If you’ve ever paid close attention to the nails of a professional guitarist, there’s a good chance that you’ve noticed that they’re not the most pleasant sight folks can rest their eyes on. Okay, that might be an overstatement, and we rarely want to offend someone. Even when we talked about why some guitarists are so arrogant, we tried to be as less offensive as possible. Anyway, today we’ll show you how to protect your nails when playing guitar!

Okay, so what can a person do to ensure the safety of their nails while playing the most widely recognized string instrument the world has seen? Well, that’s what you’re about to find out. Also, in the text that we’ve prepared for you today, we’ll consider some additional nail-protection-when-playing-guitar info. As always, stay tuned!

There are many ways you can protect your nails when playing guitar. Regular intake of nutritional supplements and exercise are the least you can do. Also, you could try to use nail hardening products or simply avoid using the clipper. Don’t hesitate to use some hand & nail cream too. 

By reading only the preview, you’ll miss out on some fantastic Dolly Parton trivia. Even though that sounds a bit on the absurd side, check the article below to see what we’re talking about!

Table of Contents

Does playing guitar damage your nails?

First things first, let’s consider some info concerning the relationship between your precious nails and your favorite instrument. It’s like a tradition, here at Music Gear Heads, to tackle some broader themes during the intro section. So, yeah, does playing guitar really damage your nails, or was that first paragraph something you’d call jibberish?

Don’t worry, it wasn’t jibberish at all. Guitar playing can actually damage your fingernails. However, the amount of harm such activity can do will depend on the skill of a certain player (beginners are, of course, at greater risk), or the type of materials used in the production of the strings themselves. For instance, a nylon string won’t much damage while a steel string might the harsher option. Anyway, guitar playing can result in the chipping, breaking, and cracking of the fingernail ends.

However, one should keep in mind that fingernails, just like other parts of our bodies, actively respond to stress. Therefore, as guitar player gains experience, the skin on the tips of their fingers and fingernails themselves will thicken accordingly. All in all: the more you play, the stronger your nails. Also, if your thumb hurts while you’re playing, here’s where you’ll find the solution.

Okay, now that you’ve realized guitar playing can actually damage your fingernails, let’s see if there’s a proposed length of nails a guitar should “sport”.

How short should my nails be for guitar?

It’s only natural one should assume that the length of the fingernails might have some influence over the sound that’s coming out of your instrument. However, there’s an assumption that mightn’t be totally right. It goes something like this: long nails are a necessity if you want to achieve great tone and volume. You’ll want to know that. in certain cases, longer fingernails can decrease the overall versatility of your guitar tone by making it unable for you to use the flesh & nail combo. All in all: keep your fingernails about 1-2 mm over the edge of your fingertips.

PS. They say that the shape of your fingernails is much more important for the tone of your guitar than their length. Let’s see if that’s the truth!

How to cut and shape nails for guitar?

Okay, before we continue our little talk on the ideal fingernail shape, know that there isn’t something you’d call an ideal fingernail shape for playing guitar. As we’re sure you know, not everyone has the same set of nails. Anyway, the right way you’ll shape your nails will depend on the curvature of the fingernails themselves and your playing style. Also, there are three phases you’ll need to pay attention to and understand before you set out to shape your nails in the right manner:

  • Phase #1 (Contact point). Even though this so-called contact point has a certain effect on the tone, it’s more important because of its significance in establishing control, characterizing the feel, and enabling speed. Anyway, you’ll want to shape your fingernails so that both flesh & nail hit the string simultaneously. Balance is key.
  • Phase #2 (String travel). You’ll want to watch carefully how your fingernail moves the string as you play your instrument. Keep in mind that shapes that move the string parallel to your guitar top will help you create a brighter tone, while shapes that push the strings downwards towards the top will assist in getting a richer, deeper tone.
  • Phase #3 (Release point). Shaping your nail so that it falls away in a gentle manner will help you reach a cleaner sound, a more rounder sound. On the other hand, a steeper string release will assist you in achieving a brighter tone. Here’s our suggestion: shape your nails into a smooth angled ramp shape. That will give you a richer, deeper tone, thanks to both flesh & nail.

Okay, so this intro segment got a bit out of control here (in terms of length). Without further ado, let’s consider the main question for today: how do you protect your nails when playing guitar?

A person with both hands placed on the guitar, with long nails.

How can you protect your nails while playing guitar?

So, now we know that damaging your nails during guitar play ain’t such an uncommon thing. Quite the contrary, many guitarists (especially beginners) face this issue. That being said, we had to check if there’s a way to protect your nails when playing guitar. Here’s what we’ve found!

#1 Nutritional supplements

There’s no need to emphasize that our nails will benefit from various nutritional supplements, especially those that are associated with joint health. Also, consider eating gelatine. In the simplest of terms, a well-balanced diet is a path to having healthy nails that are more resistant to breakage.

#2 Avoid using the nail clipper

You should avoid using the nail clipper by all means, and use only files. Our suggestion is that you should begin the process with a diamond file, and move on to the light files.

#3 Protect your nails from the extreme cold

In other words, wear gloves when it’s cold. Also, you should avoid washing your hands with hot water, whenever possible.

#4 Regular exercise

That’s right! As we’ve already noted, keeping your body in shape will also have some influence on the state of your nails.

#5 Use hand & nail cream

Some folks suggest that regular usage of top-quality hand & nail cream can prove very beneficial for the shape and state of your fingernails. Massage it into the cuticles of your nail bed twice a day and rest assured you’re doing everything that’s in your power to keep your nails healthy.

#6 Is your nail catching onto your string?

Additionally, you could try experimenting with the so-called attack surface of your fingernail. Say that you’re fingernail is catching onto the string. If that’s the case, you’ll want to try to opt for a straighter line along the edge of your nails.

#7 Use nail hardeners

Did you know that flamenco and classical guitarists use the so-called hardeners (sometimes called nail strengtheners) to protect their nails while playing guitar? These folks apply it about once per week. However, how frequently you’ll use them will depend on the amount of playing that you do on a weekly basis. For more info about this, consider reading the article on why guitarists paint their nails.

Okay, that’s all that we’ve prepared for the main segment of this article. Anyway, don’t you remember we mentioned Dolly Parton somewhere near the beginning? That’s right, we’ll finally tackle that bit!

How does Dolly Parton play guitar with long nails?

There’s a good chance that if you’ve ever watched Dolly Parton play live, you’ve asked yourself: now, wait, how can she play with such long nails? If the last sentence seems recognizable, scroll down to find the answer.

Anyway, once during an interview, Dolly was asked the question in the title of this paragraph. Do you know what was her answer? She said: well, pretty good. Okay, but no, really, how does she do it? Luckily, her answer was longer than just a single sentence; she remarked that her picking hand ain’t a problem, it’s the left one she’s got issues with.

Next up, she told the audience that when she writes songs – she uses open tuning. Basically, this means that she’s able to use a single finger across all the things in different parts of the frets in order to make the tone she’s quite famous for. Keep in mind that this technique is pretty common among blues/folk/country songwriters.

Okay, and is there anything else we haven’t mentioned today?

How to play guitar with acrylic nails?

So, you want to be like Dolly, eh? Okay, we’ll show you how to play your instrument with acrylic nails. The best way to do it is to tune your guitar to an open tune, just Dolly Parton. Here’s how you’ll do it:

  • The thing is: your guitar will automatically play a chord regardless of the fact whether you’re holding a fret. Typically, open tuning is the E, G, or D chord; in order to tune your instrument to an open E chord, simply tune the A string to a B, the D string to an E, the G string to a G#, and leave all of the other strings just as they are. 

Speaking of tuning, here’s one about why guitar strings are in that order (EADGBE).

The bottom line

Alright, folks! That’s all there’s to say about ways you can protect your nails when playing guitar and associated info! Hopefully, you’ve had a fun time reading this one (especially the Dolly Parton fandom). Anyway, if you’re on the lookout for more interesting guitar tips, don’t hesitate to pay a quick visit to this page on our blog.