenting, especially with using acrylic nails, is that nothing is permanent. Should something not sound or feel right, the temporary condition can be easily remedied and brought back to the starting point.
Can You Play Guitar With Long Nails? Final Thoughts
The reality is that experimentation allows music to thrive and evolve. Many people experiment with note choices and gear, but something as small as having long fingernails could potentially change your playing in a drastic way.
However, you’re likely going to want to keep your fingernails short (at least on the fretting hand) as this will allow you to play more easily. Any slight obstacle during play could derail your playing and create unnecessary tension.
Last Updated on January 13, 2022.
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