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A Guitarist's Nails

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A Guitarist's Nails

It is sobering to think back on how much of my life I have spent taking care of and worrying about my fingernails. This started about five minutes after I got my first nylon-string guitar when I realized that classical guitarists are too classy to use fingerpicks.

No, I'm kidding, it is not that we are too classy, it is that the right hand technique is different. I have never played the banjo and only had a brief exposure to fingerpicks when I played steel-string guitar so I really don't know anything about those techniques. But just looking at how those picks are structured I can tell they really won't work for classical guitarists. Actually, there is a whole school of classical guitarists, following the maestro Emilio Pujol, who eschew the use of fingernails and just play with the flesh. But the vast majority of classical guitarists, including all the names you have probably heard, use their fingernails to produce the sound much as a clarinet or oboe player uses a reed.

At this point I am going to consult an outstanding book on guitar technique--my own, of course! The Guitarist's Complete Technique Kit published by Mel Bay. Here is a little note about the nails:

That tells you how to shape the nails, but not why. What you want is for the nail to be a ramp that pushes the string towards the soundboard and then releases it smoothly. The reason for this is that how the guitar soundboard works is by flexing up and down. To make this happen you need to make the bridge flex up and down so for a full, warm sound, you want to depress the string towards the soundboard before releasing it.

I bring all this up because when I was moving house two weeks ago I managed to break all of my nails over the course of a few days. I'm still settling in to my new place and my nails have still not grown back all the way, but I think have just enough nail to be able to get practicing again. Just before I moved I was working on the Bach Chaconne and had the first page memorized. Lots more to go so I want to get back to it!

I recorded very little Bach in my career, but here are the Prelude, Allemande and Courante from the Cello Suite No. 1 in my transcription in A major:






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