Playing guitar with long nails can be challenging. The nails can get in the way of pressing down the strings and can cause an unwanted clicking or tapping sound. However, with some adjustments to your technique and equipment, it is possible to play guitar beautifully, even with longer nails.
In this article, we’ll go over some tips and tricks to help you play guitar comfortably and avoid breakage, even if you have long nails.
Should You Cut Your Nails or Adapt Your Technique?
Before jumping into adaptations, first consider whether you need super long nails. Many great guitarists keep their nails trimmed short on their fretting hand. Long nails are usually associated more with fingerstyle guitar, but aren’t strictly necessary.
If you play a lot of barre chords and need to press down multiple strings at once, shorter nails can make that easier. The same goes for quick riffs and solos where you need to transition between chords rapidly.
However, if you mainly play fingerstyle guitar or incorporate a lot of lead lines, you may want to keep your nails a bit longer to produce a warmer, rounder tone. The choice comes down to your personal style and what feels best ergonomically.
If you do want to keep your nails long, read on for some tips on adapting. With the right approach, you can play just as well with longer nails.
File and Shape Your Nails Properly
Don’t just let your nails grow out – take the time to file and shape them. Square nails or nails with jagged edges will catch on the strings and cause more issues.
Aim for a smooth oval or almond shape. Lightly round off and bevel the edges of each nail so there are no sharp corners. This helps your nails glide over the strings effortlessly.
Use a fine grit emery board or nail file to shape your nails. Don’t file too aggressively or you could thin out the nail. Gently buff away any roughness once a week.
You can also apply a clear hardening polish or gel if your nails are prone to peeling or breakage. This helps strengthen nails so they don’t snag and split while playing.
Adjust Your Right Hand Technique
The way you hold a pick and position your right hand requires some tweaks to accommodate long nails:
- Angle the pick slightly: Holding the pick perfectly perpendicular to the strings will cause you to hit the nail more often. Tilt the pick ever so slightly so you strike the string primarily with the edge.
- Anchor your pinky: Plant your pinky on the guitar body or pickup as an anchor point. This gives you stability and control so you can avoid glancing off the nails accidentally.
- Keep nails clear of strings: When fingerpicking, keep your nails out of the way as much as possible. Pluck closer to the tip of your fingers rather than the pads.
- Use flesh more: For fingerpicking, use the fleshy part of your fingertips more to avoid nail clicks. Mix flesh and nail techniques for ideal tone and clarity.
- Go easy on tremolo: Rapid back and forth picking across multiple strings can hit your nails. Use tremolo selectively or substitute hammer-ons and pull-offs instead.
With practice, these right hand tweaks will become second nature. Pay close attention to the angle of attack as you play.
Modify Your Left Hand Fretting
Adapting your left hand technique is crucial for comfortably fretting notes without nail interference:
- Roll your finger: Rather than placing your fingertip flat on the string, try rolling it slightly so you fret with the fleshy pad instead. This lifts the nail out of the way.
- Use fingerpads: Take advantage of the fleshiest part of your fingertips, right behind the nails. Make this the point of contact rather than the nails themselves.
- Angle perpendicular to neck: Point your finger straight into the fretboard rather than flat on top of it. This prevents the nail from catching.
- Use fewer fingers: For barre chords, try barring with just your index finger and use other fingers only as needed. Keep unused fingers curled and out of the way.
- Limit large stretches: Extreme finger stretching can flatten your fingertip and nail onto the strings. Use your thumb behind the neck or a capo to reduce large reaches.
Practice fretting gently – don’t press down too firmly or flatten your fingers. Let the fingerpads do the work, not the nails.
Pick the Right Guitar Strings
The strings you use can make a big difference in how well your nails interact with the guitar. Here are some string options:
- Nylon strings: Classical guitars with nylon strings are the most nail-friendly option. The nylon is smooth and glossy, reducing nail friction.
- Flatwound strings: Electric guitars with flatwound strings also work well, since the flat surface moves easily under nails.
- Silk and steel: Acoustic silk and steel strings have a smooth, polished winding that lessens nail catching.
- Coated strings: Strings with a polymer coating help repel nails. Brands like Elixir and Cleartone make coated strings for both acoustic and electric.
In general, the smoother the string, the better for long nails. Stay away from heavy gauge bronze acoustic strings, as these have the most friction.
Get Your Guitar Set Up Properly
An expert guitar setup goes a long way towards making any guitar easy to play. Here are some adjustments a tech can make to optimize playability with nails:
- Lower the action to reduce fretting force needed.
- Level and polish the frets to eliminate snags from uneven frets.
- Switch to lighter gauge strings to depress notes easier.
- Install a lubricated nut so strings move smoothly.
- Adjust the truss rod for proper neck relief and low action.
You want the strings as close to the fretboard as possible without buzzing to minimize nail interaction. Getting a pro setup can greatly improve your guitar’s playability.
Use Your Gear to Work Around Nails
Besides guitars and strings, your other gear like amps and pedals can also help overcome nail challenges:
- Add compression or sustainer effects to mask unwanted clicks and tapping.
- Chorus, reverb, and delay help smooth overall tone from nails.
- Use an acoustic preamp with a notch filter to remove finger noise.
- Place a soundhole cover inside your acoustic guitar to dampen tapping.
- When recording, use a noise gate to eliminate clicking sounds.
Take advantage of your gear’s tone-shaping capabilities to lessen any unwanted nail noise in your sound. A little mixing magic goes a long way!
Choose Fingerpicks for Extra Protection
Plastic fingerpicks are a great temporary option to shield your nails completely. They slip over your actual fingernails and can prevent breakage.
Fingerpicks take some getting used to but give your nails full coverage from string friction. They come in various shapes and materials for comfort.
When your nails are at their longest, fingerpicks can protect them while preserving tone. Remove them once your nails are trimmed to a safer length.
Moisturize Nails to Prevent Breakage
Long nails are prone to dryness, peeling, and splitting – not what you want mid-song! Apply nail oil or moisturizer regularly to nourish your nails and cuticles.
Use a hydrating hand cream before and after playing guitar to keep your nails flexible against string pressure.
Drink plenty of water and take biotin supplements to grow stronger nails from within. Keep them well-hydrated so they resist cracking.
Know When to Trim Back
Even with precautions, long nails may still catch or break annoyingly. Don’t be afraid to trim them when needed for smooth playing.
But rather than chopping them all drastically short, consider a compromise length. Nails just slightly longer than the fingertip can still give you warmer tone without major issues.
Find the ideal length that balances playability with your desired sound. Your nails will likely need more regular trimming than a non-guitar player, but that’s a small trade-off.
Long nails and guitar playing can certainly coexist with the right adaptations. Focus on shaping your nails properly, adjusting your technique, and using nail-friendly equipment. The extra effort will be worth it if longer nails fit your musical style.
But don’t hesitate to trim them when needed – your playing comfort comes first. Experiment to find your own ideal nail length and how to work with it. With some thoughtful practice and tweaks, you can play just as wonderfully with those beautiful nails!