Quotations

Miguel de Fuenllana, 16th-century vihuelista: “To strike with the nails is imperfection. Those who play with their nails will find facility in what they do, but not perfection…Only the finger, the living thing, can communicate the intention of the spirit”. [Orphenica Lyra]

Fernando Sor: “Never in my life have I heard a guitarist whose playing was supportable, if he played with the nails. The nails can produce but very few gradations in the quality of the sound: the piano passage can never be singing, nor the fortes sufficiently full.” [Method]

Sor again: “I ventured to suggest to him (Aguado) the disadvantage in the use of nails, especially for my music which was conceived in a spirit utterly unlike the conceptions of the guitarists of the period. Some years later when we met, he acknowledged that if he were able to start over again, he would play without nails”. [Method]

Thomas Mace, 17th-century English lutenist: “I could never receive so good content from the nail as from the flesh” [The Music’s Monument]

Emilio Pujol on Tárrega: “In order to produce the tone with the fingertips that Tárrega did, it does not suffice to cut one’s nails short; the tone has to be formed: i.e., a certain balance between touch, resiliency and resistance must be developed in the flesh of the fingertips, which can only be acquired by constant practice and care.” [Dilemma of the Timbre of the Guitar.]

Pujol: The tone of a string struck with a fingertip possesses an intrinsic beauty, which affects the deepest feelings of our sensibility, just as air and light permeate space. It’s notes are incorporeal, as might be the notes of an ideally expressive and responsive harp…this style stands for the transmission, without impurities, of the deepest vibrations of our emotions”. [Dilemma of the Timbre of the Guitar.]

Pujol: “The chords now achieve the maximum of unity, intensity and volume; the tremolo is no longer metallic and brilliant, but acquires an ethereal sonority,  the pizzicato is clear and acute on all the strings, and the arpeggios and scales obtain all the volume of which they are capable, together with equality and regularity of tone between the notes. This style of attacking the strings does not lend itself to showy effects…” [Dilemma of the Timbre of the Guitar.]

Vahdah Olcott-Bickford: 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.”

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