Flesh versus Nails

It has become orthodoxy that you play classical guitar with nails. But this wasn’t always the case. In the early nineteenth century there were two leading guitarists, Fernando Sor (1778-1839) and Dionisio Aguado y García (1784-1849). Among other differences, Sor believed one should use the flesh of the fingertip to pluck the string and Aguado believed one should use the nail. Sor was aware that this had possible disadvantages, especially when it came to speed and projection (Aguado was the more virtuosic player, for sure), but he was confident that the purer and warmer tone of flesh playing was worth it.

Historically many classical guitarists used flesh (e.g. Julián Arcas (1832-1888) and Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909), though Tárrega was a convert to flesh in his later years). I recommend visiting Rob MacKillop’s site for comprehensive list of players old and new. MacKillop is undoubtedly the best advocate for flesh playing online.

Come the end of the twentieth century flesh playing had become a rarity. If one were a partisan for flesh playing, it would be easy to see this as an unmusical compromise: speed and loudness in exchange for sound quality. But nails do give you more variety in some regards: you can’t, for example, achieve that same crisp ponticello sound with flesh. However, the consistency possible by using flesh means that volume won’t affect tone as much. With nails, a loud note sounds much brighter and more metallic than a soft one. But with flesh, a loud note retains its warmth (if you want it to).

This is, at least, my experience thus far. I recently cut off my nails. It was all rather traumatic: late at night, whisky bottle half empty, sweat drenching my clothes, the nail clippers poised an inch from my fingertips, as if a metaphysical wall were in the way. The clippers felt like twelve stone; my hands were shaking unrelentingly.

Okay, okay — not quite that bad! But I did oo and uh over it for some weeks. I am probably historically-minded, generally more interested in what is old than what is new. And when I found out there was a common practise (flesh playing) with many weighty advocates, but that has since become very unorthodox, I naturally wanted to try it. It also fits nicely with my desire to eventually play the lute, which is generally played without nails. (Though perhaps the same contrarian spirit will inspire me to take up the cause of those minority lutenists, past and present, who have advocated nails…)

In case you are unaware of the stigma against flesh playing, the guitarist Phillip de Fremery has an excellent post about it on his site. In it he notes that

There is reliable record of players whose applications and subsequent auditions to long-established Masters programs were summarily rejected, with the proviso that if they grew their nails back they would be considered for admission. Another case surfaced more recently, when a casual exploratory interview was met with the same quick closing of the door without a note being heard.

Pedagogy gone mad, I say. Flesh playing has many advantages that any musician with an ounce of imagination and historical knowledge would realise. Among the advantages I can think of: a more tactile way of playing, a more consistent tone, more angles of attack available, in some instances more ‘authentic’, if you go for that. Fremery notes another rather interesting possibility:

those who find themselves interested in the physics of all this will observe that when one plays without nails the string can be pulled much farther back – and further back at many different angles – before it is released, and that when one thinks of this from the point of view of archery, for instance, the implications are interesting to say the least

I recorded myself playing Tarrega’s Lagrima, a rather easy piece. I tried to give it as much dynamic and textural variations as I could, which might be why every recording I made had one or two mistakes (but recording oneself is generally an infuriating experience). This one, despite two very slight hesitations, best demonstrates the possibilities. Apologies for the quality — it was recorded on my phone:

[ETA: Fellow guitarists might like to know what I’m using. It’s an old Kimbara guitar (a low-end guitar from late 60s/early 70s) with D’addario Pro-Arte normal tension strings. Nothing special or historical.]

I cut my nails Thursday, and at first the sound was much worse than this. One has to learn to pluck the string in a completely different way: pushing down and then pulling under and across. Watch this video for the technique in slow motion. It also helps to tune the strings down about a semitone, to help lower the tension so the string is easier to pluck at first. I saw a suggestion in a forum to sandpaper (very fine sandpaper, I must add!) the part of the strings where one plays. I used P1200 sandpaper for this and it worked very well. Nylon strings are usually too smooth, it seems. The fingertips need to grip onto the string a bit. It is often recommended that you use gut or nylgut (nylon-gut hybrid), which I will do in due course.

Now, in case my meagre little recording was unconvincing, here’s a nail-less virtuoso, Virginia Luque. If anything, her left hand is the most impressive — those chord changes, my God!


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