Technique

The following is a developing essay on my approach to nail-less playing…

If you play the classical guitar with nails, or even a combination of nail and flesh, and suddenly break a nail, you might notice that the sound of  the finger which is now just flesh can sound pretty awful compared to the sound you make with your other fingers. You could therefore be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that nail-less playing is the last thing you would want to do.

The main reason that particular nail-less finger sounds so bad is that you are still trying to play with the technique you learned for nail playing. The nail-less finger is at a disadvantage.

Some players are attracted by the idea of playing without nails, and in a moment of either trepidation or elation, cut their nails off. The sound they now make is not what they had hoped for, but they feel they will give it a few weeks to see if things will improve. Very often it doesn’t.

The fact is that nail-less playing demands a different technique to the one you learned before. The good news is that it is not a difficult technique, and once acquired you will have a strong-sounding technique, with a consistently good tone. No more worrying about the health and well-being of your nails, no more ping-pong balls (some will know what I mean!) or hours spent polishing and shaping.

Do note that some flesh players grow their nails just long enough to provide support for the finger pad, but not long enough to make contact with the string. This might look like they are playing with a short nail, but that is not the case. The thumb, especially, can look like it is long enough to strike the strings, but don’t be fooled. Virginia Luque is one who adapts her nails for this purpose, and was shown how to do it by none other than Andres Segovia. See my interview with her HERE.

Two Myths Debunked

Calluses: there is a myth that you must build up callouses on your fingers in order to replicate the toughness of your dearly-departed nail. THIS IS NOT TRUE. My fingertips are soft and smooth, and I use hand cream on a regular basis to help keep them that way. A rough fingertip will give a rough sound, a smooth fingertip, a smooth sound.

Another myth is that there is one way to play with the flesh technique. This is not true either. Just as with nail playing, there are many ways to play the guitar without nails. I have found my way, and I will relate it below, but there are other ways. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to only two approaches: the Tárrega/Pujol method, and one born of the resurgence in Historically Informed Performance (HIP) , which grew out of the Early-Music movement.

The Tárrega/Pujol Method

This method is outlined in Pujol’s Escuela Razonada of 1934. I have the beautifully-produced English translation of the first three (of the original four) volumes, produced by Editions Orphee, which are highly recommended.  Pujol claims the method is “Based on the Principles of Francisco Tárrega”.

In Chapter XI, Pujol tries to be objective in his description of the two ways of plucking a string – with a nail or without – but his choice of adjectives belies his preference for the flesh alone:

  “Since the fingernail is hard, and varied in its surface, thickness and consistency, it imparts to the string a penetrating brilliance, quick and rather metallic. Without the nails, however, the string is struck by a smooth, subtle and sensitive object, both thicker and wider than the nail, and which gives a sound of greater softness, fullness and purity”.

His concern is that the nail brings out less of the fundamental, and more of the upper partials, while the flesh gives a more pure fundamental sound:

  “Hence the empty and metallic feeling of the sound produced with the nail is inimical to the fundamental sound and favourable to the secondary sounds, as opposed to the full and pure sound produced with the flesh of the finger, which is totally favourable to the fundamental sound and not to the  secondary ones.”

 However, he does not deny that “what it (the fingernail) lacks in sweetness, fullness and balance, it gains in brilliance, strength and contrast”.

In a memorable phrase, he describes the sound produced by the flesh alone to be “the immaterialisation of sound” – a very poetic, non-objective description. He goes on to say,

  “Sor and Tárrega, with the spirituality proper to them as classic composers, drew from the strings the quintessence of sound, in the service of pure music, and, at the same time, made the sound of the instruments more noble”.

Pujol ends his discussion of the nails, no nails debate by assessing the “Advantages and disadvantages of each procedure“. His makes a positive argument FOR using nails, in that a “minimum of effort” is required to get a sound with clarity, and the left hand does not need to press so hard on the fretboard. Without nails, “all barrés, slurs, open or difficult positions, and virtuoso passages, are harder to achieve”. Yet, he remained a flesh player throughout his career, believing that sound came first.

The technique Pujol and Tárrega employed was, of course, heavily based on the rest stroke, or apoyando, generally striking the string at right angles, and producing as full a sound as the instrument could give. Pujol’s Escuela Razonada remains an excellent resource for learning this method.

A similar method was published by Pascual Roche in the 1920s, in three volumes. For students of the Tárrega school, this extensive method is essential. Luckily for us, it is now available legally online:

Volume I

Volume II

Volume III

The HIP-Related Method

HIP is an acronym for Historically-Informed Performance, and has grown out of the Early-Music movement which has been active for the last fifty years or more.

Lute players in the 1970s and 80s adopted the thumb-in technique, witnessed on many period illustrations, where after playing a note, the thumb moved inside the palm, rather than outside (as with modern guitar technique). For a while, almost all lute players used this technique, though slowly it became apparent that it was only really suitable for the early six-course lute repertoire. During John Dowland’s lifetime, with the increase in the presence of a bass line, the thumb started moving outside the hand, into a more recognisable position for today’s players. However, in both cases (thumb-in and thumb-out) the little finger or pinkie was positioned on the soundboard.

The position of the pinkie varied a lot. Some illustrations show the contact being the outer edge of the joint nearest the nail, so lying quite flat. Others show the tip of the pinkie making contact. Sometimes the pinkie was placed between rose and bridge, sometimes on the bridge, and sometimes behind it. Each posture and position would radically alter the sound being produced.

The thumb mostly played rest strokes, the fingers free strokes. The ring finger was used rarely, and mostly in the latter period of the baroque lute.

Moving into the 19th century, and the guitar, some of this lute technique can still be traced. Sor admonished players for placing the pinkie on the table, though at the time he was pushing his friend, Aguado’s tripod, which held the guitar in a fixed position.

  “Some rest the little finger of the right hand on the soundboard so as to give sureness to the hand when plucking. This may have been useful while the guitar was not in a fixed position, but now that it is played on a tripod I do not consider the support necessary because the fingers of the right hand depend on the support given by the forearm and wrist” [Sor’s Method]

However, he does admit:

  “Sometimes I employ the little finger, pressing it perpendicularly on the sounding-board, below the first string, but take care to raise it as soon as it ceases to be necessary.”

There is no one single “19th-century guitar technique”, which anyone who reads more than one tutor publication will very quickly recognise. Even national styles are difficult to agree upon – compare Sor’s and Aguado’s methods, which could hardly be more different. Pujol, in his Dilemma, contemplated that Sor could possibly represent a Catalan school.

So, if we are to play the works of more than one composer, using the technique outlined by each composer, one must make a few decisions: nails or no nails, pinkie down or not, mostly slurs in scale runs (Sor) or articulation of each note unless notated otherwise (Aguado), and more. These are important considerations, the adoption of which can radically change the sound and reception of the music.

Many players of 19th-century guitars today come from a lute background, that is, coming forward into the 19th century, rather than stepping back from the 20th or 21st century. I spent some twenty years as a lute player before really getting into the guitar again. I started by concentrating on Fernando Sor, whose technique is closest to that of the baroque lutenist. The results of my studies can be heard on my download album, Fernando Sor – The Art of the 19th-Century Guitar (search on iTunes, Amazon MP3 and CD baby).

My Technique

I tried to resist the music of Tárrega, as his technique is so alien to me, the twist of the wrist, the apoyando, the common use of the ring finger – I find such techniques too difficult to adopt after twenty years of lute playing. But Tárrega’s music is among my favourite, Llobet’s too. I decided to make some videos using the technique I had developed over the years, using gut or nylgut strings, and the comments I got from many guitarists encouraged me to continue playing this beautiful music.

So, my technique today incorporates some late lute technique, some Sor-related technique, and I have started bringing Tárrega-style rest strokes into my playing in slower pieces, though without adopting his twisted wrist.

Here’s a slo-mo video, showing the technique of pushing the string before releasing it. This gives the no-nails equivalent of the rest stroke and ramped-nail stroke of nail players, and is an important part of my technique:

My pinkie often touches the soundboard, yet often does not, especially as I am using the ring finger more. Careful observation of my playing will note that the pinkie is up and down a lot during a single piece. When it does touch the soundboard, the touch is VERY light – it is not “planted”, but brushes against it. To do this successfully, the pinkie side of my hand is lowered somewhat, and I can view inside my palm.

My thumb plays a high proportion of rest strokes, which gives a warm sound, and it frequently plays as high as the second string, and sometimes the first. I often use thumb-index alternation in scale passages, sometime thumb-index-middle, and I can play much faster this way than by alternating index and middle.

I confess my tremolo is quiet. I’d be vastly over-praising myself by quoting Pujol:  “the tremolo is no longer metallic and brilliant, but acquires an ethereal sonority”. The sad fact is that my tremolo needs work, but it was never a strength of mine even before I cut my nails off and went over to the dark side! This is a Work In Progress…

Very short demonstration of speed bursts:

A four-minute discussion of my technique:

Adelita and Lagrima by Tarrega on a new guitar, the Ramirez 130 Anos:

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Here is an old video I did in 2009. It’s a bit dark and quiet – sorry about that. Much of what I say I still agree with, though I prefer a 65 cms string length now.

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ADVICE

No matter which way you start to play without nails, try to keep the following in mind:

Your finger pads need time to adapt to their new, more important role. Don’t play too much for a while – just allow the pads to get to know the strings, without forcing the issue.

Use hand cream before and after each session. You don’t want hard callouses to form, as they will give you a bad sound.

Try tuning even lower – it might not be to your taste, but your finger pads will appreciate it. Through time you can creep back up to 415 or higher.

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To be continued…

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39 thoughts on “Technique

  1. This site is great, Rob. I discovered it through a link posted by 10 string guitarist Viktor Van Niekerk, in which he refutes the idea that good classical guitar should contain “upper partials”, much as discussed by Pujol above. (Actually I’m a little hazy on what “upper partials” actually means – could you please provide a definition?). In either case, I’ve been inspired to cut my nails and go back to the way which felt intuitively correct for me, after years of being brainwashed by the ideologues. Thanks!

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    • Hi Matt. Upper partials are the treble end of the sonic spectrum. So, more upper partials means less fundamental, which means more trebly. More fundamental means a rounder, warmer note.
      Good luck with your change! Try using lower-gauge strings, or tune down a tone. That will help your fingertips adjust to the new technique. Take your time. It took me at least six months before I was getting the sound I wanted.

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      • Yes, I see what you mean. I am tuning down a tone right now, which helps. My biggest challenge right now is getting a consistent round tone from my ring (anular) finger, but I’m confident that with persistence I will get it. Thanks again, + I really enjoyed the essay by Pujol, I downloaded his biography of Tarrega as well.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Good for you, Matt. Take your time. The finger pads will grow accustomed to their new role in time. You’ll grow to love the touch of the strings, and after a while you’ll begin to wonder why anyone plays with nails at all 🙂

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  3. I have been watching your videos for several years. Excellent I might add. I think your technique and encouraging videos will save my classical playing. I have been “stuck” at an intermediate level for years. Your technique, when I try it for awhile, actually feels more natural for me and my style of playing.

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  4. Hi Rob! I encountered a few of your videos just a while ago and I was very intrigued! I have heard about the concept of nailless playing years ago, but never really encountered a practitioner of it. I love your sound, I think it is a wonderful, and perfectly valid approach to tone production on the classical guitar. Listening to your videos and sound makes me wonder why there aren’t more players doing this. I am currently revisiting all sorts of tone issues myself after 40 years of playing (I hope to get it down some day!) going back and forth between steel string and classical, and you are making me want to look into nailless playing! The part of your tone video that really caught my attention. was your comment about curving the right hand and playing “from under” the strings. My own thinking about tone is that the ANGLE of vibration of the strings is very important, and it didn’t surprise me that you commented that your free strokes sound much like your rest strokes. I think playing the strings with the position you describe force the strings to vibrate at an angle to the soundboard, very similar to what a rest stroke does. I suppose I should just do my own video on this topic about string vibrational angle, rather than go into a lot of detail here, but Im convinced it is worthwhile to think about tone in terms of what it is we make the string do, rather than exactly how we do it. In other words, hand positions don’t create tone all by themselves, it is the effect on the string vibrations that we really want. Anyway, let me stop before I start my own ranting, I just want to say congratulations on finding such lovely sounds, and promoting this issue which clearly has lots of historical precedent for. Your playing is lovely, sensuous, very musical, and I love all the early music stuff you are doing. Im not a lutenist, but I have played early music myself for quite a few years. Cheers!

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    • Cheers, Hue. Glad you noticed the comments about angle of attack, coming from under the string, etc. Very important. As my technique develops on the guitar, I find myself using more of a variety of strokes than I did on the lute, as much of the repertoire demands more colouration. I’m enjoying the process, getting deeper into the music. Good luck with your own journey! Any questions, just ask.

      Rob

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    • Dear Hugh, Enjoyed your analyses, inspired by Rob’s playing. Have in mind we are touching so many taboooos imposed nowadays on players. Very few will go on their own search and try to discover by themselves. You are one of these few. I’ll be glad to see your videos.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, I like to think outside the box myself. Right now I’m exploring the notion as to whether it’s possible to keep nails at a short enough length to where one can employ EITHER nails or finger flesh, depending on hand position. Lol, can’t say I’ve settled the question but it’s an interesting experiment.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Please accept my thanks for sharing your technique. My tendency to go back and forth from nails to no-nails has hindered my progress. However, your Blog and the responses you have gotten are very encouraging, and should help to alleviate this. All I really want to do is play some beautiful music on my classical guitar, and not spend all of my time trying to coax a note from my nails. Again, Thank you, John.

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  6. My typical style in learning new techniques is to “stumble” on someone’s site like yours and really like it, This no-nail technique is right up my alley. Can’t wait to investigate more of your website. I think there is much to be learned here. Thanks ….Jim

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  7. Hi Rob! Thanks for this wonderful site. I was wondering if you have any advice for making the switch from nails to no nails. I started off playing no-nails fingerstyle on a steel string guitar and moved to a nylon string guitar. I loved the feel and tone of this style of playing – but I just wasn’t very loud, and I found I lacked dexterity, speed and accuracy. I switched to nails, and found some of those things easier – I liked the ease with which some techniques that had been previously out of my reach came – but I am constantly fussing with my nails and they are breaking due to my job and various commitments that require nail-breaking work. So I’m considering moving back to no-nails and just sorting out the issues I had previously ignored – probably as much due to my lack of experience and muscle development than to any difference between nails or no nails.
    I’d like to be able switch between steel and nylon…but that really rips my nails up right quick. I don’t have a strong opinion on the nails no-nails debate..I can definitely see advantages to both just from my own limited experience. But I’m thinking I’d like to go back (to the dark side) and so…just lop em off? Any thoughts to make it easier to transition?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Rob! Thanks for this wonderful site. I was wondering if you have any advice for making the switch from nails to no nails. I started off playing no-nails fingerstyle on a steel string guitar and moved to a nylon string guitar. I loved the feel and tone of this style of playing – but I just wasn’t very loud, and I found I lacked dexterity, speed and accuracy. I switched to nails, and found some of those things easier – I liked the ease with which some techniques that had been previously out of my reach came – but I am constantly fussing with my nails and they are breaking due to my job and various commitments that require nail-breaking work. So I’m considering moving back to no-nails and just sorting out the issues I had previously ignored – probably as much due to my lack of experience and muscle development than to any difference between nails or no nails.
    I’d like to be able switch between steel and nylon…but that really rips my nails up right quick. I don’t have a strong opinion on the nails no-nails debate..I can definitely see advantages to both just from my own limited experience. But I’m thinking I’d like to go back (to the dark side) and so…just lop em off? Any thoughts to make it easier to transition? Will playing steel string develop calluses that ruin my nylon playing? Some sites seem to encourage calluses while you mentioned it can adversely affect one. Anyhow…as you say it all depends on what you want…

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    • I play steel as well, almost every day in my teaching, and for my own pleasure. I prefer lighter-tension steel, though. As for playing nylon without nails, I suggest that for the first few months you lower the pitch of the strings, anything up to a semitone. This will reduce the tension, and be less of a shock to your fingertips. Over time you can tune back up to 440, although, like me, you might grow to enjoy the more relaxed sound a lower pitch provides. Many modern classical guitars are constructed with super-high tension strings in mind, so I opt for traditional Spanish-style guitars. As for calluses – I don’t have them. I use hand cream before and after a long session. Ah, my secret is out! 😉 Good luck.

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  9. Hi flesh players.
    Glad to see that it exists. I just started playing classical a few month ago, and was under the impression that classical players have to have long nails. My teacher has them, and even goes to the nail saloon to have a faked one attached whenever one brakes off, and then files the nail himself at home to his needs.
    I come from an electric guitar, 30 years plus, funk, fusion, jazz, freeform and crazy stuff. I have my right hand fingers totally involved in my style, changing between guitar pick and fingers all the time. I like no nails, so I can actually feel the strings and have full control over the dynamics, and get a warm, dark percussive sound.
    So, I had some nails for a while, but they kept braking. I guess one would have to change life style a bit.
    I kind of get it, the sound seems brighter, if that`s the desired tone. But what I hated (my nails are short again since 3 days, broke 2 nails just opening the dishwasher), was the disconnection between the guitar/sound/strings and myself. I need to feel what I am playing. Well, perhaps if I would have been trained on nails for years, maybe I would think different. But from what I just described, I can only go for flesh.
    Great great website here, nice videos, interviews, resources and the take on strings.
    cheers

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    • You’ve made my day, Peter. You describe exactly how I feel about the contact with the strings – it’s so important. I can assure you that no-nails playing of the classical guitar has a long history, populated by many great players. Maybe you should show the site to your teacher. He is unlikely to jump ship himself, but will hopefully understand where you are coming from, and that it is not to be discouraged. Good luck with it all!

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  10. Hi

    I came across your website on the Delcamp forum. I am relieved to hear that l’m not alone. My reason for no nails a part from the tone was a child nail biting habit has left me uncomfortable with a nail catching in something. Great store of information and advice.

    Regards

    Lockie

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  11. Thanks for for promt reply and the welcome to flesh pad guitar world. I believe a plectrum/Fingernail for sharp sounds and pads for tone ref: (Rory Gallagher he could scream a guitar with plectrum and caress with his flesh pads) it is my belief this applies to nylon,steel etc. The closer a player is to the string it gives more control for nuances, tension and percussion. Pad players are nowadays seen as inate classical guitar muscians it is a shame. The spainish harp is played with pads one hand and nails the other, this is probabably useless infomation.

    Lockie from West Clare pre Brexit EU

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  12. It is a nice website, thank you for these videos and explanations. Since I am just a beginner and have no history of nail playing, I think I’ll try my luck with flesh pad playing and do my best to obtain the sound I wish I had: sweet, not metallic, but clear and resounding enough. The difficult part though is to avoid the thumb nail hitting the string. I guess I’ll have to somehow change the angle of my hand to avoid that… Thanks again for your site and videos.

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  13. Excellent site Rob!
    I too believe in your ideas, principles.
    I was listening to the sound recordings of past finger playing – no nails , very warm.
    I wondered about Virginia Luque, when I watched her videos, but you touch upon her us of her thumb, the nail looked long.
    Glad I found your site, I play with the pad, but have just enough nail if I change the angle of attack to get a different effect with a snippet of nail, so really not nails like generally considered for classical.
    Regards
    Rob

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    • Hi Rob. Great to have your comments. I suppose there is a continuum of sorts, between 100% flesh to 100% nail, with most people around the middle. Each player has to find their spot. I’m glad you found yours.

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  14. Hello Rob. Very good website. I am an amateur guitarist (from France). I learnt guitar wtih a pupil of Emilio Pujol. I never play with nails and I always thing that sound without nails is much more beautiful. But the most of professional guitarists plays with nails and, for my point of view, the most of them, including some very reputed, have an ugly sound (with rare exceptions such as David Russel). Also I love playing guitar but I rarely take pleasure in listening to a concert or a disc.
    The problem is that many guitarists like to show their virtuosity at the expense of the work they perform…

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  15. Rob you have a really nice website, also I enjoyed your video and the sound of your guitar. I lived during my childhood in Brazil, later in Chile and now in New York City. I have played almost all my life with my fingertips, Brazilian and Chilean popular music, in a nylon string guitar. My style is very similar to the guitar playing of Toninho Horta who also plays without nails.I am looking to replace a classical guitar that I have, so I need your advice. Which guitar in your opinion sounds better for finger playing no nails ? Cedar or Spruce ? I have thought about it, but I have not arrived to a clear conclusion yet. I know that Cedar is warmer than Spruce which has a bright sound. Since the fingertips or pads make the sound warmer and darker it seems to me that a Spruce top guitar would balance the sound. Did Sor or Tárrega talk about this matter ? Thank you in advance.

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    • Hi Rod, nice to hear from you. Although I love cedar guitars, I’m going to go with spruce on this one. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy playing no-nails on cedar, as I have a nice cedar guitar, and am happy to play it. Of course, I use gut strings, so that will also affect my decision. You should try good-quality gut – see my Strings page for advice. Neither Sor nor Tárrega mention cedar, as it wasn’t really used on guitars before the 1960s, or so I believe. If you or anyone else knows otherwise, I’d be happy to change my mind. Good luck with your choice, Rod!

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  16. What a fantastic resource you’ve created here! I’ve been primarily a pianist but also studied classical guitar in my early to mid-teens and was enchanted by the instrument. The fingernails have always been a problem, though. My nails are not strong, and growing them interferes with piano. The nails also seem to undermine what is so wonderful about classical guitar–the potentially haunting lyrical sound, the delicacy, the way the instrument is sewn up within the personal sphere of the player’s body. When I showed up for guitar lessons with too-short nails as a young person, I was criticized for “digging” into the strings; it didn’t bother me, but it wasn’t what my teacher wanted. Now you’re making me think my flouting of orthodoxy wasn’t “wrong,” and that maybe there is a way for me to get back into guitar playing, on my own terms. Thank you so much for sharing this information.

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    • Great comments, Angela, so thanks for sharing them. I once had to give up piano, as my guitar nails were getting in the way! That was a few decades ago now, I’d almost forgotten it. Maybe I should get back to the piano, while you get back to the guitar?!
      Best wishes,
      Rob

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  17. Hi, Rob, I’m delighted to have ‘discovered’ you as I have difficult nail problems. I’m entirely new to this. Please can you clarify what to buy with regard to a complete set of gut strings base and trebles. I’ve noted where to buy from your website. I play with a great guitar of the English lutanist Steven Eden with a 63cm string length. I’d really be grateful for help with the string so I get it right first time.
    Gratefully,
    Gerry

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    • Hi Gerry. I thought I had been clear. But as you have a guitar of 63cms string length, you might need other measurements. My figures are for a guitar of 65cms sl. My trebles are .65, .80 and 1.00, and I use various basses, often the Seta set from Aquila Corde.
      Best wishes,

      Rob

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