Long nails have always had a bad reputation among guitarists. Even budding guitar players are often told to keep their nails short and clean to learn how to play better.
But, does having long nails stop you from being a great guitarist? That’s not the case at all. So I wanted to understand – how to play guitar with nails without sacrificing my personal style. And I’m here to change this misconception.
In this article, I will discuss the following topics:
- What are considered long fingernails in the world of guitar playing?
- Why it’s a misconception that you can’t play the guitar with long fingernails?
- What are the effects of having long nails while playing the guitar?
- Do long nails affect guitar playing technique and sound?
- What are the strategies that you can use to play better with long nails?
How Long Are Long Nails?
In my quest to understand if long nails are good for guitar, I first had to determine what was considered “long” in the guitar world . . .
Remember that we have different opinions about what we think is a long fingernail. Since a majority of guitar players prefer short nails, they might already consider their nails long even if the growth is merely minimal.
On the other hand, other guitarists don’t mind a little growth as long as it’s still within the length of the nail bed. At this length, you can still hold down the strings with ease, so playing the guitar won’t be a problem. In this case, they will consider the fingernails long once they go beyond the finger pads.
In rare instances, other guitarists can hold chords and play guitars with relative ease despite having acrylic nails or fake fingernails. Admittedly, it may have taken a lot of time and practice to do so, but to be part of a rare community of skilled guitarists despite having very long nails is truly remarkable.
But for uniformity in this article, I consider nails long once they have already protruded beyond the finger pads. This way, the long nails can get in the way of holding down chords, making it tricky to hold a solid sound.
That’s why you’ll need strategies and techniques to successfully play the guitar without sacrificing your nail’s aesthetics.
Can You Play Guitar with Long Nails?
The misconception that we cannot play the guitar with long fingernails lies in the fact that it can be difficult to switch between chords with long nails.
Think about it: to hold down a chord, we have to use the pads on our fingertips to ensure a firm pressure on the strings. That allows the guitar to produce a solid sound minus any vibration or buzzing noise. As such, no doubt keeping your fingernails short can make guitar playing easier.
While short nails can make playing easier, that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to play with long fingernails. It may be harder, yes – but it’s possible.
With that said, there are tips and strategies that you can employ to play the guitar with long nails. And with the right practice, you’ll get the hang of it in no time.
So to answer the question: can you play guitar with long fingernails? I give you an affirmative answer.
Check out the following video to see how Dolly Parton plays guitar with long nails (0:37) and learn her secret about guitar playing (1:27).
With practice and persistence, I learned techniques to adapt to my long nails. If you’ve been looking for ways to play the guitar without cutting your nails short, then keep on reading for my key learnings and strategies below.
Effects of Long Nails
Through experimentation, I found both benefits and downsides of long nails for guitar playing:
Having long nails works great when you’re fingerpicking. The nail itself allows you to pick each string carefully to ensure that accurate tones are produced.
Additionally, a combined fingerpicking technique that involves both the nail bed and the nail can create a uniquely smooth tone. You can never create the same effect when you have short nails, so that makes it interesting.
If you’re learning guitar to play fingerstyle, especially on classical guitar, it would be much more favorable with long nails. Also, several country guitarists use both thumb pick and their natural nails on other fingers to play fingerstyle music.
Also, you develop better control over your fingers when you’re playing guitar with long nails.
Since you have to be extra careful with your every move to ensure the proper sound is produced, you also develop a natural control whenever you play. You become a more disciplined guitar player, and that gets you a step closer to achieving your goals.
Unfortunately, playing with long fingernails can cause it to snag on the guitar strings, especially if it’s your first time trying to do so. It’s also a lot more difficult to put pressure onto the fretboard with just your nails alone. These are among the main factors that you should consider before growing them long enough.
Also, having long nails will make it difficult to control your pick. This is especially true for players with fake nails or extremely long nails.
In this case, your finger pads won’t get a firm hold over the guitar pick, which could easily cause it to slip or rotate while you’re playing. And when this happens, we all know how inconsistent the resulting melodies will be.
Strategies: How to Play Guitar with Long Fingernails
Now that you have a good understanding of playing the guitar with long nails, I can finally share with you the key strategies to succeed. After lots of practice, here are the top techniques that worked for me:
1. Develop Your Skill in Fingerpicking
Fingerpicking is a guitar-playing technique where you pull on or pluck the strings individually to produce a unique kind of sound. It is especially popular among country songs since it helps bring out the guitar’s unique tone.
When you have long nails, strumming with a pick can be quite tricky. Since you won’t get a good grip over the pick, it ends up rotating or slipping off of your fingers. And if you’re performing in front of a crowd, that can be really embarrassing.
So, to save you the humiliation, why not try and improve your fingerpicking skills instead?
Admittedly, it might take some time to get used to this playing style. But with the right practice and patience, you’ll surely get the hang of it in no time.
2. Replace Your Pick with Your Fingernails
If you really can’t let go of strumming, or if fingerpicking doesn’t suit your playing style, then why not let go of using the pick altogether?
If your fingernails are longer than a pick, then you can successfully get rid of the pick and replace it with your fingers instead. In this case, you have the freedom to grow the nails on your strumming or picking hand to replace your old pick.
To ensure the best results, you can also file your nails into a specific shape to accentuate a specific sound. Here are some nail filing tips that you might want to consider:
- You can file your nails in a way that has a pointed center. This is the shape that resembles a pick the most, so you can start with this shape. however, you have to make sure that the sides leading to the center are identical to ensure a pick-like sound.
- If filing the pointed center seems too complex, you can also start with rounded fingernails. While the shape is not similar to that of a pick, rounded fingernails help give the guitar a fuller sound as you strum. And who doesn’t want that?
- The third nail shape that you want to consider is a slope to one side. This nail shape is perfect for playing classical guitar since it helps give off a warmer sound. As to the angle of the slope, that all depends on you. you can start with different angles for each fingernail and find out which sound works best for you.
3. Maintain the Length of the Nails on Your Fretting Hand to Not Go Beyond the Finger Pad
Now that I’m done talking about the strumming hand, let’s proceed to strategies you can use with your fretting hand.
As I have previously mentioned, the biggest struggle when playing the guitar with long fingernails is holding the chord down on the fretboard. Without the same amount of pressure, you can get from the finger pads, holding down the chords with your fingernails will never be the same.
As a tip, I recommend growing your nails, but only until the edge of the finger pad. This way, your nails won’t be in the way of you holding down the chords. This still gives you enough length, but without the hassle that could lead to poorer sound.
4. Take Advantage of Open Tuning
But, if you really want to maintain long nails, then I suggest open tuning your guitar instead. This means tuning the A string to a B, the G string to a G#, and the D string to an E.
These changes will allow you to produce the same sounds on the guitar without having to put a lot of pressure on the fretboard. And this strategy makes it a lot easier to hold chords with long fingernails.
To summarize, we can all agree that learning to play guitar with long nails is perfectly possible. Armed with the right techniques and strategies, you can perfect this special skill in no time.
Before wrapping up, check out this quick video to see two guitarists demonstrating playing guitar with fake nails:
Through my personal journey with long nails and guitar, I have learned that with dedication, you can adapt your technique. I have narrated four strategies that worked for me: develop fingerpicking skills, replace picks with fingernails, file nails to resemble picks, and use open tunings.
You can pick one or try all these strategies to see which one works best for you. But, bear in mind that playing the guitar with long nails will be tricky at first. To be successful at this, you must have the determination to see it through until the end.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you play guitar with acrylics or fake nails?
Yes, you can play guitar with acrylic or artificial nails for guitar. They provide more volume and durability, although you’ll need to adjust to a different feel and maintain the nails properly.
Acrylic nails should be applied by a professional and may need refurbishing every few weeks to keep tone consistent. They can be useful for classical guitarists or steel-string fingerstyle players, but require some adjustment.
Overall, acrylics allow guitar playing with enhanced volume and strength – you just have to adapt your technique to the nails.
How short do your nails have to be to play guitar?
The ideal guitarist fingernail length for playing guitar is when there’s a small 1-2mm white line visible. Nails shorter than this can cause sore fingertips when pressing strings, while longer nails make accurate fretting tricky and get in the way of certain chords.
So for beginners, keep your nails trimmed to 2-3mm for optimal playability without sacrificing nail shape. This allows comfortable pressing and fretting while learning and playing guitar with fingernails.
Can you play classical guitar without nails?
Yes, you can play classical guitar without nails. This produces a softer, warmer sound with slightly less volume and clarity. While most players use nails, playing with flesh has historical precedent from famous composers like Fernando Sor.
With practice, a pleasing lush tone is achievable for both amateurs and professionals. So fretting with long nails is not required, although the characteristic sound will differ without them. Experiment to find the suitable instruments you can play with long nails or flesh.
About the Author
Fabian, a Brazilian guitarist now based in Dublin, Ireland, has passionately played the electric guitar since 2003. As a luthier and product specialist, he boasts nearly two decades of collaboration with top musical instrument brands. Fabian is a sought-after expert, sharing his extensive knowledge with fellow guitar enthusiasts.