The guitar is a popular instrument for many reasons. It sounds great, can be played by anyone, and is relatively easy to learn. But if you’ve got long nails, especially large acrylic nails, you may be wondering if it’s possible for you to play.
Pressing the strings against the frets, holding plectrums, strumming, and plucking the guitar all require the dexterity of the fingers, especially the fingertips. So how do long or acrylic nails affect that? Let’s find out!
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How Long is Too Long?
The definition of a ‘long’ nail is relative. What is long to some may not be considered long to others, and when it comes to guitar players it’s a whole other story again. Most of the time, a nail that protrudes significantly past the soft pad of the fingertip is considered ‘too long’ to play guitar.
When a nail does begin to grow significantly longer than the actual flesh of the finger, it can become a hindrance to your playing. To compensate, you may need to change your playing style altogether or consider trimming your nails – even if that’s only on the one hand.
However, this has been proven not to be the case. Players like Dolly Parton and Miley Cyrus have been known to regularly play with long, artificial nails on the fingers of both hands.
So how do they do it?
It’s all About Style
The Strumming/Picking Hand
Playing style is a major deciding factor in how long or short you can have your nails, or if you can play wearing acrylic nails.
Fingerpicking styles, for example, actually benefit from the guitarist having long nails, especially on their strumming or picking hand. A hard nail to make contact with the strings can provide more resonance, and a firmer, stronger tone than a soft fingertip.
Some country and classical players will actively grow the nails on their right hand for this purpose. Having a long and strong thumbnail can be an extra help, as it can act as a reliable natural pick for bass notes when playing in the fingerpicking style.
If you tend to use a plectrum when you play, especially if you strum more than pick, then the length of your nails on your right hand (strumming hand, assuming you’re right-handed) shouldn’t matter at all. As long as they’re not so long that you cannot comfortably use a plectrum!
If you find that when holding a plectrum, your nails are still making contact with the strings, then you may need to trim them slightly.
Long nails, and especially acrylic nails, can be a major advantage when fingerpicking with steel strings. Steel strings are much tougher on the nails and can damage them over time, especially when playing upbeat and high-energy music such as flamenco or bluegrass.
In this case, acrylic nails can really help protect your natural nails and even add a little more of a resonant twang to your sound.
Some country music players actually opt to get acrylics on their picking hand for this exact reason!
There is a Limit!
Do be aware that if your nails (acrylic or natural) are excessively long, all of these benefits go out the window, and problems resurface.
Nails that hang or curl off the edge of the finger can easily get caught in between strings, and catch and snag. This will not only totally ruin your practice or performance, but it can damage your nails too.
The Fretting Hand
This is where playing with long or acrylic nails can become really difficult. Whereas you can definitely make long nails work to your advantage on the strumming and plucking side of guitar playing, fretting the strings to produce the right notes is a different story.
Nails lack the strength and surface area to comfortably and effectively fret the string against the fretboard. Attempting to do this with long nails will either result in a poorly fretted string, with buzzing, crackling sounds to the note; or damage to the nail or even the wrist of the guitarist.
The only exception comes when playing barre chords, which utilize the whole length of the finger to fret all the strings in one go. But even then, the other fingers are normally assigned other strings on other frets to press on their own.
Unless you adapt an alternative tuning where you can play all chords as barre chords (this is what Dolly Parton does!), you’ll struggle to fret effectively with long acrylic nails.
Unfortunately, adopting an alternative tuning such as open E, like Dolly, is the only option available to those of you who are entirely opposed to cutting your nails, or getting rid of the acrylics!
Acrylic Nail Sculpting
Some country players will absolutely refuse to give up their acrylic nails! And in these cases, they get their nails specially sculpted in a way that doesn’t hinder their playing at all.
This may be slightly shorter and more rounded tips on the left (fretting) hand, and sturdy, pointed, plectrum-like tips on the right/picking/strumming hand.
As you can see, having acrylic nails is not the major roadblock you may imagine when it comes to playing guitar. Sure, it will make things a little more difficult and may limit you to certain playing styles or tunings, but it definitely is not a major hurdle, and can even be an advantage!
The main problem arises from having long acrylic nails on your fretting hand, as pressing the strings down effectively when you’ve got a long nail protruding from the ends of your fingers makes things significantly more difficult.
This is where you may have to finally make peace with the idea of either abandoning or at least trimming your acrylics on the one hand!
At the end of the day, it’s up to you. They’re your nails, and if you can find a way to comfortably adapt without having to lose them, then I say go for it!