Fingers, Picks, or Fake Nails Oh My! Part 2: Should I or Shouldn’t I

EDIT 04/23/19

I was ‘sidelined’ from playing guitar for nearly three years; I believe I did a total of 12-15 shows from the fall of ’16 to the spring of ’19. Tendinitis reared its ugly head. My right hand thumb has been a mess since the middle of ’13 and I injured my left hand badly at a gig in the fall of ’17.

Between the two injuries I decided to take all but a few weeks off in ’18. I played from March 15-April 15 getting ready for two gigs to see how I could do, put the guitar down again until early July and then rehearsed and recorded an album in six 3 hour sessions from August 1st through August 16th. My left hand problems had pretty much resolved themselves, but my right hand was still messed up.

It was during the last week of rehearsals and recording that I discovered that the baritone guitar was the likely culprit in my right hand thumb tendinitis. That and close to 50,000 hours on steel string guitar, mostly using medium gauge strings or even heavier. I ran smack dab into Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

It was basically the same thing that had sidelined guitarist Leo Kottke in the late 80’s. Leo stopped using a thumbpick which allowed him to lessen the recoil and go about his career.

My solution was a bit more drastic, but that’s because I’d basically given up the thumbpick in the late 80’s, and had gone to light gauge string tension on all my instruments over the past 3 years in an effort to help heal my hands.

In November a friend of mine loaned me a nylon string guitar, and THAT was the solution my hands required. The nylon strings I use have a tension approximately 60% of that of the light gauge strings I used, and can still use all my tunings. I was able to mod an inexpensive Cordoba and turn it into a baritone nylon string. And the only mod was widening the nut slots to accept the bigger strings and adjusting the saddle to intonate the strings better.

But you’re here because of nails, and so I want to bring this back to that. This journey from steel string guitar to nylon string guitar has taught me even more about nails.

You see when you play steel string guitar I treated my nails and attack in such a way as to attenuate the highs and on a nylon string guitar I’ve learned to treat my nails to bring out as much of the highs as I possibly can. It’s been a huge change.

I’ve learned that my nails can be short or long, but the most important thing is to keep them as thin as possible. I bought a new Dremel tool especially for keeping the blade of the nail just a bit thicker than my natural nail. This gives me great highs and wonderful volume, and once I found the right length the nails have been pretty low maintenance.

What follows is what I learned from playing steel string guitars. If you’re a classical player take what follows with a grain of salt. The nails I was using on steel string were HORRIBLE on nylon strings. They were much thicker and therefore didn’t impart any of the detail necessary to get a good nylon string sound. Especially on the baritone where detail is very important.

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While it can be a real pain in the ass to those around me, I am gifted with an incredible desire to always get better at what I do. It’s the reason I wake up in the morning, and I honestly can’t understand any other way of living.  The day I wake up and don’t want to improve myself will likely be my last day. To me, self-improvement is my reason to live.

The way this shows up in my musical life is in my experimentation. I am incredibly inquisitive. I love trying new strings, capos, slides, guitars, tunings, and picks. My experiments have yielded tremendous results for me personally. But luckily I am also pretty self-aware, and I know that I typically respond favorably to anything ‘new’ and different.  I LOVE change. Embrace it, and actively pursue it.  I know change causes stress in many folks, but for me change is like taking a great big bong hit of the best weed I’ve ever had; it inspires me and unlocks music that may have never found the light of day otherwise.

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