If you're wondering whether or not it's possible to play guitar with long nails, you'll need to take a look at your preferred genres and individual playing style. Whether or not you can keep your nails and still play will largely depend on your personal taste.
There are concrete measures, however, that you can take to make playing guitar with long nails easier. This article breaks down styles of guitar playing that better accommodate long nails and then offers a few easy tips to help you preserve your nails while still progressing on the instrument.
First off, however, it's helpful to discuss the effects of long nails on your playing style — and clarify when nails turn from an asset for certain styles to a detriment in all of them.
Different people have different definitions of the term “long nails,” and the guitar community is no exception. Most guitar players regard any nail that extends over the edge of your finger pad as a long nail; the vast majority of guitarists keep their nails well short of that edge.
Generally, any nail hovering around the length of your finger pad won't be a major problem in your playing. Letting your nails grow unchecked until this point can be a minor inconvenience, but the length of your nails shouldn't seriously hamstring you until they get much longer.
Decorated and artificial nails, however, are a different story. Very few players have nails that extend beyond the length of their fingers. Dolly Parton is maybe the only guitarist in history that regularly plays while wearing acrylic nail extensions.
In general, any fingernail that is longer than the actual flesh on your finger will be considered a “long nail” for playing guitar. While it's not impossible to play with these, you may need to make serious changes to your playing style or only keep the long nails on one hand.
To better understand how you can work around long nails when playing guitar, let's take a look at the effects of long nails for guitar players.
The effects of long nails change as your nails themselves grow and may vary if your nails are acrylic rather than natural. However, a few results are pretty consistent across all varieties of long nails.
Fretting notes with your nails is incredibly difficult — the nail simply doesn't have enough surface area or strength to apply the necessary pressure on the string. In fact, pressing a note down to the fretboard with your nail can damage your hands and wrist.
This effect applies for single notes as well as larger chord structures. The one exception is barre techniques, which use the fleshy underside of your finger to press across multiple strings at once. Soloing, however, is essentially out of the question if you have long nails on your fretting hand.
Long nails can be a benefit when properly maintained on your picking hand, however. Striking a string with both the nail and flesh can create a focused, smooth tone on an acoustic guitar that's hard to replicate with shorter nails. Many classical guitarists, banjo players, and hybrid pickers, for example, preserve their nails at a longer length to help them fingerpick properly.
The nails on your picking hand can still cause worse side effects, though. Extremely long nails are prone to snagging or catching on strings as you move your hand across them — forget about picking with acrylic nails!
Similarly, it may be hard to hold a flat pick close enough to the strings with longer nails. The closer you hold it, the more you risk brushing your nails against the strings and creating an unwanted sound.
Unfortunately, your nails just don't provide enough stability to grasp a traditional flat pick on their own. The pick will slip out from between your nails as soon as you begin playing. In more modern music where electric guitars and flat picks reign supreme, most players keep their nails short on their picking hand as well.
Before discussing strategies to play guitar with long nails, you'll need to determine whether or not you're willing to part with long nails on your fretting hand (for right-handed players, this is your left hand). If you are, then that's great!
You can maintain your picking hand nails longer and play styles of music that emphasize fingerstyle guitar or hybrid picking, like classical and country music.
If you must keep your nails on your left hand long, your guitar progress will be severely limited. There's simply no way to fret notes with your nails rather than with the tips of your fingers. You can, however, manage to strum some simpler songs by following Dolly Parton's technique.
Parton, a legendary country music singer and guitar player, famously loves to wear flashy acrylic nails. To play guitar with them, she relies exclusively on barre chords that she can play without bringing her nail onto the fretboard.
Parton uses open tunings, particularly open E, to achieve this style. “Open” tunings are configured so that the strings will sound out a major chord when the whole guitar is strummed open (hence the name). With these tunings, Parton can simply barre one finger flat across all of the frets to strum a major chord.
This style obviously limits her from playing any more harmonically interesting chords and proves difficult for minor chords. If you're committed to your nails on your fretting hand, however, this is the only true way for you to continue playing guitar.
If you're happy to cut your nails on one hand, it's possible to maintain medium-to-long nails on your picking hand and learn to play fingerstyle guitar. For the best results, you should practice striking the strings at a 45-degree angle with your finger. That will incorporate a bit of your nail and flesh and produces a warm yet distinct sound with plenty of projection.
Classical guitar and country music are two styles that are particularly friendly to players with long nails; many country guitarists use a thumb pick and play fingerstyle with their other fingers. You may also be able to play jazz; Wes Montgomery famously played all of his lightning-fast licks with only his thumb.
Though it takes a lot of work to master these techniques, it is possible to play complex, professional-level guitar with long nails on your picking hand. Maintaining nails on your fretting hand is a much taller task — though if you just want to strum a few major chords to accompany your singing, you can get away with keeping them around.
Unfortunately, it's not possible to play most styles of music on guitar (or any stringed instrument) with long nails on your fretting hand. Ultimately, it comes down to a choice between the guitar and the nails.
And while long nails can be a distinctive fashion statement, in the vast majority of cases, a guitar around your neck will look far cooler than long nails ever could.