We all have different habits and preferences for the length of our fingernails. I’ll admit, I used to have the bad habit of biting mine. It was a tough habit to break, but when I did, I was thrilled. I grew to love watching the nails grow out and look nicer.
But after a certain point, the nails on my left hand started getting in my way when I was playing the guitar. I’d played for years at this point, and I realized how little I knew about the right way to care and keep my nails for guitar playing. I asked my students that week if they struggled with this too, and a few of them admitted they had too. I never addressed this as their teacher, and I felt terrible about it.
No longer! Today, I want to share these 5 tips and ideas for how to keep your fingernails the right way for the guitar.
Note: This article is largely about the left hand or whatever hand you use to fret with.
#1 Go For An Equal Length
When determining how short to clip your nails, there’s an easy rule. Keep them equal to or just short of the end of your fingertip. I have a few ways I look at my fingers to check.
First, I look from above and clip the nails so I see just a bit of fleshy finger past it. I want to see the finger around the entire curve of the nail, not just the middle. As much as we want our fingers to press down the strings in the center, this doesn’t always happen.
Next, I’ll look at the finger from the side. You should be able to see your calluses better from this angle. Double-check the tip is out in front of the nail.
Finally, I’ll do what I call the “tap test.” I tap my fingers on a hard surface like the neck of a guitar. Then I pressed down for three seconds. I lift my finger quickly to look at the nail and finger. Is the finger still out far enough?
On the same surface, I tap about 10 times with my fingertip. I listen for clicking from my nail and pay attention to the feeling. If only the flesh comes into contact with the surface and there is no clicking, I’m good to go.
#2 Leave A Sliver Of White
I avoid cutting my nails down too short. If you cut too much, it can expose the nail bed and cause pain (or even infection). When cutting, I opt for closer to the end of the finger. A good rule of thumb is to leave a sliver of the white of the fingernail.
#3 Shape The Nails To A Smooth Curve
After cutting, go back over the end with a nail file. Run your other fingers over your nail to make sure there aren’t any burrs in your nails. If by any chance the nail contacts the fretboard, you don’t want to get caught or scratch the wood.
#4 Clip Regularly
You’ll need to clip all the time. Serious players will do it regularly as a part of their daily grooming. For most people, once or twice per week is just fine.
#5 Consider A Nail Supplement
Some people’s nails are stronger and weaker than others. If your nails keep cracking from the pressure of playing, consider a mineral supplement geared toward strengthening your nails. Classical guitarists and those who love to play fingerstyle guitar (such as me) often opt for these supplements because they’ll use longer nails to help with finger strumming and picking.
If you need visual help with this, Jam Play covers it in detail in their lessons.