Thomas Mace’s Musick’s Monument (and the Flesh versus Nails Debate)

I have just been reading the lute section in Thomas Mace’s Musick’s Monument (1676), one of the few extant English language lute instruction books. (IMSLP link to the facsimile.) Unfortunately for us, lute technique was generally passed down from tutor to student, with books costing nearly as much as a cheap lute (source). Mace’s book comes late in the history of the lute. The Golden Age of English lute music (and arguably of all English music) had long since passed.

Mace lists the the ‘false and ignorant out-cries against the lute’ in his time:

First, That it is the Hardest Instrument in the World.

Secondly, That it will take up the Time of an Apprenticeship to play well upon It.

Thirdly, That it makes Young People grow awry.

Fourthly, That it is a very Chargeable Instrument to keep; so that one had as good keep a Horse as a Lute, for Cost.

Fifthly, That it is a Womans Instrument.

Sixthly, and Lastly, (which is the most Childish of all the rest) It is out of Fashion.

Mace then rebuts each one of these points quite well, but little good it did. ‘Thus having (I hope) to full satisfaction explained the Matter,’ he wrote, ‘I doubt not but the Lute henceforward will be more look’d after and esteemed than of late years it has been’. Come the middle of the eighteenth century, the lute was all but extinct.

Of equal interest to me is his discussion of technique, particularly as I have now switched to nail-less playing on the guitar, which makes right-hand technique on the lute more relevant. Most of his very detailed instructions are not of general interest, but his comments on nails might be:

… take notice, that you Strike not your Strings with your Nails, as some do, who maintain it the Best way of Play, but I do not; and for This Reason; because the Nail cannot draw so sweet a Sound from a Lute, as the nibble end of the Flesh can do.

I confess in a Consort, it might do well enough, where the Mellowness (which is the most Excellent Satisfaction from a Lute) is lost in the Crowd; but Alone, I could never receive so good Content from the Nail, as from the Flesh: However (This being my Opinion) let Others do, as seems Best to Themselves.

Nail-playing lutenists were by far in the minority. Over a century earlier the vihuelist (the vihuela is an ancestor of the modern guitar and was a Spanish alternative to the lute) Miguel de Fuenllana also wrote that nails produced an imperfect sound compared to flesh. The most notable exception is Alessandro Piccinini, a seventeenth-century Italian lutenist who advocated the use of nails. We can, however, assume quite a few lutenists did play with nails, even if the top lutenists weren’t generally among them. The great eighteenth-century lutenist Silvius Leopold Weiss apparently witnessed many people playing with nails (which he disapproved of).

I am scratching my head trying to think of a lutenist contemporary to Mace. There was a brief flourish of lute music in the early eighteenth century, but Mace’s despair over the state of lute music in his time seems to have been well-founded. The best I can do is the French lutenist Robert de Visée (1655-1733), who came along a bit later and wrote some excellent solo theorbo music. Can you believe this wonderful video has over 700,000 views? (Also, it looks like he might be using nails. The camera keeps jumping around, but his nails do look suspiciously long.)

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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!