Fingers, Picks, or Fake Nails Oh My!: The Dirty Little Secret of Fingerstyle Guitar


I realize that I haven’t written a whole lot about guitar playing lately.  And ultimately I want to connect to other guitarists be they songwriters or instrumentalists.  So I thought it might be fun and informative to talk about one of the most misunderstood aspects of playing fingerstyle guitar; how we pluck the string. In a style of music known as fingerstyle guitar, which describes how we play rather than what style of music we play, I find it interesting that so little of how we play fingerstyle is understood or known by the general public. Most of us don’t play with our feet; so aren’t all guitarists fingerstyle? So then, what makes fingerstyle, fingerstyle?

The basic definition is that we pluck the strings with our fingers instead of using a plectrum.  That’s it. It’s why when you go to a fingerstyle concert you might hear folk, blues, jazz, celtic, classical, rock, any number of musical genres. I’ve discovered that most folks are amazed at how a guitarist’s left hand can fly over the fingerboard contorting every which way to make complicated chords, all the while not realizing that most of the ‘music’ is coming from the right hand, or plucking hand. There are left handed fingerstyle players and they use their left hand to pluck. So if you’ve ever wondered how we do what we do, and how much time we spend thinking about how we pluck a guitar string, read on. I certainly understand if you’d like to stop here, I’m getting into the weeds with this blog. The tall weeds.

First I should say that one of the things many fans of fingerstyle guitar don’t know about or understand is how much guitarists agonize over how they pluck the strings. Guitarists are faced with many choices, and each have their own strengths and weaknesses, there’s a compromise or limitation for every choice. Fingerstyle guitarists can choose to play with bare thumb and bare fingers, picks on thumb and fingers in a dizzying array of materials and styles, real fingernails,  real fingernails reinforced with super glue, real nails reinforced with acrylic and super glue, ‘tips’, which are fake nails attached to the fingernail, and then reinforced with acrylic and super glue. And many guitarists use a mix of the possibilities above.  Among the nail crowd there is much discussion about the perfect length and shape, and those who use acrylic or super glue can add thickness to the nail discussion.  And those in the pick crowd can usually speak eloquently about different brands or alloys and what works best for them. At one time or another in my 40 years of playing the guitar I’ve tried all of the examples listed above, and I know folks who use all these different methods today, and I know most of them have tried a variety of methods themselves. Let me be clear. There is no right or wrong, there is only what works best for each guitarist, and what works best can change over time.  Don’t beat yourself up about what you like or dislike.  What floats your boat and helps you tell your stories best? Those are the questions to ask, and the answer is what’s right for you.

Mostly the choices we make are about the styles of music  we write and play, which is ultimately driven by how we use our thumb and how we mute strings.  For example, most of the folks that come out of the Chet Atkins or Merle Travis school of guitar playing use a thumbpick and either bare fingers, nails, or fingerpicks.  These folks mute the bass strings with their palms and need the extra oomph the thumbpick gives to the muted bass notes which allows them to keep the volume balanced between the bass and melody as well as stopping unwanted bass notes from ringing too long.

Many of todays percussive guitarists use no picks or nails, just bare fingers. This allows them to tap anywhere on the guitar or fretboard with either hand and get even tone throughout. There are tappers who use picks and tappers who use nails, but it takes a real athlete to deal with the gyrations it takes to tap with nails or picks-it’s hard work physically and the technique has to be spot on otherwise you’ll destroy the instrument, break a nail in the middle of a performance, or just make un-wanted, un-musical noise. Playing with bare fingers allows the guitarist to use palm or thumb and fingers to mute strings from ringing.

Folks who use picks on all fingers are on the decline, but Will Ackerman still uses the same National thumbpick and steel fingerpicks he’s always used and still sounds great, it’s really part of his sound. Chris Proctor is another guitarist who has made great use of picks on all his plucking fingers.  Part of the reason picks are in decline is that more and more guitarists are moving to either playing with their natural nails or using acrylic nails. The tone is much better, and it’s very difficult to get used to using picks on your fingers. They aren’t as loud as picks, but with today’s pickups, amplifiers and microphones guitarists don’t really need to worry about being loud.  And today, more and more guitarists are going the acrylic nail route; either getting them at a salon, or doing it themselves. Steel strings are hard on real nails, and so is life. Acrylics offer tone close to real nails, but without the angst of worrying about breaking a nail-they’re tough, and if damaged easily fixed. You can play any style of fingerstyle guitar with a full set of acrylics, though as I mentioned before, if you’re a tapper you’ll have to develop really good control of your right hand so that you don’t inadvertently break a nail or scar the guitar.  This method also allows guitarists to use palm or thumb and fingers to mute strings from ringing. And while not as loud acoustically as picks, much louder than bare flesh, and usually louder than real fingernails.

I’ve been aware of acrylic nails since the late 70’s when James Taylor came to Dallas and got his nails done at a salon near where I worked at Frets & Strings on Lovers Lane.  At the time I was doing the Leo Kottke thing-a plastic National Thumbpick with three National steel fingerpicks on my fingers.  Leo called it the Freddie Krueger starter set.  I could play really loud, but after I found out about JT, I went to that salon and I’ve been using ‘store bought’, acrylic fingernails ever since.  Over 35 years at least. It’s s huge part of my sound.  HUGE.

After almost every performance and after every workshop I’ve offered there are a handful of guitarists who wait to the bitter end, hemming and hawing while I’m packing up, just to ask me about my fingernails.  So here’s some real detail on how I do my nails.  When the construction crew is finished around here I’ll create a video so you can see how I do this-but for most folks this should be a pretty good ‘how-to’. And this might be a good place for non-guitarists to walk away-your opinion of me might suffer upon further reading.  But for the brave and curious, here goes.

If anyone were to ask me what the core component of my sound is, I think most folks would be surprised to hear me say my nails, but it’s true. That’s the key for me. I’m not me unless my nails are just so, and it’s why I’m so anal about my nails.

The picture above shows what my nails look like right after a visit to the nail salon and have a set of acrylic tips ‘installed’ on my thumb, index, middle and ring fingers. This picture was taken after I had done the final shaping and smoothing. First let me say that I only go to the salon when I break a nail to the point that an extension or ‘tip’ is required. I think that this is a part of the process best done by a pro with two hands.  Before I go to the salon I clip my nails almost to the quick. When I go to a salon I ask for tips and acrylic on four fingers. You’d be surprised, most nail attendants have experience with guitarist’s nails.  They glue a tip on each finger to lengthen the nail, and over that they put a mixture of acrylic topped with brush on super glue until the nail is 2.5 to 3 times the thickness of my normal nail. I have them make my thumb nail about twice as long as my other nails. I have them leave my nails extra long and do the final length, shaping, and smoothing when I get home. This costs about $15 plus a tip for 3 fingers and my thumb.

When I get home I use 4 different nail files; one very rough for length and rough shaping, then two Sand Turtle files, Fine and Super-Fine, for the first two smoothing ‘applications’ and final shaping, and lastly I use a Mambo 3-way buffer to get the nails glass smooth. I pay special attention to the edge and bottom of the nail which contact the string the most, but also make sure the top of the nail is smooth too so that it can be used to strum or ‘bounce’ off a string without sounding rough or raspy. I use the 3-way buffer 2-3 times a day if I’m in my normal 2-3 hour playing regimen.  Sometimes more and sometimes less.  It doesn’t take long for steel strings to abrade even a reinforced nail and I can hear the change. Luckily, once the final shaping and smoothing are done, these ‘touch-ups’ only take seconds to do, but really do bring dramatic results.

I am able to maintain my nails with brush on nail glue and acrylic powder. I’ll say this again; the only time I go to the salon is when I need a tip to reach the correct length. I’ve had problems with self-glued tips staying on, and I have damaged my nails trying to deal with that problem. So I end up going to the nail salon about once every 15-18 months. I’m really good about wearing gloves when I’m doing anything with my hands, and I’ve gotten really good with super glue to fix the little mess-ups that don’t require tips.  About once every 10 days, more often if I’ve been in water a lot, I check the edges of the nails, smooth any loose bits that are created by growth and moisture, then brush on nail glue to ‘seal’ those edges, and then I file that down smooth so that the edges can’t catch on clothing, strings, what not. I use a soft rectangular block med/fine file for this type of work on top of my nails. I may do this two to three times on ‘problem’ nails, but this rarely takes more than 15-20 minutes for all four.  I use a spray on nail glue dryer that works immediately and I can do a final shaping and smoothing of my nails using the 4-File method explained above within the 15-20 minute time frame. I just did this today.

About every 6-8 weeks I apply brush on glue from just above the white portion of the nail to just below the cuticle, then dip the nail into acrylic powder several times, let it dry for a few minutes and then apply brush on glue to the whole nail and spray the nail glue dryer over that. I don’t add much if any acrylic near the tip or plucking edge of my nail since it’s already the right thickness. By adding this to the middle of the nail it’s less messy, less filing to shape, and looks and sounds better. I’ve found it easy to get the end too thick thus muting the sound if I apply glue and acrylic to the whole nail.  I may repeat this procedure on any problem nails or nails that have gotten too thin.  Even though I use the spray-on nail glue dryer I let the nails ‘rest’ for about 45 minutes before I do the final shaping and smoothing to let the acrylic powder dry fully and harden.  In fact, if I’ve had to really pile it on I may wait until the next morning to shape and smooth-especially if the environment is humid. You want it dry and hard before filing or you’ll have a mess. Once hard I file this down smooth and to the thickness I think will work using the block top file, and then deal with the plucking edges using the 4-File method, and then I play and listen.  If the sound is ‘thin’ to my ear, I’ll add another coat or two until I get the desired tone. If the tone is too muted I’ll file the thickness down until it gets the tone where I want it. I’ve learned that you can’t have your nails too smooth, but they can be too thick or too thin. Overall, not counting drying time this takes about 45 minutes.

All of the materials I use can be bought at Sally’s Beauty Supply either online or in the store.  Including my salon visits I spend about $100 a year on my nails, most of that is on nail files pictured below. In addition to the files I use Omega Labs Brush-On Nail Glue, “Hurry Up” Nail Glue Dryer in a 7.2oz can that lasts about a year, and Aspire Bonding Acrylic Powder for touch-ups. I have a 1.6oz jar that is likely a lifetime supply.


I know this seems like a lot of work to just play the guitar, and maybe it is, but to be able to get a consistent sound that I know I can count on day after day, well, that’s worth every minute and every penny to me.  I wouldn’t do it any other way. I know, because I’ve tried. And to be honest I just love the looks on women’s faces when this big old hair hippy walks into a nail salon or Sally’s Beauty Supply-that’s priceless.

So, what’s your dirty little secret?

Cheers, kb

21 thoughts on “Fingers, Picks, or Fake Nails Oh My!: The Dirty Little Secret of Fingerstyle Guitar

  1. I’ve been using acrylic nails for about five years. I go to a salon about once a month and just have them filled. I do the shaping myself.
    I could not play the style I have developed without them.


    • Lawry I couldn’t agree with you more. I go less often than you do, I’ve learned to do the fills myself. I only go in if I break a nail and need them to glue an extension on. I love that I can customize the tone by adding more acrylic to get a thicker sound or if they get too thick I can just file them down a bit. It’s gotten so easy to ‘dial’ in my sound, and over the years I’ve learned how to use my right hand fingers to damp strings a technique that would be impossible if I used picks.

      Cheers, kb

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice article, esp. in highlighting the different genres & why they make the nails choices they do.

    Myself, awhile back I was trying to grow real nails for teaching myself classical guitar. Very difficult, as I had a great thumbnail and index finger, a so-so middle finger, and an abysmal ring finger. During that period I was soaking my nails in jojoba oil every day, plus occasionally repairing splits w/ fabric & glue. Alas I had to give up classical for left-hand reasons that I won’t go into. I still play jazz electric & although I’ve always used a pick, I’m contemplating adding fingerstyle. In my case I dislike the weak sound of nails on electric guitar strings and prefer the soft sound of flesh, a la early Joe Pass or present-day Tim Lerch.


  3. Great stuff, seriously!
    Love the line “If the super glue glows, you’re in deep shit…” Guffaw !
    I will finish watching the video when I wipe the beer off my beard and my desk 🙂
    Going out to buy nail glue & maintenance supplies, and a paper ‘huffing’ bag (kidding about the bag) 🙂
    My wife seemed quite happy to come along to see when I ask the nail lady her for a manicure and nail tips 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yeah-I can identify with all the nail problems you addressed. I’ve fingerpicked for about 45 years and this is the first time I’ve read anything about using multiple layers of super glue and acrylic powder. Im gonna do it! I keep a set of “ALASKA PICKS” in my guitar case, each labeled as to which finger its to be used on. (they are shaped like I do my natural nails.) BTW: If you have to do dishes you can use a rubber glove – just put a bunch cornstarch in so it’ll stay dry inside.


  5. Great article Kb,
    I’ve been playing non fingerstyle for 30 years, but in the last couple I’ve been trying hard to improve my sound…and to boot have fallen in love with steel string acoutic all over again. So fingerstyle (for me) is a no brainer, but I continue to break and split my thumbnail. Very frustrating, so I guess I’m going to attempt acrylic nails. Not sure if I’ve got the eggs to go to a nail salon..guess I’ll see. Thanks..Great Info here
    mike I


    • That was probably an emergency. I used to live in Annapolis in the late 80’s and talked to Charlie about lessons. From what I remember Charlie used a linen wrap over his nails which was common of nylon string players at that time-acrylic was too glassy, too thick to do nylon strings justice-just can’t get enough high end.


  6. I’ve always opted for using my fingers instead of picks but I’ve never decided to grow my nails to use as picks. The reason is because I find that growing your nails is a variable that is much harder to control than simply using your fingers or a pick. You can always buy a new pick and your fingers aren’t going anywhere but nails grow and break (well, at least mine do) and it’s too risky to rely on when I’m gigging constantly.


    • And your point is the very reason I used acrylics and no gel nails. For all practical purposes when I go to a salon, as I will today, I’m having them build 4, semi-permanent, custom picks. They don’t break and have a more consistent sound than natural nail. And personally I think it’s cool that two people did exactly opposite things based on the same reasoning. There’s no wrong way, there’s just the right way for you. Cheers, kb


  7. Well I’m no musician but love their sound and came across this while googling an idea I had this weekend I will share with you folks if its ok.
    First I don’t typically, if ever ( love this phrase), comment but found the need to point out that the years that have passed from the first to the latest reply from the author kind of caught me by surprise. Despite the 3 times I was warned on reading on due to the esoteric content I endured and learned because of it. So in kind I read all comments and replies and well, I figured I would pass along an apreciation. Its apreciated for keeping this forum of communication open for such a long time. In an era when its not the norm, you have kept it open. Literally in time, and in quality, for its open for me to comment and the people who have contributed have kept an open mind.
    So that out of the way I will try to be succinct.
    I from the dollar store purchased some glue on nails for an idea I had on a loathsome task ahead. Small shrimp are a pain in the butt to peel but make the best ceviche. As I’m in construction, have been for 27yrs I have no need to grow my nails longer than normal. I’ve been peeling shrimp for longer always trying something different to make this go faster and having longer by anbout 3/8″ thumb and pointing finger on both hands did the trick. It went twice as fast with the added use of nails to “dice up” the little shrimp into little pieces another time consuming task.
    Anyways thats all I got wouldn’t find it anything but obvious on the why no reply to this comment as I am having a good laugh as I write this and that’s good enough for me.
    As an aside and having a staunch record of hetero living and non judgemental way of being I was surprised no products or even mention of “fake nails” for men could be found in the first 5 google page results other than for crossdressing.
    I can assure you having this experience that in the construction industry there are several times when this application would be productive in time and health of the worker. Myself in my youth broke, blew out or split my fingernails on occasion but much more common were the day to day chips and tears that were constant and painfull that could be unnecessary.
    Someone could become a millionaire or perhaps this ious a dumb idea.
    Thanks for the article like I said I learned from it and Les Claypool and Joey Santiago and The Tragically Hip are my fav.


    • Hi Manny, I love it. You’re not alone in using nails for something other than playing guitar. I don’t use my pinkie finger on my plucking, right hand but allow that nail to grow longer because it’s a useful tool I can use without messing up my guitar nails. I do the same thing with my thumb nail on my left hand. Glad you found something here for you even if you don’t play the guitar. Cheers, kb


  8. Great article… I’ve been using acrylics on my three fingers for a few years now. Nothing else I’ve tried comes anywhere near working as well. I’ve been frustrated by having them grow out and need replacing so I’m gonna try filling them in as you suggested.

    I haven’t tried adding the acrylic to my thumb though because the nail is so curved that when it gets long it grabs / hooks the string instead of plucking it. I have a pretty tough callous on the thumb and my OM is a little bassy anyway so the sound isn’t terrible as is… …but do you think that if I put on an acrylic thumbnail I could shape it somehow and get it to work? So far I haven’t dared try it.



    • Hi David, I’m glad you found this useful. And the key really is the maintenance in between visits.

      I do think you could use acrylic on your thumbnail. My right hand thumb nail also doesn’t grow out the same as my others. And I have another dear friend who is a great fingerpicker who also has a bad right thumb nail and acrylics were his answer, and mine too. They can create an even surface both on top and underneath where the string makes contact. Hope this helps. Cheers, kb


  9. Really interesting! I stumbled onto this blog this morning – I snapped my beautifully-cultivated thumb nail off at the quick yesterday while cleaning the garage (I know, I know, gloves, etc.). The callouses are there, but don’t give me the ring as nicely as well-tended fingernails. I was bitching and moaning about the two gigs I have coming up this week, and my wife finally said “Stop whining, and come over to the salon with me this afternoon, Juun will do you an acrylic replacement”. I scoffed, then went on-line. I’m a travis-pickin’ 75-year-old who has never used a pick of any kind, on any type of axe (two Martins and an old Ovation set up for slide at present) but I guess it’s time to drop my I-grow-my-own prejudice, especially since old age and arthritis are already taking their toll. Thanks to all contributors for your input.


    • I think you’ll love what the nail salon can do for you. You may have to use some different files, and you’ll need to get some brush on nail glue to get your through the time in-between salon visits. You don’t want to let air or moisture get between your nail and the acrylic nail.

      Best of luck and feel free to email me with questions.

      Cheers, kb


  10. Tips and acrylics for me – sometimes a bumblebee thumbpick with the bass muted as you said. I’ve given metal fingerpicks the last chance they’ll ever get 😉 The sound is just to harsh for me.


  11. Thanks for a great article. I used to have great nails, and never had any issues with breaking, despite playing a steel string acoustic a lot. But over the last couple years, something has happened and my nails are paper thin and splitting. “Age” says my doctor. I’ve been experimenting with different finger picks, but don’t like having to put them on and off between slow and fast songs. So I started thinking about getting fake nails. Another musician friend always got them for her playing, but this is the first time I really needed them. Thank you for the great tips and allaying my fears about cost and maintenance and safety. Now, all I have to do is find a safe salon. (btw, I found a great video from James Taylor talking about his fake nails).


    • Good for you. I love the consistency I get from salon nails. I tried to do them myself for a long time and it just didn’t work well for me. My ‘at-home’ focus is on maintenance using brush on nail glue to insure the edges of the manicure don’t lift and get air and water under them. Best of luck.

      Cheers, kb


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