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:
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).
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:
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.
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 calluses 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.
To be continued…
127 thoughts on “Technique”
i cut off my nails a week ago after a long time playing and searching for the true classical guitar sound.
I am in a slow progress towards that true sound but i know i am on the right track.
thank you R.M
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the nail maintenance turned me off a decade ago. recently I started plucking my old classical guitar without nails, it requires work, different approach. there are times the tone sound good and other times sound weak. I don’t want to go back to nail playing due to manual labor work but this is something I’d like to practice for life as it would be a shame to give up entirely. thanks.
Good. My advice is to lower the tension by detuning the strings a semitone or tone for a while, a couple of months if possible, just to let your flesh pads get used to their new role. You can slowly tune them back up later, but you might find your guitar sounds better at the lower pitch, as it often does for no-nail players. Good luck!
I’ve been playing without nails for 7 years, and now I want to work up a piece that requires a tremolo. When I still used fingernails my tremolo was so-so. After such a long hiatus, I find it difficult to get going again with enough speed, and my fingers, especially m, sometimes miss the string. I will be happy with the softer tremolo you mention above as a “work in progress,” and I am hoping you can offer some tips to help me redevelop my tremolo.
Hi. Because of my (crap) nails I also play without (18 mos.). At first EVERYTHING WAS HARD 😒 Gradually things have gotten easier… except for tremolo. I’ve been working on “Recuerdos…” for mos. and can barely get it to 100 MM. That said – my ears have changed – and (some kind’a bias??) I now prefer the no-nails sound EXCEPT for the very best classical guitarists out there – who manage not to sound like a typewriter when doing scales.
Hi Jon Sayles. If you continually compare yourself to “the best guitarists out there” you might never be happy. I’ve never tried to be one of those players, just to try to the best that I can, and in the process found my own voice. Now I’d rather be me, with all my faults, than be another Russell/Barrueco/Williams wannabe. I’m actually happy playing guitar, and that was always the goal, and I do so without competing with other players. So, check your goals, and if you realise you can’t be happy until you are at least as good as those guys, then good luck 🙂
Hi John. I don’t play any tremolo pieces as I have no interest in those works, but I can play a half-decent tremolo when a student asks me about it. Almost all advice out there is to start slow and build up speed. That’s good, but I also do the opposite. I start with a fast out-of-control mess, hitting too many strings – it sounds awful, but deliberate. And I do so with complete relaxation, that’s the key. Then I continue while slowly guiding my attention to one string for the fingers – the bass could be anywhere else – and as that string comes into focus I try to keep the relaxation and speed. Sometimes it works well, other times not so well. I developed it to combat the creeping tension of the other method: starting slow is okay, but when you increase the speed you increase tension. My way is to waggle the fingers fast without tension, then slowly bring that onto one string. Give it a try. I just don’t do it much, maybe three times a year, as I’m really not interested in the repertoire. Good luck. Rob
Thank you Rob. As always, your advice is very helpful. I find it strange because I can play a rather fast and smooth arpeggio on the GBE strings (think Romanza without the tremolo), and I can play an 8 note Baroque trill on one string (i a p a i m p-a), but the tremolo is a mess. I’ll try letting it rip to see if my mind can subconsciously correct it over time. I also wonder if perhaps my right hand position, which is a little more diagonal than what standard instruction dictates, might require some correction. I may need to reposition the whole guitar a little more diagonally (i.e., raise the neck end) to match the angle of approach of my right hand fingers. I’ll play around a little and get back to you if I find a workable solution.
John, I’ve noticed a lot of younger players playing with an almost vertical neck angle which seems to be caused by using those contraptions with suction cups that are positioned between left leg and guitar instead of a footstool. In your case, considering what you have just said, this might be a good thing. Just a suggestion. Rob
I am glad I found your website. I am returning to the classical guitar after a break, and way back when I did have a few lessons my teacher was a blues loving chap who had tobacco stained fingers and no nails. His live of all music was music was inspirational. My relief at turning up for my first classical guitar lesson was huge. I was making fine furniture at the time and nails and machinery are a no no. Splinters are inevitable, but less painful with nails. More to the point I like the sound of no nails, and the immediacy as you can feel the string and be more in control-or at least it works for me. I will continue and resume my studies as a mature student now, and as I seem to have a wee bit more time.
Good to know, Archi. Keep at it this time!