Dansm's Guide to Hand Care

Fingernail Care
Fingernails are a very important part of fingerstyle guitar. Either they are used for strumming the strings or picking the strings, but in most people they do come in contact with the strings. This poses a problem, because these stresses are rather unnatural for fingernails and can cause them to do a number of nasty things: break, chip, crack, split, or just wear down. This page is designed to outline some of the ways guitarists protect their fingernails from the problems of playing.

Strumming Problems
When I strum, I use my index fingernail just like a pick. It sounds great and gives me a better feel for the strings, but it does a number on my fingernail. About halfway through last summer I realized that I had ground almost all the way through my fingernail. Needless to say, I was worried. My solution was this: some nail-strengthening nail polish for my index finger. Before you grimace and say "nail polish?" just remember this: when I tell people that I use it because I play guitar, they think I'm cool (yeah right, but I can dream...). I tried a couple of brands of polish and settled on Loreal "Mega Hard" polish (with Kevlar). I simply put on 2-3 coats and let it cure overnight. Make sure you coat both the nail surface and the nail tip. One thing you might try (I read this in a Good Housekeeping over my girlfriend's shoulder): about 4 minutes after putting on the polish, run your fingernail under very cold water, and it cures in about half the time. This treatment will stay for 3-5 days, as long as I add a coat or two every day after playing. If you need to put the Mega-Hard polish on during the day, give it at least 2 hours before playing. Other polishes behave very differently, so work with them for a while. This protects my fingernail from the strings very well, and I haven't had any further problems with the strings grinding through. Also, practice with the polish makes perfect :-).

One other solution that may work is using artificial nails, like Press-On nails. These would protect your finger from the strings, but may be a bit more conspicuous. They can also be used for fingerpicking though, as you will see below.

You could also try products to strengthen the nail like "Onymyrrh," a product made by DeLore which was originally designed to strengthen horses hooves. This may make your nail strong enough to allow you to strum without any additional protection. I have never tried this and have never seen the product in a store but I've heard that it works.

Another strumming problem I have had is that the nail splits at the tip horizontally, and this seems to be very damaging to the nail tip. It most frequently happens soon after I have cut my nails. I have found that filing them along the top at the tip will prevent splitting like this. File from the outside in to prevent nail damage.


Picking Problems
The rest of the problems that I mentioned above (breaking, chipping, cracking, or splitting) can occur when the fingernails are used to pick the strings in fingerpicking. The first precaution against this problem is to make sure that your nails are strong to begin with. Eat a good diet, get enough sleep, and wear rubber gloves when doing dishes. Make sure you have filed your nails to prevent splitting. Try to limit the amount of time you soak your nails in water, because water weakens them and can cause them to crack or split. Also, don't fingerpick until your nails are completely dry after soaking them; this will be approximately 1 hour after taking a shower. If this doesn't do enough, try the product I mentioned before called "Onymyrrh," a product made by DeLore which was originally designed to strengthen horses hooves. This should be your first line of defense against nail problems. If this doesn't work, try the ideas below.

If you break, chip, or crack a nail, you may want to use some kind of artificial nails until the problem has healed. These may look strange but they will certainly get you trough and you will be able to play (isn't that all we care about). You will be able to file these to any shape and length so they should be great for fingerpickers.

You could also use metal or plastic fingerpicks, which fit over the ends of your fingers and pluck the string for you (preventing your nail from ever coming in contact with the string). I have heard that cutting ping-pong balls to fit your fingernails can also work well. Just glue them on with Krazy Glue and you're set.


This has by no means been an exhaustive list, so if you have any sugestions, e-mail me. I hope you enjoyed this page and that it has helped you!
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1997 Daniel E. Smith. Last updated 10-30-97