Collected here are a few details about some of those who play or played without nails. If you have any more names I could feature, do please let me know – robmackillop at gmail dot com. I won’t include everyone, of course, but hopefully a good cross-section of approaches to playing the classical guitar without nails, from Romantic period to the avant-garde.
Julián Arcas (1832 – 1882)
I was not aware Arcas was a flesh player until my good friend, Kacper Wierchoś, handed me the following information from a good source. Translation by Kacper, with thanks.
(…) Julián Arcas debe considerarse un digno sostenedor del arte e instrumento de los Sors y Aguados, por la pureza y dulzura que hace brotar de las cuerdas de la guitarra, que puntea con las yemas de los dedos, que es lo menos común en los guitarristas contemporáneos; por la vibración y expresión que da a las notas que pueden competir con la de la voz humana; por su ejecución limpia y agilidad de ambas manos, la igualdad de los sonidos de suyo claros y sonoros y por su correcta y esmerada escuela. [Fargas y Soler, Antonio (1866). Biografías de los músicos más distinguidos de todos los países. Barcelona: La España Musical, no 33 y 34.]
(…) Julián Arcas has to be considered as a worthy representant of the art of Sor and Aguado, for the purity and sweetenes that springs from the strings of the guitar, that he plucks with the flesh of his fingers, which is the less common practice among the contemporary guitarrists; for the vibration and expresion he gives to the notes that can compete with the human voice; for his clear execution and skillful hands, the homogenity of the sounds, clear and sonorous and for his correct and careful school. [Fargas y Soler, Antonio (1866). Biographies of the most distinguished musicians from all the countries. Barcelona: The musical Spain, no 33 and 34.]
Francisco Tárrega (1852 – 1909)
– Hard evidence is difficult to ascertain, but Tárrega seems to have composed many pieces before he cut his nails off, including Recuerdos de la Alhambra. The Wikipedia entry says he cut them off in 1902. He did, however, go on to play successful concerts in Rome, Naples and Milan. We can only assume he preferred the sound he was now making, even when playing his earlier compositions, especially as so many of his students continued to play without nails throughout their careers.
Domingo Prat and Isaias Savio claim that Tárrega lost his nails due to hardening of the arteries. It might well be the case that there was a medical reason for Tárrega to adopt a no-nail technique, but it seems to have been a joyful discovery, which he then passed on to his students.
There is a wax cylinder recording thought to be of Tárrega performing his composition, Maria-Gavota. Two possible dates are given for the recording: 1899 or 1908. If the former, Tárrega is likely have been playing with nails, if the latter, no nails. Unfortunately the recording quality is very poor, and not everyone is convinced it is Tárrega playing. You can find the recording on the highly-recommended CD: Andres Segovia and his Contemporaries, Vol. 12 (DOREMI), which also includes performances by Pujol, Fortea, Robledo and others.
Please visit my dedicated Tárrega page HERE.
Emilio Pujol (1886 – 1980)
A famous group portrait: Segovia, Llobet, Pujol (bottom right) and Daniel Fortea. The flesh players get the seats 😉
Emilio Pujol was arguably the main proponent of flesh-only technique in the 20th century. His four-volume Escuela Razonada, “Based on the Principles of Francisco Tárrega” has been very influential. More on Pujol HERE, including his essay on flesh versus nails, and a review of his Escuela Razonada.
Pavana No.5 by Luys de Milan, 1936:
…with Matilde Cuervas, 1932 – Danza “La Vida Breve” by Falla:
Josefina Robledo (1892 – 1972)
– a pupil of Tárrega, no less. Very Romantic playing.
“Another important figure is the Spanish guitarist Josefina Robledo (1892-1972). A former student of Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909), Robledo came to São Paulo to escape the war in Europe. She performed in São Paulo in the same period as Barrios and Canhoto. “Her refined style created a sensation in the city, not only because of the high level of her performance skills but also due to the fact that she was a female virtuoso, something rarely seen at that time.
“The year 1916 thus marked the beginning of a sequence of great events that contributed to the better recognition of the guitar in the elite paulistana (São Paulo’s wealthy elite). Josefina Robledo, Agustin Barrios, and Americo Jacomino are considered the most important artists who contributed to the recognition of the guitar in Brazil.” [Quoted from “An Annotated Bibliography of Works by the Brazilian Composer Sérgio Assad” by João Paulo Figueirôa da Cruz, Florida State University]
These recordings were done by her husband on a home tape recorder, in the late 1950s, somewhat past her peak period, but they still reveal an incredibly sustained focus on the long, arching melodies of pieces by Tárrega, her teacher, and with whom she must have studied these pieces. It is interesting to speculate how much of her teacher’s interpretation is in these works.
Josefina’s transcription of Danzas Espanolos No.7 by Granados.
Spanish language appraisal HERE.
There is now a guitar festival in her honour HERE.
Pepita Roca (1897 – 1956)
The above image was taken from THIS SITE – a wonderful website in Spanish, which includes a biography of Pepita.
Many thanks to my cyber sleuth, Tate Harmann, for tracking down Pepita Roca. She studied a short time with Tárrega, until his death, and learned from him to play without nails.
La valenciana Pepita Roca si bien no tuvo la oportunidad de estudiar mucho tiempo con Tárrega (muerte prematura del maestro), sí supo captar todas las enseñanzas y transmitirlas a su vez a sus alumnos, entre las que estaba la técnica de tocar “sin uña”.
“Valencian Pepita Roca, despite not having studied for a long time with Tárrega (due to the master’s premature death), was able to absorb all of his teachings and pass them on to her students, among these (teachings) was the technique of playing without fingernails.”
Here’s piece of a letter that Pepita wrote to Rosa Gil:
“Ten presente además, que yo a pesar de mi estado de salud, continúo cortándome las uñas. Creo pues no te dejarás seducir por los enemigos del más dulce de los sonidos de la guitarra”
We have been unable to find any recordings by Pepita Roca. If you know of one, please let us know.
Emilio Pujol wrote a Homage to Pepita Roca, called Becqueriana – the title referring to Gustavo Adolpho Becquer, the late 19th-century post-Romanticist writer, who was to prove influential to early 20th-century Spanish writers, artists and musicians.
It is tempting also to connect the polka by Tárrega, called Pepita, to our heroine…further investigation is required.
Salvador Garcia (1861 – 1964)
Despite giving many concerts in Spain, France, China, India, Egypt and Turkey, due to psychological concerns, Salvador Garcia eventually concentrated on teaching as a career, and became a leading teacher of the Tárrega school. It is thought that Segovia received his knowledge of the Tárrega school through him, when Segovia lived at Garcia’s guest home at various times during the period 1915 – 1920.
Narciso Yepes numbers Garcia among Tárrega’s students who played without nails – see comments for Estanislao Marco below. He is said to have studied composition with Oscar Espla, though I am unable to verify this, there being no English biography of the man. His nickname was Pancha Verda.
Estanislao Marco (1873 – 1954)
– the name will become more familiar to guitarists over the coming years, after the discovery of most of his compositions in a tattered suitcase in a Valencia flea market. The discovery was made by Jorge Orozco, who has compiled four books of works by Marco, published by the Valencian publisher, Piles.
Marco’s most famous pupil was Narciso Yepes, who relates that:
“Estanislao Marco was one of Tárrega’s favourite students. I had the good fortune of studying with him. The Tárrega school had two branches, those who played with the fingertips and those who let their fingernails grow. The first group included: Estanislao Marco, Josefina Robledo, Salvador Garcia and Emilio Pujol.”
Many of his best compositions were written in the 1930s, and are somewhat backward looking to the age of Albéniz and Tárrega, and can sound instantly familiar – which is no bad thing.
Here I play his Desengaño (disenchantment), played, of course, without nails:
Juan Mercadal (1925 – 1996)
“Segovia has his style and I have mine.”
– an under-appreciated guitarist today, Mercadal was born in Cuba where he became the leading player. Later he toured abroad, eventually settling in Miami, where he later died. His playing is exquisite – emotional and tasteful. It is frustrating that his surviving recordings are not of the best audio quality. Listen to his beautifully poetic interpretation of La Maja De Goya, by Granados:
Here is a collection of videos, showing without question that he was one of the finest guitarists of the 20th century:
There is an interesting article HERE from one of his students, which also includes an obituary.
Renata Tarrago (1927 – 2005)
– The first female performer of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. Like Pujol, she also gave recitals with a vihuela. She hailed from Barcelona.
Twenty three minutes of Renata’s recordings:
Sadly there are no recordings of this giant of the American classical guitar. Founder of The American Guitar Society, which eventually became the Los Angeles Guitar Society (1923). The following bold statement comes from her 94th year:
“My husband said, “Tell them the truth, that in all your life, you have never clawed at a guitar with your talons!” All of my concert playing in the largest concert halls such as New York’s Town Hall, was done with my fingers, never with nails. At my great sold-out concert in Town Hall, Mr. Frederick Martin (now head of the Martin Company) was in the audience (though I didn’t know it, nor him, though I knew his father). He had recently graduated from Yale. He sent a note to my dressing room, saying that he had never before heard such a wonderfully toned Martin Guitar, and asked whether he might examine it, which he did with great pleasure. This was one of the countless experiences that have proven to me, though my half-century career, that nails do not make it louder, only tinnier, and more metallic sounding. Magnum est veritas et prevailabit: “The purer the tone, the better it carries.” Nail-players should not criticize plectrum players, since they themselves are playing with plectra grown on the fingers! How about the queenly Italian harp? Clawing with nails would not get far in that realm! Yet the soft, pure tones of the harp carry over a 100-piece Symphony Orchestra, because of their sweet purity.
“Normal finger players have been mostly run over by the clawing juggernaut, only a few having the courage and fortitude to keep the faith, against an avalanche of clawers, who loudly ballyhoo that clawing is the only way. A thousand wrongs cannot overturn one right, and all the darkness in the world (or beneath it) cannot extinguish the beautiful light of one small candle. The clawing syndrome has become an epidemic in America, but I am told it is not so in Europe, at least not nearly to the extent prevalent in our country.”
“…among the best guitarists I’ve ever seen…” – Jorge Morel
Watch this stunning performance:
Вячеслав ШИРОКОВ – or Vyacheslav SHIROKOV – is a wonderful no-nails player from Russia. The album below features a beautiful tremolo. I’ve lost count of how many people have asked me if it is possible to play tremolo without nails. Tárrega did on his last tour of Italy, and Shirokov does so here:
Here is a video of him playing to a spellbound audience:
Phillip de Fremery
I only recently became aware of the passionate advocacy of flesh playing by Phillip de Fremery (thanks to Tate Harmann for the links). There are two pages of his website (complete with sound files) where he discusses no-nail playing, and in great detail – well worth a read and a listen:
Patrick de Belleville (? – 2015)
The French guitarist, Patrick de Belleville, discusses his journey to no-nails playing on his website – in French. I know a smattering of French, and with the help of Google Translate, here are a few interesting extracts:
He wasn’t happy with his sound, and noticed that his young students, children who played with just the flesh, had a natural beauty of sound (something I also noticed in my daughter’s playing – RM). This led to his conversion to no-nails playing, and a thorough study of Pujol’s Method, based on the principles of Tárrega. It took four years of intense study before he was happy with his sound:
“Not only do I have no regrets, I am very happy (with the way) I play the guitar today. I seem to have acquired the desired results.
Personally, I have just become 50-years old (age of mature youth?). It seems I have found what I suspected since a child, I compounded music and poetry, science and wisdom, life and beauty.”
Milan Grakalić (1909 – 1979)
Milan Grakalić “was both a Croatian architect and musician (Medulin, 6th Dec, 1909 – Medulin, 14th Jun, 1979). He graduated in 1938 in the class of prof. D. Ibler at the Zagreb Art Academy, departement for Architecture…He played the classic guitar, at 1st “learning by doing”, later on he attended the class of A. Segovia and E. Pujol at the Chigiana Academy in Siena. He also composed and played mostly interpretations of classical guitar music. He performed at many concerts and released one record with his own interpretations of Slavonic folk songs”
Apparently a flesh player, I have two of his LPs on order from Croatia. I’m told he was an excellent player. More details to follow.
Victor Villadangos – Argentina
Anne Mari Hagen
Enjoy the beautifully expressive playing of Anne Mari Hagen:
Much more on her YouTube Channel:
From his YouTube site:
“Born in Czech Republic, for two years now living, working and teaching guitar and bass in Melbourne, Australia.
“Tarrega’s arrangement of this not only emotionaly challenging piece, played as late master himself – without nails.”
Lukas plays bass guitar, but is also capable of beauty such as this performance of a Prelude by Chopin. Let’s hope he will share more with us.
John is a great example of a virtuoso lute and 19th-century guitar specialist who also plays a Hauser and a Yeroshkin (11-string Russian guitar).
Check out John’s website, which has many great video performances, including this version of “Silent Night” on a 10-string Herman Hauser guitar:
Paulinho Nogueira (1929 – 2003)
Arguably the greatest Brazilian guitar player, who also composed and sang. Few players share the same infectious internal rhythm of this master of the unique Brazilian style. Biographical details can be found HERE. [Thanks to Ray Mannheim for bringing this great player to my attention]
Have a dance to the following:
Another great Brazilian player. HERE is his website.
Cuban, Garcia studied with Pujol, and helped teach in his schools, and was the professor emeritus of guitar at the University of New Mexico.
Read my interview with Hector Garcia HERE.
From his publicity material:
Born in Havana, Cuba, he received Master of Guitar and Master of Music degrees from Peyrellade Conservatory and subsequently joined the faculty of the conservatory. He later studied with the eminent musicologist and guitarist Emilio Pujol in Barcelona, and assisted him with master classes for advanced students and performing artists. Hector García’s repertoire consists of works spanning the Renaissance through the present day, performed on the original instruments; he plays a Pimentel guitar in addition to vihuela, lute, and Baroque guitar. He has performed with orchestras including the Havana Symphony, Los Angeles Sinfoniette, New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, University of Albuquerque Chamber Orchestra, Dupont Consortium (Washington, DC), and Caspar Symphony, and has toured major U.S. and European cities as well as Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, the Canary Islands, and Africa.
Here, Garcia plays some of his favourite Tárrega pieces, and we get to hear some of his extraordinary life story:
Jelma van Amersfoort
The Dutch musician, Jelma van Amersfoort, [ website ] provides an excellent example of an Early Music specialist who also likes to play contemporary music on a modern classical guitar, without nails. She gets a beautiful tone, and her musicianship is quite breathtaking in this video:
Dominic Miller (works with Sting)
Dominic, who studied classical guitar with Hector Quine, is a classical guitarist who has crossed over into mainstream popular music, working with Sting and others, as well as recording under his own name. His website has a Q&A section for guitarists, and among many interesting things he has the following to say:
“The sound of flesh on nylon string is the best sound I can get or the sound that suits me the best. It makes for a smoother attack…It’s not until around 1998 that I finally took the plunge and committed myself to playing without nails. I am not saying it’s better or the best thing for you. But it suits me and I don’t think I will be turning back…The sound is much warmer and has more depth…I took the ‘step’ or commitment of re-learning how to play without nails. It’s the best technical decision I have made…To my ears playing without nails is always better and more expressive. Flesh on string as opposed to pick or nail is the sound I like…”
Francisco Alfonso (1908 – 1940)
Pupil of Pujol.
“Alfonso’s tone was unusually beautiful, round and soft” [Source]
Alfonso, Francisco Antonio 15.oct.1908-6.jan.1940 Spain, Alicante – Cuba, Havana. Guitarist, arranger, grew up and studied in Barcelona, he gave concerts with pianist Julio Pons in Barcelona, 1925 aged 17 he toured Europe and Paris, Leipzig and Brussels, 1928 he was professor of guitar in Buenos Aires and toured Latin America, 1935 he gave recitals in Oslo and toured Finland and Russia, he died prematurily at the age of 31. His interpretations were issued on gramophone by the Pathe Company Paris.
“It is not so much a question of obtaining good tone by finger tips or nails; the question of temperament of each guitarist must be considered. There are nails equal to fingertips, and fingertips equal to nails. The ideal is a combination of both for the sake of variety. The ‘Tárrega School’ consists of ‘caressing’ the strings instead of ‘striking’ them, and of keeping the movement of the fingers at a minimum, striving always for beautiful tone.” [Source]
Sadly, I have no recording.
“Segovia suggested that Gagnebin – then president of the Geneva International Music Competition – admit the guitar as a competition instrument for the first time in 1956, two years before the O.R.T.F. competitions in Paris.
“This first guitar competition in history turned out to be a summit meeting of some of that generation’s most prominent composers and guitarists. In addition to Andrés Segovia and Henri Gagnebin, there were also Hans Haug, Hermann Leeb, José de Azpiazu, Luise Walker and Alexandre Tansman (see photo). The repertoire for the competition was demanding. Among the required pieces were Chansons from Gagnebin’s set and the guitar concerto of Swiss composer Pièrre Wissmer.
“The winner was Manuel Cubedo.” [Source]
Cubedo had some success combining classical guitar with castanets, as in this wonderful recording:
And you will have to search far and wide to find a better recording of the concerto Op.99 by Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Be sure to listen to all three movements:
Daniel Fortea (1878 or 82 – 1953)
A pupil of Tárrega, who went on to teach such luminaries as Regino Sainz de la Maza, Manuel Cubedo, and Alirio Diaz. He also founded the publishing house, Biblioteca Fortea. His Guitar Method has proved very popular.
You can listen to Fortea performing his own works, as well as those of Tárrega and Granados on the highly-recommended CD: Andres Segovia and his Contemporaries, Vol. 12 (DOREMI), which also includes performances by Tárrega (possibly), Pujol, Robledo and others.
Here he is playing Granados’ Danza No.5:
Joan Manuel de Zaldúa
I knew nothing of Joan Manuel de Zaldúa, other than the few videos on YouTube, most of which declare he played without nails “as traditionally used by the Spanish Levant guitarists, such as Ferran Sors, Francesc Tárrega, Daniel Fortea, Emilio Pujol, Graciano Trarragó, Josefina Robledo, Manuel Cubedo etc.” But I have recently received this short and charming autobiography by the player himself:
This video is interesting in that the second part show the lyrics to the famous Catalan song, El Testament D’Amelia. The Llobet arrangement is played twice, from different LPs by the artist, “Guitarra” and “Pastorale”.
Christian performs free improvisation in many ensemble contexts. Here are some of his videos which give a great example of how a no-nails technique can work in an experimental, avant-garde context. The Christian Vasseur Website.
Melancholia (16052014) – for nylon-strung guitar and voice:
Gaudeamus (12072015) – Duet for guitar and saxophone:
Melancholia (29012013) – solo nylon-strung guitar
Villa-Lobos’s Dream – Nylon-strung guitar and cello
– a pupil of Fortea. Not much is known about him. Here he is racing through Tarrega’s Danza Mora, to fit it in under three minutes for a recording session:
Thanks to Kacper Wierzchos for this artist.
Maestro of the Argentinian Tango
More information required about Alfredo Romea (1883 – 1955). Also looking for Hans Tempel, November /December 1925 in Der Gitarrefreund – an article on flesh playing in the early part of the 20th century.
More to come. Please let me know of any guitarists you know play without nails…either write below in the Comment box, or contact me robmackillop at gmail dotcom.