How to Play Guitar with Long Nails

Published Categorized as How To/Tips, Other How To/Tips, Other Lessons and Tips

From a very early stage in one’s guitar development, any aspiring guitarist is likely to have been taught not to have long nails when learning, or otherwise admonished for having long nails, never really stopping to teach those who are so inclined how to play guitar with long nails.

I certainly never received any guidance on it from my own guitar teacher, whose nails were manicured almost to a fault. And this works fine for some, but as soon as you stop and think about the sheer amount of styles of music there are, and how many applications there might be for fingerpicking techniques in any one or all of these styles, you begin to realise how blunting such a homogenic manoeuvre can be.

Then, when you stop to think of just how many people learn the guitar today and how different so many of these prospective guitarists are, it becomes doubly ludicrous to expect the same mantras and pieces of advice to act as a one size fits all philosophy. Some people might not like long nails and that’s perfectly fine, though some will and that ought also to be perfectly acceptable, and there ought to be a way for these aspiring musicians to learn how to play guitar with long nails.

How to Play Guitar with Long Nails

How Long are Long Nails?

It’s all well and good telling someone that their nails are too long to play guitar without teaching them how to play guitar with long nails, but how long is too long in the first place?

Since this opinion is likely to come from a guitarist who already has short nails, whether through personal preference or otherwise, it wouldn’t be surprising if this assertion were biased in the first place. Someone of this inclination is almost certainly going to think that nails that are any longer than their own are ‘too long’, or simply just ‘long’.

Some guitarists, on the other hand, might be of an inverse perspective, being a little more lax about nail growth so long as it is in the realms of comfort. Many would accept that as long as you can still fret notes and chords and pluck them with these nails, then you are good to go.

There are rarer instances when a guitarist will be able to hold chords, pluck notes and melody, and otherwise play the guitar to varying degrees of quality and style while wearing hyperbolic acrylic false nails. This can of course take a long time to perfect, and can sometimes be to the detriment of the timbral quality of the guitar as well as the quality of the note sounded. But it can be done, albeit through a considerable amount of practise, looking stylish while doing it might I add.

In short, the guitar community is very divided on this issue, not least on how to play guitar with long nails. For the purposes of clarity, the concept of long nails in this article will refer to nails that have, whether naturally or artificially, already protruded from beyond the realm of the finger pads. In this way, a long nail can be said to, more often than not, obstruct the proper fretting of chords and notes, making it tricky to sustain a solid sound on either a note or chord.

Is it Possible to Learn How to Play Guitar with Long Nails?

The confusion and short sighted misconceptions that you can’t learn how to play guitar with long nails arises from the basic physics of the guitar, basic tenets of the instrument that we all experience and utilise every time we pick up our axe and sound the strings. It can simply be difficult to switch between chords with long nails otherwise obstructing our passage.

To hold down a chord, we have to use the pads of our fingers to hold down the string at a corresponding fret, spurring the vibrations to a certain pitch. We move to another chord, and often out fingers are required to dance into a completely different position. Having long nails can only make this more difficult, at least for those unaccustomed to doing so with long nails. Thus, there is no doubt that having shorter nails can make guitar playing easier, even if only for the fact that there is slightly less to be thinking and worrying about in the moment.

This is where misconceptions are born, for many will simply take the above course of logic to mean that you can’t learn how to play guitar with long nails. These are precisely the methods through the fires of fake news spread at the garbage dumps on the edge of the internet, into the laps of mainstream culture.

On the contrary, I posit that you can learn how to play guitar with long nails. Certainly, it makes it slightly more difficult. But if having long nails is part of your lifestyle and profession, your culture or your tradition, then I have no doubt you will be up to the challenge. There are plenty of things in every day life that are made more difficult with long nails, and you don’t give up on those do you?

Effects of Learning How to Play Guitar with Long Nails?

It’s not all easy when learning how to play guitar with long nails, so it can be useful to see both the pros and the cons when doing so, so you might be able to better figure out whether this is something you might be interested in or not.

The Positives

Learning how to play guitar with long nails can be an incredible way to access the world of finger picking and finger style guitar and the various genres and styles of music this can include.

Many styles of music, in fact, essentially require the use of long nails or thumb picks in their stead, to provide clarity from each finger when they are involved in the jumping flea dance of finger picking guitar. Classical guitar, for example, is notorious for this. Take a look at any finger style tutorial on YouTube and you will see their thumb nails on their picking hand in particular manicured and tailored for the purpose.

Country and folk music, too, is revered for this kind of technique. Dolly Parton, for example, plays with nails so long that they look like little boats, and still manages to perform knock out shows wherever she goes.

Part of this has to do with her having tuned the guitar to an open tuning which only requires her to use her index finger to fret whole barre chords, which is itself an act of mastery over the limits of the guitar’s standard tuning. However, generally, the use of long nails when playing the guitar can be a sign of mastery, of overcoming an obvious limitation and using it to exercise your inherent control over the instrument.

The Negatives

Learning how to play guitar with long nails inevitably comes attached with the various downsides that have been otherwise alluded to earlier. The more obvious example is the fact that they are inherently obtrusive, getting in the way of the finger pad’s job of pressing down on the string on the fret with their size, relative to the length that they are.

Not only can they obstruct the proper sounding of a note or chord, they can also snag on other guitar strings, sounding out and making other notes or sounds resonate than those which were initially intended.

This can be particularly catastrophic if the person playing said notes is only just starting out, for it can be quite a deterrent to be receiving advice about playing the guitar and have it not quite work out, or for it to be causing the notes to come out all wrong.

Hence why it is valuable to encourage and support those who wish to learn how to play guitar with long nails, offering pertinent advice along the way, or simply making sure that it is a topic discussed more often for beginners.

For those with long nails on their picking hand, there can be issues regarding simply be able to accurately hold the pick without it slipping from one’s grasp. This is particularly prevalent in those who have prosthetic nails, or nails that are otherwise extremely long. The finger pads of the picking hand simply can’t get a good grasp and will often get in the way of the strings being plucked in the first place, extended beyond the reach of the plectrum.

Strategies for How to Play Guitar with Long Nails

There are several methods through to best learn how to play guitar with long nails, all of which will require something of the learner, of you. This is an inherently more difficult route, so you will embarking on a more difficult quest than most, but there is the utmost respect for your doing so.

  • 1. Side stepping the use of a pick altogether and making use of your long nails to pluck the strings with your fretting hand. This is very typical in classical guitar, where the nails provide extra clarity, and so, if those nails of yours aren’t false acrylic nails, then this should prove no problem, working incredibly to your favour.
  • 2. Maintaining the length of the nails on the fretting hand so as not to be obstructive will undoubtedly benefit you. There is no set length and this can be incredibly subjective, though you will surely know when a particular nail or set of nails is becoming an encumbrance.
  • 3. You could even, like Dolly Parton, make use of open tunings, so as to reduce the amount of work the fretting fingers have to do. Tuning down to D open tuning (E to D, A, D, G to F#, B to A, & E to D) will allow you to play whole barre chords with just your index finger. Placed along the entire length of the corresponding fret, each note from the barre chord of the adjoining root note will sound out.

Final Tones

So, there you have it, the means through which to make your decision!

Will you choose to keep your nails long and to crush all the haters, to learn how to play guitar with long nails in the face of the adversity that an often backwards guitar community can rain upon thee? Or perhaps logic is more for you, you wish to learn an instrument that isn’t going to bite at your heels every time you take your eye off the ball?

The choice is yours.

FAQs How to Play Guitar with Long Nails

Can I play the guitar with acrylic nails?

Contrary to popular belief, you indeed can. This isn’t to say that it is easy. In fact, it is oft considered more difficult than learning with shorter nails, especially if those long nails happen to be on the fretting hand.

However, there are plenty of benefits for playing guitar with long nails, not least the kindling of a more adept control over the guitar and its use, owing to the fact that these obtrusive nails need to be surmounted. This can seem like a bit of a backwards methodology, hence why this is such a point of contention in guitar circles.

How does Dolly Parton play the guitar with long nails?

Dolly Parton is a bit of a polymath renaissance woman, adept as she is at several instruments and composing on all of them, not to mention all of the various other business and philanthropic ventures she embarks upon.

Though she does manage to play guitar with long nails purely through tuning the guitar to an open tuning, meaning she can play whole barre chords with just one finger, it takes smarts to think of this solution in the first place. Long nails provide mental and physical barriers for the brain to engage with in acuity.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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