Playing Fingerstyle Without Nails [Guitar Teachers Answer]

Long fingernails require more maintenance and can make it difficult to do other activities. But, fingerstyle guitar and other styles that use the fingers instead of a pick are very nice and fun to play. So, today I thought I’d explain whether you can play fingerstyle without nails.

It’s perfectly fine to play fingerstyle guitar without nails. The technique is exactly the same, and the tone sounds equally as good but sounds slightly different. Playing fingerstyle without nails doesn’t produce as much volume, and the tone sounds more mellow and soft.

Below, I will show some videos so you can hear the difference between playing fingerstyle on a steel string, electric, and nylon string guitar without nails. As well as, explain whether you need long fingernails to play guitar. And some nail length guidelines for playing guitar on the various types of guitar.

Can You Play Guitar Without Nails?

Long fingernails can be a bit of a chore to maintain, and generally short nails are considered good grooming practice. It is generally better for a guy to have short nails, but females mostly always have long fingernails.

But, males and females there is an ideal fingernail length that makes playing the guitar with your fingers the easiest. Luckily for males and females it’s possible to play guitar without nails. And there aren’t any disadvantages to playing guitar with or without nails.

I’ve been playing guitar for over 5 years. And I’ve experimented with different nail lengths. For work, I would often need to have short nails, as long fingernails weren’t practical and they would break often. But, I preferred the tone of fingernails over no fingernails. Because all of my favorite classical and flamenco guitarists that I idolized played with nails.

So, I found a fairly short nail is ideal. But, not no nails at all. That way they would break very often, but I could still get the tone I liked from playing nails. I found around 1 to 2 mm of the white part of the nail ideal.

Fingerpicking with and without nails: electric guitar vs acoustic guitar

As you may know, the strings of the guitar vibrate back and forward moving the air, and creating sound waves. These sound waves bounce around inside the guitar and are amplified.

The same is true with an electric guitar, except the vibrations are picked up by the pickups. And amplified through the amp. Therefore, regardless of whether you’re picking on an acoustic guitar that’s plugged in, an electric guitar, or an acoustic steel string or classical guitar the same tonal difference occurs.

Anatomy of the fingertips and nails matters

With that said everyone has different shaped fingernails, and fingertips. Some people have wide flat nails, whereas others curve down more at the edges. 

So, depending on the shape of your fingertips and nails, you should experiment with different nail lengths and shapes to find what works best for your kind of fingers. The thumb and fingers are also quite different. 

The position of the fingers means that where the fingernails make contact with the string is on the right half of the nail – for right handed people. So, this area is more important to pay attention to when you’re shaping your nails to create a smooth even edge. Whereas, on the left half of the tip of the nail they can have any shape.

With the thumb the nail makes contact with the top left side of the nail. So you should have a smooth edge to the nail without a square corner. A square corner will generally catch on the string as you play. But, I have seen some people grow their thumb nails quite long for doing long down strokes across all of the strings, especially for the flamenco style of guitar.

With all that said here’s a video that shows a comparison between playing with and without nails, so you can hear the difference in tone:

And here’s another one that shows how the techniques is exactly the same on a nylon string guitar whether you play with or without nails:

How the guitar strings vibrate as they release from the fingertip

Without fingernails the fingers are plucked with the tip of the finger, which is relatively soft and rounded. As the finger presses against the string, it creates tension in the string. And then as the string slips off the end of the fingertip it releases the tension and the string vibrates back and forward.

Because of this slipping motion as the string releases from a fingertip without a nail it doesn’t do so with as much force. And the string doesn’t vibrate as much. This creates less volume, and the tone is softer.

When compared to playing with fingernails the string catches on the nail – a lot or ever so slightly – and releases with much more force. The point of contact between the fingernail and the string is also concentrated on a smaller area. And the motion of the string sliding off the fingernail also creates a sharper, clearer sound.

Another aspect of playing with the thumb in fingerstyle, classical, and flamenco guitar is you will develop a callus on the corner of your thumb. Generally, calluses can begin to peel, especially if you take a break from playing for a few days to week. 

Many people wonder what the best way is to care for guitar calluses, especially ones that are peeling. I explained this in a lot of detail and provide the best techniques in this article about what to do when guitar calluses peel

Do You Need Long Fingernails To Play Fingerstyle Guitar?

The length of the nails is important to create a good tone. But, long fingernails can be impractical. So, I thought I’d answer whether you need long fingernails to play guitar.

Overall, you don’t need long fingernails to play fingerstyle guitar. The ideal length is around 1 to 2 mm. Some guitarists grow much longer nails on their fingers and thumb, or on the thumb only. But, this is personal preference and not required to create a good tone.

In general, if you have long fingernails, when they break it’s much more of an inconvenience because you need to adjust your playing style. They are also quite unsightly. 

However, for certain styles such as flamenco guitar, much longer fingernails especially on the thumb are preferred. But, they generally need to be maintained with glue to ensure they don’t break.

You may be wondering if flamenco guitar is hard. I explained how difficult it is compared to other styles, in this article about whether flamenco guitar is hard. As well as, what techniques they use, and whether a beginner should start with flamenco guitar or another style.

What Is the Difference Between Fingerstyle and Fingerpicking?

There are few terms in guitar that seem to have the same meaning such as fingerstyle and fingerpicking. So, I thought I’d clarify whether they’re different and if they have a different meaning.

Fingerstyle and fingerpicking are two words that mean the same thing in everyday speech. But, technically fingerstyle is used to refer to a musical genre of guitar played on an acoustic steel string with the fingers. Fingerpicking is the act of picking the guitar strings with the fingers.

The way the hand and fingers are used to fingerpick, and play fingerstyle guitar is the same as that used in classical guitar, and flamenco guitar. However, there are various techniques used in some of these styles that aren’t used in others.

For example, in fingerstyle guitar the left hand – on right handed people can be used to tap on the body of the guitar like a drum. Whereas, this is never done in flamenco or classical guitar. In flamenco guitar the fingernails of the right hand – on right handed people are used to tap the body of the guitar. Which is known as ‘golpe’.

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