You’ve gotten some help with guitar, read some beginning guitar advice on how to guitar, and heard about different ways to start off playing the guitar – using a flatpick to pick or strum the strings, where to strum how to hold the pick, what sort of pick to use. But you like the sound of fingerpicking or fingerstyle guitar with its inherent rhythms and counter point – fingers working independently to achieve a full, complex array of tones and notes that just feel good when you listen to them. There’s players like Chet Atkins and Phil Keaggy, Merle Travis, Doc Watson, Ry Cooder, Leo Kottke and a host of others, both legendary and new on the scene. And the one thing you love most is how each of them can like a whole band playing at the same time.
So, you have your guitar sitting in your lap, across your knee, or suspended on a strap. The strings are tuned, hopefully by using one of the multitudes of electronic tuners available today (I still have an ancient A-440 tuning fork somewhere, but haven’t used it for decades). Your fingers are at the ready – all of them – and you’re ready to make some music.
Make a sound. The sound is waiting right there for you, somewhere between the tension of the strings and the resonant response of the wood – or in some cases the magnetic or piezo pickups. Right there. And the only way to bring it out is to set the string – or strings – in motion. Vibration, from you, traveling through the guitar’s body, the guitar body in turn making the air around it vibrate, and then…into your – or your audience’s ears – to stimulate the eardrum and send that data down proper channels to finally be decoded by the brain.
Most people, like me, would simply pluck the lowest string with their thumb; probably the most natural, instinctive way to get things started. Even strumming across the strings from lowest (thickest) to highest (thinnest), will most likely be done by your thumb. You’ve just set things into motion that can never be taken back, and when you strum the strings the second time, you won’t ever want to take them back.
FROM DULL TO BRIGHT – Discovering Other Tones
You’ll have a small chord-book most likely, or have printed out some sheet music from online, or are just staring at the music on your screen. You’ll see the little ‘chord boxes’ above the lines of standard notation, or perhaps you’ll have a tab (tablature) sitting there. You’re ready to learn fingerstyle guitar.
You place your fingertips, sometimes painfully, to match the chord diagram, hold the strings down and then…strum. You’ll hear buzzes perhaps if you haven’t pressed the strings down hard enough, but…not to worry. That part’ll be fine in a few days.
But above and below those buzzes and fingertip ache, you’ll hear something; something that you created. You’ve strummed a chord of music, a grouping of separate notes that go together musically, pleasantly. It’s something not all instruments can do – instruments like the sax or clarinet or piccolo – because they can only play one note at a time. But now, with the guitar, you’re in league with harpsicords, pianos and organs, xylophones, vibes, vihuela’s, lutes, mandolins and the like.
Strum again with your thumb, the most obvious ‘instrument’ you have to set the strings in motion and make that sound. You’ll use your other fingers as you progress further into finger style guitar playing, but for now we’ll just focus in on the basics.
Most likely your thumb-strum will have a dull-ish, muted sort of tone. Or perhaps, if your thumbnail is too long, you’ll hear a crisper tone – a sliding, brighter sound – and hearing this will make you to try it again. Angling your thumb inwards a bit more, so the nail itself makes contact, you strum again and the tone is more evenly bright.
You now have two separate sounds at your disposal.
SO MANY TONES TO CHOOSE FROM
So, how many sorts of sounds can you make, beyond what you’ve just discovered? First thing to do is to listen. Strum again, maybe using another chord – another formation of fingertips-on-strings, because your hand might be feeling a little tight, maybe a little cramped, holding that first chord for so long. Shake your hand out and go to the next chord on your music.
Listen to how it sounds. Hear any nuances.
Now strum again, using just the fleshy part of the side of your thumb. Mellow, soft, understated. Then strum so the edge of your thumbnail catches the strings: brighter again, and crisper. Louder too, no doubt. But as you strum with your nail, you might hear or feel it catching a little unevenly; most likely on the thinner strings at the bottom of your downward stroke. Take another break, shake out the cramped muscles, and have a look at your thumbnail.
But especially right where it joins the skin at the side of your thumb closest to the strings.
GOOD NAILS, GREAT NAILS – Work With What You Have
You might have been born with great fingernails, thick-walled, shaped well, or you might have thin, uneven fingernails which break or chip or shred easily. Either way, they’re what you have to work with. And if you’re a person into nail care, then you perhaps already know what’s required to keep your nails smooth and well maintained. If not, there’s no time like the present.
To even up the score a bit against your heredity if you have thin, weak nails – or to improve on what you already have if your fingernails are perfect – look closely and see (and even touch) the way the skin at the side of your thumb and the thumbnail itself, flow together. The transition from one to the other. It might be that the nail, if not manicured, will protrude a bit, or have a rough, un-cared for edge; perhaps a weird little bulge. Fingernails grow out a certain way: like hair, they are a product of what, and how well you eat. Certain foods and supplements change the health, thickness and even the shape of your nails to a certain extent.
But there’re things you can do to make up for some of these things.
SHAPING YOUR TONE
That’s right, you can change the tone of your guitar by changing the shape of your nails.
Tone – that dull, fleshy, soft sound, or the louder, crisper sound of a nail being drawn across the strings – has to do with that single point where your thumb touches the strings. A rough, uneven nail/skin contour will give a rough, uneven tone to what you play, whereas, a smoother transition in that exact same spot will – yes – give you a more even, consistent overall sound.
Set your guitar down, wring out those cramps (trying to play beyond pain is…not so good), and go find a nail file somewhere!
First choice might be the little, slide-out file included with most inexpensive nail-clippers. Somehow most dwelling places seem to have at least one of these things laying around somewhere. I don’t know why, but they usually show up in the back corners of kitchen utility drawers, in desks, in the catch-all bowls or dishes on the bathroom sink. These might do the trick for the moment, but if you look closely at the ridges on the nail file, you’ll most likely see little cross-hatched lines on the cutting surface; crisscrossed ridges that do all the actual cutting of the nail.
Use these if you have to, but remember: cross-hatched nail files tear and shred the edge of the nail unevenly. An emory board would do better, since the sand-papery particles give a much more uniform ‘sanding’ of the nail edge. But though emory boards are okay, they do tend to wear out quickly and lose their ‘bite’. And sometimes they’re a little too flexible. They also tend to be a little thick, and what we need is something thinner which can be used right where your thumbnail meets the skin at the side.
Use what you have, but with this in mind: next time you head off to the store, see if you can find a more permanent solution in the form of a metal nail file, but one that duplicates the granular surface properties of sand-paper. These will be called sapphire files, or something similar, but whatever you buy, make sure they aren’t just a longer version of the cross-cut, cross-hatched nail file in your nail clippers. You want to shape and trim, not tear and shred.
LOOKING FOR TONE
Use your eye. Hold your thumb up before you so the fleshy pad of the thumb is facing you. This might take a bit of wrist-twisting, but you can see the curve of your thumb-tip, with the nail in the background. In the case of playing the guitar, overly-long nails are not what we’re looking for. Your other hand – the fretting hand – might have already discovered this while trying to hold the strings down in a chord pattern. It’s almost like typing or playing the piano: long nails get in the way of pressing down nice and straight and getting the most out of the leverage of your finger muscles. The same goes for the fingernails of your finger-picking hand.
So look at your thumbnail and compare it to the curve of your actual thumb-tip. Get the file ready and start cutting away at the edge of your nail (or if you already have your sapphire file, trimming), until it more or less matches the curve of your thumb tip. Leave an eighth of an inch maybe, though you could certainly start with a half inch. Even it up, focusing especially on where the skin to the sides of the nail blend in to the shape of the nail itself. Turn your hand so your thumbnail is facing you, then turn it back around again, comparing what the nail looks like both ways. You should see flesh at both sides of the thumbnail, with a smooth transition where the side of the nail joins into the thumb-tip beyond.
Now turn your thumb so you can see it from the side. Your nail might still have ‘corners.’ Take your file and shape these corners a little more so there’s a nice slope from the tip of the nail back to where it meets the skin. Just think of the way the brim of a baseball cap or sun-visor looks – in three dimensions – and you’ll get the idea of the shape we’re after.
When you’re satisfied – you may or may not have removed a lot of nail – dust things off and take up the guitar again.
Have a strum. Does it feel any different? It might take a little getting used to if you’ve always had long, wide nails which grew over the edge of your thumb tip or had corners, but strum again; though it might feel different, it will probably sound different as well. The idea is to strum the strings without anything catching and yanking one or more of the strings unevenly, making particular strings louder than others. An even tone, from an evenly-shaped nail is what you’re after.
And as you strum, angle your thumb a little, your wrist closer towards you or further way, and listen to the difference in sound – the way it feels as the edge of your nail slides across the string or strings. You might feel another small tug or roughness, and if so bring out the file again and trim just a little more on the contact point against the strings. Make it smoother, experiment, trim, strum, try again.
And be aware of that wrist angle and the different sounds you can get that way.
A TOUCH OF GLASS
One day, years ago, after having had a private classical guitar lesson, the subject of nailcare came up. My teacher told me about sapphire fingernail files. Then he handed me a small square of sandpaper. He hardly had to explain – except about how cross-cut files tore the nails – and simply made the motion of sanding the edge of his nails with the sandpaper. I tried it out, rubbing the fine-grit sandpaper along the edge of my nail for a moment or two. And when examined by running a nail from my other hand across the sanded nail edge, I was amazed: it felt like glass. Smooth, with no bumps or high spots. And when I plucked the low E string, the nail just slid across with no resistance.
Well, maybe plucked, a good word in itself, isn’t quite the perfect one for causing a string to start vibrating: perhaps squeezed is more apt. Plucked implies pulling a thing outward (in this case, the string) and the motion should be more of pressing gently and firmly sideways across the string, then letting your fingertip and nail slide beyond it to come to rest on the string below. Almost like in golf, trying to get out of a sand trap: you don’t try to scoop the ball out, but hit and follow through under it, letting the sand explode the ball out.
And when I squeezed that one note off with my new glassified nail, it was a revelation. The tone was as smooth and even as the glassy edge itself.
Of course, there were still three fingers which needed the same treatment, but that’s something you’ve probably already realized. After all, you’re here to get tips on finger picking – or finger style guitar playing – and your thumb is just part of the equation, right?
AS WITH ONE, SO THE OTHERS – Shaping Up Your Tone
It was coming, but you already knew it. Getting your thumb-nail, that point of contact just right – though it takes a bit of experimentation (thank goodness nails grow back) – applies to all your other nails. Finger style guitar playing usually – though not always – includes your other three fingers: index, middle and ring. In some places you’ll see the shorthand of P I M R, which is P=Thumb, I=Index finger, M=Middle finger, and R=Ring finger, in reference to what combination of all four fingers – either at once or alternating – a certain musical passage requires. There are also some styles which use the thumb, Index and Second fingers, or even thumb and Index finger only; different styles, different combinations. On the other hand, there are some players who incorporate the Little finger in their playing, and, well, why not? The more the merrier.
But usually, to begin with, it’s just the thumb and first three fingers; more than enough for you to eventually play anything you need to.
So now it also becomes obvious that like with your thumbnail, your other playing nails need the same trimming, shaping and smoothing as your thumbnail. And just as before, with your hand up and fingers spread – and your palm facing you – have a look. Too long, no good. Same with too short as you might have discovered already, though playing without fingernails, a lute-thing, is argued over ceaselessly in some circles.
But have a look, trim the nails with the sapphire file you hopefully have or will have, follow the shape and contour of your fingertip itself, and leave just enough nail beyond the tip to actually make contact with the strings. Then use the magic sandpaper and glassify those edges.
I later found out that the sandpaper in question was 3M 415N Silicon Carbide, in a 320 grit. It’s no wonder it’s used to smooth the coats of of paint on cars or to smooth out fine wood furniture before final finishing. It cuts great and doesn’t ‘load up’ with the particles it removes. It also doesn’t have that ‘sticky’ feel when rubbed across a surface due to its stearate coating.
But the sanding of nail edges also has another side benefit: with the surface so smooth, there’s obviously less friction, and with less friction – with no bumps or roughness leftover from the filing – there’s less chance for the nail edge ‘catching’ against the strings and becoming worn down prematurely. Imagine two rough surfaces rubbing together and the friction between them. Make one surface smooth and the friction is reduced. Physicists will probably be able to tell you exactly how much less friction there is, but you get the idea.
Now, as mentioned earlier, if you’ve always had longer nails it’ll feel a bit weird having something actually touching the skin of your fingertip directly – if even just the edge – but it’s an acquired taste; it also gives you a more direct feel of the strings against your fingers, a better sensation as to how much pressure to apply, how the string feels gliding itself into motion as your finger slips over and past it. It’s very much a feel thing, like music itself, but it’s also very much a tone and sound thing, which by this time, even with just a few chords under your belt, you might actually be appreciating.
TONES AND YOU – From This Moment Onward
There are more tones and sounds to be gotten from a guitar than most imagine. And it’s not only effects pedals and dead or live recording booths, or the type and gauge of strings you use, nor the wireless systems or cables or amplifiers or which speakers and which tubes or microphones you have in your rig. It all starts with you, your hands on the guitar; flesh and nail (or metal or plastic fingerpicks or flatpicks or baloney sandwich) against the metal or plastic or silk or gut of the strings, the metal of the frets, and the satiny smoothness of the wood of the fingerboard. It’s how you touch the guitar, what your intent is, what’s on you mind, and it precedes everything else which takes it out to your audience or simply reflects back into your own ears. That’s the start: your fingers on your guitar.
And if you can get into that, right at the beginning – just the joy of making sounds and having these simple, smooth tones – starting with your first acoustic guitar, where most of us start, then it doesn’t matter what sort or style of guitar playing you gravitate towards in the future. Even if you wind up not playing the guitar at all (even after decades I’m still drawn to both guitar and electric bass equally), this basic fingers-against-strings ideology – this idea of playing with your fingers, and having your fingertips and nails properly looked – will still be relevant, still be with you wherever you go, whatever kind of music you play, and on whichever sort of (strummed, plucked, bowed, fretted or unfretted) stringed instrument you get the most enjoyment from!
If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.
Fingers On Strings
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