Guitarists and their nails! Whenever guitarists get together, it doesn't take long before they rather animatedly start comparing nail experiences and approaches: “What files do you use?”, “Do you apply gel or acrylic?”, “How long are they?”, “Are they rounded or ramped?”… I remember as a child those innocent days before I started to play using nails, if only I could go back!
I’ve struggled with paper-thin nails all my life, good tone is hard to achieve; following painting numerous coats of nail hardener, rubbing almond oil in, changing my diet, eating copious amounts of jelly, I eventually gave in and bit the bullet having them coated in acrylic gel - now that they are rigid I can create a decent tone, which the embarrassment of visiting the nail bar doesn’t outweigh. I have been spotted there a few times and always stress very loudly "it’s just the one hand as I’m a guitarist". I wouldn’t advise gel as once you’ve started, your nails are ruined, but I felt I had no option… I do try to let them grow out a little so that roughly half the nail grows uncoated, much to the dismay of the nail bar guy who always tells me off.
The debate over flesh or nail, or flesh and nail is endless (do a Google search, the heated debates are scary). To sum up: flesh for gut strings, flesh and nail for warmth with good articulation and a decent tone, just nail for an ultra articulated, thinner sound… there you go, can of worms well and truly opened.
Whatever the case, it’s good to become obsessed with tone production. Beyond a basic level, it may be necessary to switch from the standard flesh/nail stroke to employ either just flesh, or just nail, to add contrast within a piece of music.
I'd advise that beginners start without nails, but once a guitarist is beyond the beginner stage and pieces become more demanding with a wider range of tones required, it is important to allow the nail to grow just beyond the tip of the finger. Good tone though is dependent upon a highly polished edge (so that the fingernail glides over the nail effortlessly) and a good finger angle, the video explains the process.
I use this exercise as the basis for lots of good technique reinforcement and legato playing.
I approach exercises as a way to prepare the fingers for any eventuality when playing, you are not having to isolate a ‘difficult’ section of music and repeat thousands of times to be able to play with ease - it is better to be prepared for these challenges ahead of time.
I call it the chromatic, but it is really just the four fingers being placed one at a time on adjacent frets in order, once the fourth finger has played you move onto the next string. I find that playing in the higher positions takes away the need to stretch unnecessarily - actually, one of the important things to watch out for is perfect LH finger placement, right up to the fret wire (it’s amazing how little effort is needed to create a clear, buzz-free note).
The right hand can play using i and m alternating, actually it's better (if each note is played once) that m is used first and then i, to avoid an awkward string crossing. Once the left hand is solid, then the chromatic can be used to practise different RH combinations, m and a (a and m), i and a (a and i), p and one I love (but most students are initially horrified at) is i, m and a which combines a sequence of three plucks on the RH with four notes for the LH making a straightforward pattern difficult to adjust to without a lot of concentration.
I would say, to start, that each note should be sounded twice or three or four times and therefore slowing down the LH finger movements, but keeping the rhythm regular - this also gives the RH fingers a greater workout.
It is even a good idea to repeat the exercise silently, without sounding the note at all with the RH fingers. This is a great way to focus our efforts completely on the left hand - as soon as we have to concentrate on something else it becomes too much of a challenge and detrimental to speedy development.
However, besides these different approaches to the exercise, I created the sticky chromatic (explained in the vid) to focus the fingers on (eventually) hovering over the frets when not in use. There is also a synchronisation issue if the fingers are stretched out uncontrollably, they have a long way to travel to the fret and tension and stress develop. Once the sticky chromatic is natural to play, the stickiness can be dropped and fingers can release from the frets when not needed for a note to sound, gently curled (and therefore relaxed) and prepared to fret when needed.
As with all playing it is best to play slowly with a steady beat whilst counting aloud.
Once the guitar is in a decent position and stability is sorted, the position of the hands needs to be addressed.
We have to work within the limitations of our hands and fingers, especially when it comes to our wrists. Play with a bent wrist and the fingers won’t move easily - this is one of the most important points to remember. I was taught to play with a bit of a bent wrist for the right hand, like lots of people back in the day, perhaps something to do with tone; it looks awkward and it is awkward. Playing becomes an uphill struggle, the fingers just won’t move easily. The straight wrist approach has to be adopted for the left hand too, if it isn’t, stretches and rapid movements won’t be possible. More importantly, playing with bent wrists could result in carpal tunnel related problems, so good advice (even when playing with straight wrists) is to take regular breaks when playing and also to practise stretching exercises away from the guitar.
When playing the guitar our focus is on the notes to be sounded, but we mustn’t forget the position of our thumbs, particularly the left hand thumb. It can give stability to the hand and guide the hand when shifting. The video explains how it can help or hinder our playing.
Which leads on to the importance of anchoring our fingers of both hands wherever possible. Left hand: leaving a finger on can make life easier for the other fingers, as long as it doesn’t have an impact on the harmonies - not many actively promote this approach, which is a shame as it really helps with a solid hand. The difficulty is that the finger to anchor changes depending on the context and must be decided 'off the cuff’ (I eventually annotate the score where relevant though).
Anchoring the right hand is pretty straightforward in comparison: if the thumb is playing, anchor the fingers on the first string and if the fingers are playing, anchor the thumb on a string two or three strings lower. You may ask about anchoring the little finger on the soundboard… this is discussed in the video. The important thing to remember is that the anchoring is there to aid the movement of our fingers and as soon as the anchoring creates tension in the hand, it isn’t helpful, rather the opposite.
Lots of guitarists will say they do what’s right for them, but there are certain ways the hands function to enable freedom of movement that we have to work within. You’d think it was the guitar world’s biggest secret given the range of approaches guitarists take - a major misconception is that these principles are reserved for the classical player, but if you look at the best players in any style, they all play with straight wrists and anchor well.
Discussions on tuning the guitar are a minefield and can became very technical.
The techniques often taught by tutorials and online often suggest methods that unfortunately result in a guitar that sounds out of tune.
I remember as a child having to walk to the other side of town to a teacher to tune my guitar, it seemed an insurmountable mystery and when I’d sussed the method, my ears were pretty rubbish at working out if the strings were sharp or flat, it took a very long time to train them. I even invented a self-tuning guitar (in my head)! I saw a Kickstarter campaign recently of the exact device I devised as a nipper - if only I’d have been crazy enough to think it could exist.
These days electronic tuners can do the hard work and the majority of guitarists rely on them - but is the guitar really in tune all over the fingerboard? The open strings will be in tune, but when they are fretted there are discrepancies and adjustments usually need to be made.
Not wanting to be too technical, but the frets of the fingerboard are measured to equal temperament (so that it is possible to play ‘in-tune’ in all keys), each note is a bit out, a compromise - but the ear adjusts to this and we are now generally accustomed to it. Using the other system, just intonation, we would have to have multiple guitars, each with frets measured for just one key, or if you fancy going a bit crazy, one of these: http://www.danterosati.com/justguitar.html
This video explores a more accurate tuning method than the 5th fret model, or than using harmonics, to guarantee the guitar plays in tune all over the fingerboard. One thing to point out is that old strings, high string height or a poorly compensated saddle can impact on tuning accuracy.
As with playing any instrument, good position is the root of good technique. Avoiding tension is really important, not only to be technically proficient, but to enable focusing on making music.
Something as simple as arching the foot creates tension in the body, not only will this cause physical problems long term, but will have a negative impact on your ability to give 100% focus to creating beautiful sounds.
Loafing on the sofa with a guitar may seem relaxed, but much of your concentration will be on creating a stable position for the guitar and not on creating freedom of movement of the hands. Even the wrong height chair will affect your ability to play with ease.
I remember the first lesson with Craig Ogden… shoeless! He was very concerned that my toes were relaxed and not curling - a good point that we need to be relaxed when we play, but not very likely playing in front of such a giant of the guitar world. I remember the chair I had to sit on being very high and having to use his fattest book to elevate my left foot so that the Gitano rest didn’t slide down my thigh (I opted for Harry Potter rather than the complete works of Shakespeare for some reason).
This video looks at devices (footstool, Dynarette, Gitano) to help elevate the guitar to enable a position which gives hands easy access to all frets and stability whilst shifting.