Can you play guitar with long nails?

Whether one can play guitar with long nails has been much discussed among beginners and even expert guitarists. Some consider it impossible, while others believe it will affect the sound and technique in ways that will be unpleasant.

Factors to consider when determining whether or not to cut your long nails (or whether to add long nails) include:

  • playing style
  • genre
  • instrument type
  • the overall length of your nails.

For instance, some playing styles work better with longer nails, while others may be nearly impossible without neatly trimmed nails.

Nail Length – What Constitutes “Long”?

Length tends to be somewhat subjective. In the world of guitar playing, nails are usually considered long if they extend past the nail bed more than a millimeter or two. Most agree that a little bit of white showing at the end of the finger won’t get in the way, but more fingernail than that can make playing difficult, especially on the fretting or chord hand.

Longer nails, including both acrylic and natural nails, are usually discouraged by guitar teachers. Some might argue that Dolly Parton plays with her long manicure, but she has made adaptations to allow her to keep her fingernails and still play.

When your fingernail is longer than the length of your finger, it is long enough to be a potential problem, but there are ways to work around this.

How Do Long Nails Affect Guitar Playing?

It is indisputable that growing out long nails will affect how well you play the guitar. In some situations, they are useful, while in others, they are inconvenient, at best.

How Do Long Nails Affect Fretting?

Fretting is the part of guitar playing that can be most negatively affected by long nails. Because the strings must be pressed firmly and just at the right place, without dampening surrounding strings, having to angle a fingertip to accommodate a long nail is likely to be frustrating, at least at first.

Depending on the shape and length of the nail, it will probably not be possible to do standard fingering with long nails. The fingernail that extends past the tip of the finger will prevent the finger from pressing down on the string.

Additionally, because nails themselves tend to be relatively fragile, attempting to press a string to a fret with the fingernail may result in a broken nail or damaged hand and will rarely provide appropriate tension to achieve the desired note.

Even when you have learned how to make the chords sound right, longer nails can make it hard to change from one chord to another. Catching a fingernail on a string introduces unintended sounds.

How Do Long Nails Affect Strumming and Picking?

On the other hand (literally), longer nails are almost required for fingerpicking. It is essential to make sure the fingernails are strong, however, as the motion of plucking the strings can do damage to fingernails over time. In this case, a manicure is not a bad idea, as the polish will add a layer or two of strength to each nail. Acrylics also add strength.

Shaping your fingernails will aid in picking. Several shapes are possible that will improve the sound of using fingernails rather than a pick:

  • File the fingernail to a point or near point, with equal angles on both sides, making it like a standard pick. This shape will give a similar sound.
  • File into a rounded end for a smoother picking experience.
  • Slope each nail to one side for a different sound. The angle of the slope determines the sound. It is good to experiment with this one to find out which sound you prefer.

Here’s a answering if you can play guitar with long nails:

How Do You Play Guitar with Long Nails?

As you can see, there are some definite downsides to having long fingernails when playing guitar, but the good news is that it is possible to play the guitar even if your nails have grown out or been manicured.

Try Another Style

Classical guitar works excellently with long nails. Some people might say that classical guitar is outdated, but it still has its place. Its best sound happens when the guitarist has good sturdy fingernails.

Fingerpicking with the nail and the nail bed creates a smoother tone than average. Short nails cannot make the same sound. Fingerstyle requires longer nails for the best sound.

Hybrid picking combines holding a pick in the thumb and index finger for the lower-toned three strings and using the other fingers to fingerpick the higher three strings. This allows a bass strum and a treble melody. With practice, this is a beautiful way to play.

Try Another Tune Scheme

Tuning the guitar so that you can play most of the chords without fingering or with limited fingering (one finger across all the strings, usually) is a way to keep from having to use fingertips. This is a common way to adjust to allow longer fingernails among professional guitarists.

One way is known as open tuning. This is the method used by Dolly Parton. It is most common to tune to E, D, or G, making the open strings one of these major chords. The result is that major keys are accessible up and down the neck by using a single finger across an entire fret. It is also possible to tune to a minor key if desired.

Another option is Drop D tuning, which drops the sixth string a full tone, resulting in DADGBE. You can then use one finger across the fourth, fifth, and sixth strings to make power chords. This method is good for a lot of metal and punk songs.

These methods effectively limit the player to the chords for which it is tuned; fancy changes and riffs are unlikely to be possible with longer nails. Rhythm guitar playing and other backup or support are excellent uses for these methods, which you can also use for personal accompaniment when you sing along with your guitar playing.

Try Another String

Nylon strings can be picked with the fingers but sound much nicer if you play them with a pick or – better yet – fingernails. Fingerpicking with nails also boosts volume and results in a brighter tone. For this reason, many guitarists choose to have acrylics put on their strumming hand.

While fingerpicking is possible with steel strings, it is more difficult due to the smaller space between the strings. It is wise to learn fingerpicking on nylon to embed proper positioning and technique before attempting it on a steel-string guitar.

Try Another Angle

Using the flat part of the finger rather than the very end is a little harder but, with practice, can be just as easy and sound just as good. Using this method also increases the ability to mute strings that need it. The downsides of using an angle on the frets include slower movement and potential joint pain.

Conclusion
While the general wisdom is to have short nails to properly play guitar, it is not required as long as you are willing to make necessary adjustments to play guitar with long nails. If you do decide to play guitar with long nails, keep in mind that it will take commitment and determination because learning the new movements will not be easy. Keep going and you can achieve success!

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Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.