I want to play the guitar but don't want creepy nails.
February 25, 2013 11:19 AM   Subscribe

Can you point to me some acoustic guitar players who play fingerstyle with their skin rather than their nails?

I have played guitar off and on for a long time with varying degrees of proficiency. I like playing fingerstyle, but have no desire to grow my nails. Partly because I work as a nurse and that would be gross and also probably cut the 100 pairs of gloves I put on every night. And partly because it looks really awful to me.

That said it seems like 100% of famous players I know about who fingerpick use either fingerpicks or grow their nails. I was originally a bass player and sort of fetishize the idea of skin on strings. Can you give me any examples of (well known/famous) acoustic guitar players who play with their skin rather than nails?

The only person who comes to mind is Wes Montgomery and he's not really an "acoustic" player.
posted by mockpuppet to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I play acoustic a lot, and long creepy nails are not necessary. I will use a flat pick between thumb and first finger and pick the rest of the strings with the other three.

The pick used like this provides a LOT of flexibility.

Fingernails of 1/16" are sufficient for crisp sounds. The flat pick can provide all the low end volume and attack you want and the three other fingers can decorate. You also have the backside of the nails for powerful down strokes.
posted by FauxScot at 11:30 AM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

They make pointy little hats for fingers for this, if I recall (housemate who was well regarded fingerpicking guitarist, an actual genre).

(On edit: yep, these.)
posted by availablelight at 11:54 AM on February 25, 2013

FWIW half the people I know play doing exactly what FauxScot described, and most are better than me.

I've played for almost exclusively acoustic for 38 years, and I've never used fingernails. Tried thumb/fingerpicks but they always just seemed weird, like cellophane tape on a kitten's paw.

Just start playing, and you'll get used to it. Sure it takes a slightly different attack on the strings, you got to get to where you are grabbing them right, but once you do I think you'll find there is a whole lot more nuance available, and a lot less manicuring required.
posted by timsteil at 11:55 AM on February 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Mark Knopfler does not use fingerpicks, thumpicks, or fingernails. He has said in interviews that he picks "really from skin, but sometimes the nail will catch." Here's a video of Knopfler playing a duet with Chet Atkins on acoustic guitar, to give you an idea of his acoustic steel string tone. Chet Atkins had carefully-manicured and maintained nails and used a thumbpick. Knopfler's tone is as good as or better than Chet's. Here's Mark Knopfler talking about and demonstrating his various fingerpicking techniques and showing how his fingerpicking style evolved (it's amazing - watch it).

Tommy Emmanuel uses a thumbpick but doesn't use fingerpicks and does not have his nails grown out at all. I've never found thumbpicks to be necessary or particularly useful, but Emmanuel seems to like an extremely heavy flatpick, so I assume his thumbpick technique relies pretty heavily on what he is used to when flatpicking. You can see his right hand fingers pretty well in this video.

I don't really keep track of which famous players do what with their nails, but I do a fair bit of fingerstyle acoustic playing, as do a lot of my professional guitar player friends, and neither I nor anyone I know who is not a professional classical player has the fingernails or the fingerpicks. We all just use our fingers. I can tell you with full confidence that it is totally normal to use neither fingerpicks nor "grown" nails. If you want to hear what it sounds like when I play acoustic guitar parts fingerstyle without fingerpicks or nails, just skin on string, I played that way on my cover of "Heroin" on MeFiMusic for the Velvet Underground album challenge (a sloppy example because of the style of the song, but it'll give you an idea what it sounds like when someone who is not a guitar god plays that way).
posted by The World Famous at 12:00 PM on February 25, 2013 [8 favorites]

I play fingerstyle, but just broke my middle nail. I have used fingerpicks (and thumbpick) off an on and need to start again until my nail grows back (I like playing with nails better).

You can get fingerpicks in different gauges, and you might want to play around with that. I actually use different gauges on my forefinger and middle finger, respectively.
posted by Danf at 12:03 PM on February 25, 2013

John Fahey played with finger picks sometimes, but not always. Here's a video of him playing Poor boys long way from home, and looking rather umkempt, but still making really beautiful music.

Also, a lot of old blues singers played without creepy fingernails and usually with just a thumb pick, if that: Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Bukka White.
posted by colfax at 12:25 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

One that comes to mind for me is Etta Baker, a Piedmont blues artist out of North Carolina. She played with a thumb and index finger, no picks and no creepy nails. Also, many of the Delta blues players were skin only. Also, Elizabeth Cotton.
posted by wolfgirl at 12:50 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not famous, but I fingerpick (or I used to, I'm out of the habit) using just my fingers and I have short nails. It's just how I'm comfortable.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:22 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

My favorite guitarist is Don Ross and he uses fake nails.
posted by mannequito at 1:48 PM on February 25, 2013

Ani DiFranco is in the fake nails camp too.
posted by gregglind at 2:09 PM on February 25, 2013

Elliott Smith was somewhat known for having bitten fingernails and relying almost entirely on a fingerpicking style of guitar. His trick was to play a guitar that was very "bright" sounding that compensated for the softness of sound that fingerstyle without nails produces. Here are a couple of examples of his playing.
posted by averageamateur at 2:10 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here are Elizabeth Cotten's not-at-all-creepy hands.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:10 PM on February 25, 2013

I've been playing fingerstyle guitar and banjo for about a decade now and I've been working in glove-requiring clinical settings for about half as long. Though I'm proficient with fingerpicks, I much prefer to use a thumbpick and grow out the nails a little on my first, second, and third fingers. It's a tone thing and totally a matter of personal preference. For what it's worth, though, I've never had a glove break because of my nails, and never had a patient complain (though I do have to percuss patients using my non-dominant hand because of the nails on my dominant one).
posted by The White Hat at 2:39 PM on February 25, 2013

I tend to prefer a plastic thumbpick and fingerpicks, both metal and plastic. I have a resonator and a number of dreadnoughts which I use in normal and open tunings. However, when I noodle around on my gut string guitar, I play without picks. I've been a long-time admirer of Leo Kottke, who went through a transition from fingerpicks in his early career to a no-pick approach for medical reasons. He discusses it here.
posted by CincyBlues at 3:14 PM on February 25, 2013

I use flat pick/two&three fingers, (nails come and go) style. I never got used to thumb pick or finger picks, even though I tried. One of my guitars works just fine without the flat pick, but I play different stuff with a pick.

Knopfler: "..you just have to want to play" pretty much says it.

By the way, the Knopfler cuts inspire me to practice. The Emannuelle cuts just make me want to lean the guitar against the wall and kick into kindling.
posted by mule98J at 6:59 AM on February 26, 2013

This was great. Thanks!
posted by mockpuppet at 2:08 PM on February 26, 2013

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