About Guitars & Fingernails
Learning to use nature's own fingerpicks.
The only real concession you will have to make to play guitar is to trim the nails on your fretting hand. If you are a highly glamorous person or a hand model who cannot bear to have long nails on one hand and short ones on the other, then you'll have to find another instument to play, or be content to be mediocre. (A wide fingerboard might help you, but you have to go looking for those and I don't know any beginner wide-neck instruments other than the clunky standard classical guitars, which I no longer think are reasonable for beginners.) I have no idea what the issues are for piano, horns, drums, and other instruments, but I suspect that anything with a fingerboard is going to yield the same result.
Nails is really the only clue you can use to spot a guitar player in the grocery store checkout line, unless they pay cash and you see a guitar pick while they are fishing for change. We don't wear special outfits like bicyclists or tennis players, and I am not aware of any other instrument players (except possibly a few hardcore autoharp male players, which is such a small number that you are not likely to ever see one) who have nails on one hand only. Those are mine above.
So let's now talk just about the longer nails on the non-fretting hand, which I will call either the "picking" hand or the "right" hand. You lefties can handle the "translation."
It's my belief that the guitar might be so popular not just because of the obvious reasons that 1) it sounds good 2) they can be made cheaply 3) they are portable and versatile. Guitar may also be the most expressive instrument on the popular scene for the simple reason that both hands are touching the strings– the things that actually make the sound. Think about it. You have a very wide palette of sounds. Pianists never touch the strings with their hands, and bowed instrument players only do it with one hand. Remember, it's the right hand of a stringed instrument that puts most of the pizzazz into the music. All ten of your fingers, plus other parts of your hands, can be involved in coloring and shaping the sound of the vibrating objects.
This is borne out by the fact that there is an incredibly wide-range of tone evident in the collective work of guitarists world-wide. Guitarists are not only using thousands of different models of guitars with various kinds of strings (steel, nylon, silk & steel, flatwound, coated, bronze, etc.), but guitarists who use picks are also using different materials like metal, shell, dozens of kinds of plastic & nylon, wood and even stone, which broaden the pool of sounds produced. Electric guitarists add to this several more dimensions in tone by using different kinds of pickups, passing through a dizzying number of electronic signal-processing devices before being sent to a huge variety of amplifers that actually make the sounds we hear. I have accepted that a working definiton of "classical music" is that there has been determined to be a "right way" to do things. Classical guitarists hopefully also understand that if everyone uses the same size and shape guitar, the same strings, the same tuning, and the same way of striking the string, it's tough to sound different than the other guys. In that world it's not un-like a soapbox derby, where all the contestants use the same wheels and parts for their cars, to level the playing field. Sports usually regulate the types of golf balls, race car, tennis rackets and other equipment. The non-classical guitar world, by contrast is a wildly creative place, where players are creating new sounds and textures in ways that boggle the mind. (Look up the term "prepared guitar" for some really weird stuff.)
If you accept it as an axiom, as I did long ago, that there is no "correct" way to pluck, pick or strike a musical instrument string, then you'll also have to accept that one of the time-honored ways of sounding a string is to use your fingernails. This does not mean you have to do this either exclusively or even do it at all, but if you choose to, then you'll likely face a strange set of obstacles, technologies, products and choices, and you are at risk of quickly losing your way in the Guitar & Fingernail Jungle. I'm here to help you, since I have a lot of experience in this area, and no reason whatsoever to steer you toward any kind of solutions. I have never had any relationship whatsoever with any manufacturer or retailer of nail care products.
That said, if I were a journalist or scientist, I might open with a barrage of questions like these to someone who wanted answers about the do's and don't of fingernails and guitars:
How often do you play?
How hard do you like to hit the strings?
How strong are your natural fingernails?
How much of a big deal is it for you if a fingernail breaks? Can you still play?
How good do your nails have to look?
Do you play acoustic or electric guitar? Nylon-strings or steel-strings?
Do you also use a flatpick?
How much time, energy & money are you willing to spend dealing with the issue?
Do you do other things in your life that might break or damage your nails?
What kind of sound are you after? How fussy are you about the nuances?
I'll survey the situation, then I'll wade in and tackle each of these, and I'll tell you what I do and what I think, and what I am aware of what others do, so you can perhaps make your own choices. What you accept as your solution will undoubtedly reflect your own feelings on what is "correct."
Before we start, these things are probably true:
- Not all of us were born with the same fingernails, and for a lot of players, they just use what they have, and it's all they need. This could even be a "luck factor" in who got good or who got well-known.
- Those of us who are not so lucky then face the first fork in the Fingernail Road, where we look for solutions that cover practice regimens, nail alternatives, supplements, technologies, replacements and modifications to our natural nails.
- Not all of us want the same sound, and how you approach the fingernail issue can depend on who you are trying to sound like, as well as how fussy you are.
- It takes on average 120-150 days to grow a complete new nail. So if you are a guitar-playing bricklayer who bruises a nail badly or loses one, you have a pretty long wait for your replacement part. Luckily most carpenters are right-handed and use nail guns, so the obvious problem of smacking a right-hand finger with a hammer is less than the left-hand, and might be a reason to not try to play left-handed if you are an un-decided leftie carpenter starting out learning to fingerpick.
- This also means that your nails will grow about 1/17 of their length in a week, which means roughly 1/25 inch per week. Some web sources say 1/10 inch per month. This means you will always need to monitor and adjust the length of your nails as they slowly but inevitably grow out, like the rat whose teeth grow constantly needs to chew all the time.
First an overview of those "issues"
How often do you play?
If you are a hobbyist, you obviously can be more relaxed about it all than if you are a touring professional or session musician. If you can wait a week until your nail grows out a little, then that's a different scenario than that of someone who must play something today, in the next 5 minutes, or to finish the song you are performing.
How hard do you like to play?
Obviously, if you play gently, you'll have less problems, and the more of a basher you are the more troubles you'll have, especially with natural nails. How hard you hit the strings may be determined by your inner feelings, or by you trying to mimic the sound of another player's style and touch. If you choose a certain sound, and type of string, those choices can shape your whole approach to your nails. I am old enough to have played the first 16 years of my life without amplification, which meant that I was playing at parties, campfires (yes) and on streetcorners trying to be as loud as possible. And even when I first got a guitar with a pickup in 1984, I was mostly doing bar gigs, and I still needed to play as loud as possible, since all the other musicians who played those rooms were playing as loud as they could. (Which made the audience talk louder, and so on...) In many ways, I wish that had not been the case, and I am envious of younger players who came of age during the last decade or more when plugged-in acoustic guitars finally started to sound good, rather than just loud. Nothing like some electronic distortion to annoy an audience, and they probably think it's you and not your plugged-in tone.
How strong are your natural nails?
Nails seem to be stimulated to grow stronger and better if they are used, so it is possible to develop some extra strength just by playing guitar with them, and without resorting to nail salon technology or home science projects. You're the only one who can decide if you are happy or unhappy with what nature gave you for nails. Mine are pretty weak, but they grew stronger with a lot of use, and for many years I was able to mostly perform mostly with fingerpicks, and use my nails for practice and some performing and recording. I have never felt that any of the 5 options (barefinger, nails + flesh, nails only, fingerpicks, artificial nails) is completely superior in all ways to the others, and there are still songs I wrote or recorded with one of them and never felt comfortable performing them another way.
If you are a modern acoustic guitar player, it's possible that you are performing music from the early days of acoustic guitar, which means acoustic blues or country, and what is now called gypsy jazz. (Jazz players jumped to electric guitars quickly,presumably because horns were so loud, and they all used flatpicks until the 1970's when the idea of "fingerstyle jazz" caught on.) There wasn't much prominent fingerpicking among white players in the 1920's & 1930's, mostly Sam McGee and a little Frank Hutchinson on the old 78's, but a lot of the early old-time music rhythm players like Riley Puckett and Mother Maybelle Carter used thumbpicks and sometimes fingerpicks. (Maybelle even put the one on her middle finger on backwards!) The bluegrass legend/singer/guitarist Lester Flatt played with only a thumbpick, though nearly all modern bluegrass players use only flatpicks. And since a lot of those early players who defined the genres were rural people from the South, it's possible that their hands were much tougher from farm work than us soft modern people, which allowed them to pluck those newfangled steel strings more easily than a modern city slicker.
I noticed long ago, as a modern guy who has always loved and revered the awesome acoustic guitar fingerstyle recordings by early black musicians, the arrival of steel-string guitars in the U.S. around 1900 coincided exactly with the explosion of that awesome music, and the broadcasting & recording technoligies which spread it around like no previous technology. What seems to be a fact is that thousands of white players from all over the world have worked for decades to reproduce those sounds, and come close to matching it, but never quite sounding as good in my book. Could there have been differences or tendencies in skin or fingernail toughness that gave some players a tone and durability advantage? Maybe the types of soaps and cosmetic products we use in modern life soften our skin, or maybe something in the dirt of the Mississippi delta hardened the skin. My vote for the best fingerpicking tone ever still goes to early players like Robert Johnson and Blind Blake, who sound great to me even though they recorded with primitive technology in the 1920's and 1930's. When Johnson pops the string on "Walking Blues" (starting around :20 and especially at around 1:24) or at around :50 in "Terraplane Blues," his best-selling record, it gets me every time. Mississippi John Hurt had a lovely tone also, which I believe he achieved without a thumbpick or fingerpicks, though he did work on farms and in a gravel pit around Avalon, Mississippi his entire life, and didn't get a decent music gig until the age of 65 when he was "discovered" by folk revivalists who booked him concert tours in the 1960's. I suspect his skin was tougher than yours or mine.
Feel free to do your own armchair research on iTunes, and look up Paul Geremia, Rory Block, John Hammond or David Jacobs-Strain and see how those modern white players do in your opinion. While you are researching, listen to other earlier black players like Wilie Johnson, Charlie Patton, Johnny Shines, Brownie McGee, and Son House. Patton must have broken a lot of strings when he played. It's also possible that those early players just played all the time, since they had so few other options in life as African-Americans in the rural South. Blind musicians couldn't get a job other than hard manual work, or even go to school to learn Braille, so many of them played all day long every day on a streetcorner. It might be the cultural energy and proud defiance of their playing that moves us when we listen to them, not the toughness of their skin.
How much of a big deal is it for you if your fingernail breaks?
Like getting a zit on your nose the day before the senior prom dance, all of us who use God-given fingernails have had times when we had a tragic nail break at a very bad moment in a recording, filming or performance. Most professionals who depend on their real or artificial nails travel at all times with a number of nail maintenance and repair tools. We'll look at some of those a little later.
Do you play acoustic or electric guitar? Nylon-string or steel-string?
Electric guitars are usualy strung with much thinner strings than acoustic instruments, especially in modern times. So they require less force, thus even pretty weak nails can drive them just fine. Popularized and preached by the great Andrés Segovia, the nails+ flesh option has been preferred for almost a century now by classical guitarists. (In earlier eras the consensus involved a thumbick, or bare flesh only.) Classical guitarists all play nylon-string guitars, which don't damage nails nearly as much as steel strings, and the amount of nail involved is actually pretty small. The idea is for the way you hit the string to allow the flesh of the fingertip and the nail to hit the string at the same time. This could well be what some early black blues fingerpickers did too, since it sounds great and does not wear or break the nails as much as long nails.
Do you also use a flatpick?
I am one of the players who uses a flatpick often as well as my fingers, and I noticed long ago that especially when I am playing a lot and playing hard (such as in my bluegrass days) the fingernail on my index finger would wear down noticeably on one corner. This impacted my fingerpicking, though it helped me develop my as-yet-unimitated faux-bagpipe 2-hand tapping sound I first used on the "Minstrels' Dream" and then deployed on the "Scotland Suite" and the "Highwire Hornpipe." The short nail on my index finger helps a lot when I do that. There is no correct way to hold a flatpick; the grips different players have used allowed some things and dis-allowed others. I found that the reason I had to use a non-classical flatpick grip was that I do a lot of singing with rhythm guitar, and I have often worked a lot of flesh and fingernail into my flatpicked rhythm guitar sound.
How much time, energy & money are you willing to spend dealing with the issue?
Not only professionals jump deep into this pool, and there are a lot of really delightfully hard-core amateur guitarists who are looking for a good and reliable sound as much as a touring pro. (They might get way more time to play guitar in a typical day than a traveling musician, who does way more travel & logistics than quality guitar time.) You'll need to at least invest in a basic nail file and set of nail clippers if you haven't already, but your basic cash outlay as a hobbyist is less than $10 uness you go the nail salon route that I'll discuss later.
Do you do other things in your life that might break or damage your nails?
Those emperors of China used to have insanely long fingernails, because they had servants who did everything for them. What you do for work or fun could easily interfere with your plans to have 4 of your fingernails longer than the others. Basketball or brick-laying would be very risky for a guitarist's nails, and gardening might also. A lot of swimming would weaken them so that other daily activities could then damage them.
What kind of sound are you after? How fussy are you about the nuances?
It's tough work sorting out which early players used what kinds of picks various players did or didn't use. Most of the people who knew the early players are also dead, and there is very little video footage of early acoustic guitar playing. There are a handful of videos of the wildly good, popular and influential Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt. Most of the history-oriented web pages are concerned with cultural impact and musical influences, and it may be one of the first things that really shows the world that video is a way better way to learn guitar nuances than audio. Here's an example:
Maybelle Carter was a hugely influential guitarist, starting at the "tender" age (ha!) of 18 when she recorded her first solos with the Carter Family. I had heard the Carter Family all my life, and so had every bluegrass and country guitar picker for 50 years at least. It's an information-age teaching point that almost no players alive today, including me until recently, knew how she got her guitar sound. I bought a DVD of the Johnny Cash TV show from the 1960's at a Starbucks counter a few years ago, and was astounded when it featured Maybelle playing Wildwood Flower. Since they didn't move cameras and do editing cuts in those days as fast as they do today, there are a few precious seconds where you can see that she had a thumbpick, a fingerpick on her index finger, and a backwards fingerpick on her middle finger. Those millions of players who tried her imitate her "Carter Lick" and that "boom-chucka" trademark sound were doomed if they used either a flatpick or standard fingerpick technique. (She also used an arch-top Gibson guitar that is a very different animal than the flat-top models used by just about 100% of bluegrass playesr since then.) Pete Seeger knew what she was doing, and adapted her 2-way fingerpicking to create his unique hybrid banjo style. In high school at a party I saw a guy doing just that and wondered what it was about, and he was playing a Peter Seeger long-neck banjo, but he wasn't that good so I wasn't tempted to try to learn it. I also couldn't possibly have made the simple connection from that to Maybelle's guitar style. I believe that she borrowed that idea from early autoharp players in Southwest Virginia. She and her sister-in law Sara Carter are probably the only reason autoharps exist today. Her musical influence was unmeasurable, but the information about her guitar right hand eluded mainstream "guitar media."
I spent a bit of time trying to learn what Woody Guthrie did. I studied all the photos I could find of him playing, and he is clearly flatpicking in most of them. But he has a children's song "Pick it Up" where he sings about "dropping the thumb", which hints at fingericking or at last shows a knowledge of old-time banjo styles, but when I listen to the recording it sounds like he is using a flatpick. There is also at least one photo that clearly shows him fingerpicking. His right hand position looks a little clumsy, he never played instrumental music on guitar, and that photo is obviously a publicity shot and not a performance, so what it shows is inconclusive. I suspect that like a lot of players, he "noodled" with fingerpicking but didn't do it at a gig or a recording.
Leadbelly used a thumbpick and fingerpicks, Josh White was said to use a thumbpick and fingernails, and I believe Brownie McGhee, who learned from Blind Boy Fuller and even called himself "Blind Boy Fuller #2" at one point, also seemed to use fingerpicks with a thumbpick. So did Fred McDowell, all of which helps debunk theories about black skin being different than white skin. It might suck you into an internet rabbit-hole for weeks to try to determine the right-hand guitar-picking techniques of all those delightful early players, in case you want to imitate their sound. Sometimes the best answers to those questions come from forums and chat groups, but they are also prone to spreading incorrect information.
Strengthening and protecting your nails
Can nails be strengthened?
I'm not wading deeply into this one, since there is so much out there, and I suspect you will have a very hard time finding what feels like the "truth" about this if you go merrily a' googling to find answers. You might have to do your own research, since I suspect there is no single answer for all of us, and some people may indeed have success with methods that don't work for others. A good start would be to browse the nail care aisle at your local drugstore and see if you can find anything that works for you either to paint on or to eat. You might try vitamins or food supplements (gelatin capsules is the one I have heard the most about). My experience is that standard nail polish and also things sold as "nail hardener" are too sticky, and can sometimes interact with sweat and heat up under lights, especially if you are performing with dark nail polish. Not a lot of prominent guitar players use dark nail polish on their picking hands, though some of us will paint a few layers of super glue or "nail glue" which seems to be the same as super glue, readily available in any drug store for around $3 for a small bottle. (The active ingredient in so-called "super glue" is cyanoacrylate.) These glues come either with a nozzle, or with a little brush for spreading the glue around. I personally like the brushes. It's a good idea to choose a brand with a screw-on cap, since you rarely use a whole bottle, and it's nice to not have the glue cap fall off in your hand-luggage.
Filing your nails
It's almost embarrassing how fussy and obsessive (and almost superstitious) some guitarists are about the shaping and filing of their nails. It's also almost a comedy spoof how many different techniques, tools and substances they use or avoid, and their nail care travel kits look like something the Rockettes might carry around. Feel free to search the web for ideas. I'll offer a couple solutions.
Use the right tools. This includes nail files, emery paper, and whatever shaping, buffing & oiling technologies you decide work for you. You'll need to decide if you are the kind of person who is willing to be happy with off-the-shelf universally available nail care products (I am), or if you want to depend on specialized tools. Then you'll need to make sure you have them with your guitar and with you all the time. You can get a nick in your nail anywhere, and if you don't smooth it down quickly with a file, it can snag on your coat or a car seat or something and tear badly.
When I got my first acrylic nails they were way too long, and I absolutely could not file them down with the old emery board or metal nail files I had used for years (middle & bottom.) To file acrylic nails you need the "professional" acrylic nail-busting files. They are double-sided, and less than $1 (top row). My colleague Ken Bonfield recommends the $20 diamond files in his lengthy discussion of acrylic nails:
Learn the angles that work for you. By angles, I mean 1) the outer perimeter of the nail, 2) the transition between the flesh and nail, because the string will hit both sometimes and if you use fake nails or thick coatings on your natural nails 3) the "edge" profile, which is shaped by filing from underneath to thin and taper the edge, like sharpening a knife. This is much harder than shaping the top face, because the top in convex and the underside concave. You'll eventually come up with some moves. The only way to know if it's right is to play guitar. If you like it, it's good. If you don't, then either you have filed too much or not enough.
Repairing your nails
I wonder what they did before super glue, and I also how long it took for the world to discover that super glue was perfect for fingernails. It's also a classic example of how hard it is to find out anything and feel sure that you have the right answer if you try to find the answer on the internet. Try to find if there is any difference between standard hardware store super glue and drugstore "nail glue" other than price and packaging. If you depend on your nails, keep a small bottle of either kind glue with you, because disaster can strike at any moment. I tend to damage my nails much more while doing simple household things or putting on my shoes than I do from doing hard labor or landscaping. Glue bottles can also be dried up when you don't want them to, so keep two with you, since they are cheap and small. You'll find them useful for more than just nail repairs. (You can somtimes quietly fix things you accidentally break, like other people's china.) You may also have success for certain types of nail repair if you use the newer "gel" super glue, though it won't work for crawling into cracks the way regular super glue does.
You can use the glue to repair cracks and cuticles and even cuts & splits in the skin or hangnails, though it stings a bit in a cut. It is way better, faster and less smelly than the old "New-Skin" liquid skin glue that used to be the best option for finger or nail repair. You can also strengthen a weak nail by coating it with many thin layers of super glue, or put a "fake nail" back on if it has come off or is working loose. Super glue normally has capillary action, which means that it instantly crawls under and around things, which is often greatly helpful in the glueing process.
If you do glue your fingers together, use acetone or find anything called "super glue remover" at a drugstore or hardware store. One of the oddest and scariest things that ever happened to me in my music career was a nail repair moment. I had flown to Los Angeles, bought some nail glue, played a couple gigs then drove a rental car to Mammoth Lakes California, altitude 8000 feet for another gig. I was leaning back on the bed, opened the super glue, and the altitude differential caused the super glue to blast out of the bottle like a rocket, missing my eyes by a couple inches. Yikes! I could have been a blind street musician after that...
Prosthetic nail technologies
The last topic to tackle here is a big one, and there are YouTube videos of various people offering their solutions and advice, including James Taylor himself, who has done a nice video explaining what he does, which is a variation of the Riconail system. There are two basic categories: do-it-yourself or the nail salon.
DIY-Ping Pong Balls Etc. A number of my guitar-freak friends have developed their own variations on this DIY idea, where you super glue pieces of cut-up ping pong balls to create prosthetic nails. They are the only product today made out of celluloid, the first commercially available plastic, and what early guitar picks were made out of when turtles weren't involved. There is obviously a lot of experimenting involved to determine how big a piece to glue on, how to conceal the glue joint, what to coat it with after the glue job, and how to shape and maintain the result. It's also hard to work on one of your hands, but this is not the kind of thing where your brother or your friend is likely to help out. Other players swear they get the best results by glueing other substances on, and there are a number of techniques that involve silk, fiberglass or other fabrics together with glue, and sheets of adhesive acrylic plastic.
Nail Salons. On a lark about 10 years ago in Los Angeles I bravely walked into a nail salon to have them give me some acrylic nails on 3 of my right-hand fingers & my thumb to see what the fuss was about, and because the price was advertised on the street at a ridiculous $12 for a full set of nails. (I only got 4, not 10.) My friends in LA said everyone went to the Korean or Vietnamese shops because they were good and low-priced, and then they apparently over-populated in Southern California and got a lesson in capitalism and competition. (In the past few years the standard price for nail care has come down, as those darned foreigners keep showing up and doing this work really well for less money than us Americans.)
I wasn't happy with the results for a few reasons, because they were way too long, and totally the wrong shape. Plus the nail people want to rip and tear at your cuticles, and make the sides of the nails straight, which caused them to file the crap out of my skin, and it took days until it didn't hurt when I played guitar. But what really surpised me was how indestructible they were. I was used to a situation where if I practiced for an hour I could wear down my nails so much that it would interfere with my playing for a week, and suddenly I couldn't wear them down no matter what I did.
Over the years I have refined my communication and nail-managing skills and built a few relationships with nail salon employees in a few places, and I'll tell you what I do that works for me now as I explain the process in case it will help you if you want to try it. I try to always use the same person, so it gets easier once you're in a groove with your local provider.
The process of nail salon sculpted acrylic nails
There are a number of steps involved, and I have found that it is essential to use the word "sculpted." It usually takes about 30-40 mins. on average, so bring a book or a cell phone to read. The idea is they apply a thick paste, almost like troweling on plaster, that they build with a solvent and a little tray of powdered acrylic glue. If your exisiting nails are long enough and strong, they can paint it right on top of your nails, and it can overhang a little without support from beneath.
- Sanding/Cleaning. Like any paint job you need some "prep" work. They use a Dremel tool with a sanding disc and go over the nails to be done.
- Disinfect. Quick paint-over with anti-fungus stuff.
- Add support if needed. Depending on the strength of your nails and on how long you want your finished nails, they super-glue on a plastic prosthesis. This get trimmed and filed down to the basic shape of the finished "nail." I usually intervene and do the trimming myself, so it looks like this before the acrylic, with just the plastic super-glued on and trimmed down almost to size:
- Apply the acrylic. It's quite an art, with a lot of separate motor skills, like watching a master drywaller smoothing their work or a concrete guy leveling a floor that was just poured.
- Let it dry. It used to take 30 seconds when everybody used incandescent bulbs, but the fluorescent lights they put your hands under take 5 minutes or so to dry the nails.
- File to final shape. I do this also. Takes a minute or so to shape the sides and points of each nail so they look right. If they are too long you can always file them later.
- Sand/Buff. The Dremel tool comes out again and the landscape of each nail is made to look as natural as possible.
- Taper the edges. It's apparently the key to making them stay on a long time if the perimeter of the acryic nail is tapered/feathered
- Add polish or oil. Since I don't do polish, this step takes 5 seconds.
Disadvantages of nail salon acrylic nails
- Wrong shape. I like a rounded, spade-shaped nail, and I make my nail-salon people let me do all the shaping and filing, since it's the only way I can make sure it's done right. That can be awkward when you are working with a new person, who may not speak English very well. It makes you appreciate Marco Polo even more.
- Hard to do some things. It's really hard to pick up a dime or do fine work like soldering or surgery.
- I don't like nail polish. It's almost impossible to get nail salon ladies to let you out of the building without nail polish. The polish creates too much friction on the strings, and they feel sticky to me. I just ask for "oil" now. It seems to be baby oil they use. I usually feel like washing my hands when they are done.
- Water can damage them. A day at the beach or a swim in the pool is no big deal, but too much dishwashing can weaken the glue and they'll come off a lot sooner if you're a cook or lifeguard, or tending to a lot of children.
- They yellow with age. If you choose to not use nail polish, they'll get yellow, and sunlight may aggravate this, since it's winter as I write this and my old nails still look fine. You can smooth and buff them with a foam nail sanding block tool, that helps a lot in removing the yellowed outer surface.
- They weaken your real nails. I was warned by friends that fake nails are kind of an addicition, and it's hard to quit. When they come off, you feel helpless, and your natural nails are greatly weakened. I quit a couple times, let my natural nails strengthen back up, then remembered how fast they wear down and how often they break. I do miss the pristine sound of the old days, but as a heavy-handed steel-string player, I have no choice, since my tendons don't like fingerpicks much anymore after 30 years of incessant pounding.
- They can grow mold or fungus underneath that can be very bad. I think the days of that happening were early in the development of this technology, and the nail salon folks have it down now what to do.
- The chemicals involved might be toxic. I spend less than 5 hours a year in the salon, and I am just as fearful of chemicals from my furniture, rugs, shower curtains, and who know what else. The fact that Asian people have taken over the acrylic nail business all over the U.S. is probably analogous to the reasons that everything is made in China. We're glad to not have the dirty air, and we get it cheaper anyway. I think the nails fall more into the category of a job that American workers don't even want to do, like some of those food-processing jobs in the Midwest. I recall walking into a couple American shops and was told that they did not offer sculpted acrylic nails. I think that sculpted acrylic nails are harder to get good at, and probably more dangerous for the workers, but people who hire maids have a similar guilt that the cleaning products they use are poisoning them, and the lawn care people are damaging their hearing as they serve the more-fortunate. Ballet dancers are destroying their feet and legs to dazzle us, and football players are scrambling their brains and wrecking their knees to thrill us with their feats of courage and athleticism. If there is a protest group at my local salon, I'll find another answer and not cross their picket line, but until then I do greatly enjoy my lovely but fake nails. I mow my lawn, paint my house, shovel my driveways, and my wife and I don't hire any other "workers," so whatever guilt someone could try to assign to us we have chosen to ignore for now. I hope I addressed that gracefully, because I have given it a lot of thought.
- They can fall off. Super glue or "nail glue" can save you in a hot moment, and you can sometimes pick up the acrylic nail and glue it back on in a few seconds. When you are panicked and people are watching, you can make mistakes like not positioning it quite right or gluing your fingers to something, so be careful. Otherwise you make a new appointment at the salon.
- They can be very hard to remove. This is a corollary to the previous bullet point, and sounds like an advantage, but it can really slow down the process and be a 20 minute ordeal if you go in for a fill, and your nail person decides instead it's time for a whole new set. Soaking in acetone is the standard solution, but I use the thumbnail of my left hand and sometimes a long narrow jacknife blade to shove under the corner to twist and pry. You can't let anyone else pry them off, because it can tragically tear your weak natural nails in half if the glue sticks too well, and you have to work it for quite a while sometimes. The excruciating pain is an excellent indicator of what is and isn't working. Another reason not to go in too often, unless you have a festival or big gig coming up. I try to remove the old ones myself now just before I go in, to save time and stress.
Advantages of nail salon acrylic nails
- Inexpensive. You don't need a whole new nail job every 3 weeks as your nails grow out, and you can just get a "fill" that is faster and cheaper. I ask for a "fill for 4 fingers please." Every salon I have gone into has only charged me 40% of the "full-set" price, which is usually about $30, which makes my price $12-15. That's just for the nails, and fills are much less. Every set of nails I ever got was so cheap that I felt obligated to tip them generously so for me it's usually $15-18 each time I go in to my local Vietnamese nail salon in my small town in Maine. They are extremely hard-working and pleasant people there, though they must be freezing here all winter. It's always bustling on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings (Salons often take cash only, so it's hard or impossible to get a receipt for your business expenses at tax time.) Last year I spent $124, and I consider that a reasonable cost of being a fingerstyle guitarist.
- Beautiful. When you come out of the salon they look totally like natural nails. No glue joints showing or weird lumpy glue-soaked fabric. Way better-looking than even James Taylor's personal DIY nails.
- You choose the length. You need a base to support the acrylic paste, and if your own nails aren't enough, you just choose how long to cut the plastic piece that is glued on in the early part of the process.
- Almost indestructible. Unbelievably durable and reliable. Any women reading this who have been to a nail salon might already understand the impressive power of this technology. I have been able to practice for weeks as much as I want, jamming hard and bashing away, with no hint of cracking or breaking, even with pretty long nails. And I have dug
sewer ditches, replaced sills in buildings and all sort of carpentry, painting and landscaping projects with my faux-nails never breaking. The only thing you don't want to do is use wood stain where you rub it in with a cloth. It will penetrate into your fingers and nails and look awful for weeks. Wear gloves. In over a decade I have had maybe 3 really unexpected failures of this technology, and I remain extremely impressed with its power and relaiability.
Long-Lasting. I'm constantly amazed at how long my faux-nails stay on, in addition to how tough they are. Here is a nail that was put on 3 months ago, and still holding well and looking OK.
I copied the pic and outlined the perimeter of the "fake" nail in case you had trouble seeing the transition line.) It still works fine, looks reasonable, and very importantly allows the other 2/3 of the nail to get air and stimulation. This is my personal solution to the problem of smothering my nails by leaving the acrylic nails on indefinitely. It seems to have made a big difference for me in nail health. A few years ago, when I took off a fake nail, I was freaked at how weak and soft the natural nail underneath had become. When I remove an acrylic nail now, the nail underneath seems fine, which was not the case at all before I started doing this. ( Here it is removed, ready for sanding and the new acrylic nail. That's a little left-over super glue that will be sanded off before the new nails go on.)
And here is the finished set of nails. Not freakish at all.
Good luck with whatever you decide to do with your nail situation.
This is another posting where I'm trying to raise issues and awareness in the world of modern troubadours... You deserve a reward or a door prize for making it to the end. Please check back to look for new posts as I get them done. I plan to cover a wide range of issues and topics.