Recently during my flight across the pond from Florida to the UK for the London Guitar Show, I found myself thinking about what happens when musicians get together. Will there be the usual conversations about new projects in the midst? Are you still playing with so and so or where have you been playing? How’s the family; how’s your health and diet; nice to meet you; what instrument brand are you playing? And on and on it goes at these gatherings.
Of course musicians like everyone else talk about everything human that could possibly come to mind. But after all the gear, the people, and activities drift away, what is the one specific thing unique to fingerstyle guitar players? They talk about fingernail care.That sheepish little topic in reality is probably on par with considerations NASCAR drivers give to the tires on their cars prior to a race. I mean, those little fingers we pluck with produce the note or notes at hand (no pun intended) and their nails need to be cared for on a daily basis.
Looking at it all under a microscope, once any note or notes are played, that’s just the beginning of the musical adventure. Is the note produced from a bare finger, a metal pick, a plastic pick, a natural fingernail, a porcelain fingernail, a fingernail that was put together with cut up ping pong ball parts, tissue paper and super glue? Once the note is produced based on a specific strike, the question I always have is in regards to what kind of a tone I prefer to sustain.Sometimes the note should be a staccato and stopped as abruptly as possible. Perhaps I want the note to ring out for a select duration. A lot of this is determined with the non-plucking hand, but that hand can only work with what initial note it has been offered.
Generally the discussion about caring for nails turns into “the nails vs no-nails approach” to fingerstyle guitar. Perhaps a short nail is to the player’s liking. The latter is my preference, since I am constantly touring. If I just breathe or have a nightmare, it seems like a plucking hand fingernail meets up with some horrifyingly brutal demise and with my luck it’s usually on the way to the show. Then I frantically either chew off the broken nail, or reach in my pocket for a nail file or piece of sandpaper.So at the London Guitar Show, where I was honored to be a part of the UK D’Addario Strings team, in between performing I roamed the halls. One particular booth caught my eye: Wolfram Slides. Curious about their products, I ventured over and noticed that they also had an entire display of high-quality nail files. Putting the slide thought on hold for a minute, I investigated and discovered that these little gems with their own special velvet cases were made from some of the finest Bohemian crystal. Having visited Prague and purchasing a similar file, I was even more excited to find such a file closer to home and one that could cut, shape, and seal in one go. If this sounds like a big deal, it is for a fingerstyle guitar player who takes his craft serious. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve been in a pickle just before a show and the improper use of a cheese grater (dramatic effect here) has caused a nail to chip or wind up in nail heaven. Try to ask around and see who might have a file. I’ve never had more luck than a kind offering of a ragged and used emery board of some sort.
As fate would have it, I did chip a nail prior to playing at the Acoustic Cafe and luckily I had just acquired one of the Wolfram files. Don’t ask why I had not included my other file in one of the compartments of my guitar cases because I carry everything else in there – extra strings, slides, peg winders, batteries, capos, ear plugs, note pad, tape, tuners, a metronome, and a few sharpies. I’m sure I sound like an infomercial right now, but the truth is I won’t go anywhere without one of these files ever again.Sound like I’m off my rocker? Just think of this for a minute. Consider the most valuable tool you have in your trade and ask yourself if you could do without it. What’s the most valuable tool in my trade? The finger that’s playing the note you are about to hear.