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The Guitarist’s Manicure: Your Guide to Playing a Set with a Full Set

November 27, 2019
Written by
Sadie Dupuis
Photos Courtesy of
the Artists

Sadie Dupuis offers up the benefits of the guitarist’s manicure and how to get your nails in shape for both playability and style.

It takes patience for me to tackle new and difficult guitar parts—but the patience required to paint my own fingernails? That kind eludes me. Until a few years ago, it was no great loss. I’ve been an avid guitarist since age 13, so on the few occasions I did get my nails done, the polish on my picking hand would wear away quickly. But the parts I write tend to be a blend of fingerstyle, heavy strumming, and outright shredding, often within the same song. This is fine in a recording session, where it’s easy to treat each part on its own with overdubs and effects. On stage, however, I found it harder to seamlessly recreate what came easily in the studio. If I played with my bare fingertips just after playing leads with a plectrum, my guitar dropped in presence and clarity. This is where the guitarist’s manicure comes in.

Speedy Ortiz live at the Portland Pickles’ Picklefest, nails an homage to the minor league baseball team’s colors.

In 2015, backstage at a festival in Chicago, I got my first gel manicure. I didn’t expect it to last through our set, but the gel saw me through almost two weeks of touring. The heavy protective layer of polish allowed me to grow my nails a bit longer, achieving more control and volume than my short, bare nails, which would rip or break when I plucked 11s without polish. Eventually, I upgraded to acrylics and dipping powders, which allowed me to forego picks altogether. When I do gear-centric interviews and am asked what part of my rig has made the biggest change in my playing, I give props to my pedalboard but ultimately answer, “My nails.”

Getting Hands On with a Guitar’s Manicure

Folk multi-instrumentalist Johanna Warren was inspired to get acrylics after seeing virtuosic twelve-string player Alexander Turnquist. After she asked him for lessons, Turnquist told her simply to grow out her nails. “Best lesson I ever had,” Warren tells me. “Getting acrylics opened up so many compositional possibilities and transformed my relationship to my guitar. The nails let you get in there! You can get very specific about the timing and attack of every note, and play intricate rhythms with precision and power or lightly with a lot of nuance and delicacy.”

Etta Friedman, a riffer in the Los Angeles band Momma, first tried playing with press-on nails in an attempt to channel “some type of Rob Crow, Paul Simon, melodic picking genius.” After switching to acrylics, they were impressed at how well their nails were protected from their heavy playing’s usual damage to their fingers and cuticles: “[Acrylics] have provided me with a less painful and a more tonally interesting way to play guitar.”

Kaki King demonstrating her acrylics-informed playing during her master class video series, “Guitars & Things with Kaki King”

Kaki King, an incredibly unique guitarist whose expansive style incorporates fret tapping, had to develop an equally unique signature manicure after she began playing with acrylics nearly 16 years ago. “You have to find that happy medium,” she tells me. “My tapping will suffer because I don’t have as much direct downward perpendicular force [due to the acrylics]. I’ve learned to fingerpick with slightly shorter nails in order to allow the tapping to function.” She keeps her fretting hand bare, and wears acrylics with a tip extension on the picking hand except for the pinky. 

Nailed It!

At home with a brand new manicure.

If you’re considering augmenting your nails with a long-wearing polish, here are the three most popular options:

  • For lighter gauge playing or shorter nails, a simple gel manicure may work, which is a shellac that’s cured by U.V. light. It won’t last after many hours of play, or protect very long nails, but it is the fastest and cheapest way to thicken your nails at the salon. These can cost between $25 – $50 and last about two weeks. 
  • Acrylics are the most common choice for fingerstyle guitarists, and it’s no surprise they’re favored by Warren, Friedman, and King. They’re created when a liquid polymer is applied by brush either to the natural nail (called an “overlay,” which you can get if your nails are already long enough) or on top of a plastic extension that is glued to the nail (called “tips,” which you want if you need to make a nail longer). Free-form sculpted nails work in a similar way without the use of a tip extension. You can then choose to add a gel polish on top of the acrylic for even more protection and accessoriation—although King finds colorful topcoats a hindrance. “Even though it’s super fun, the strings have a tendency to get caught on the material and pull, and it becomes more of a problem than a solution,” she cautions. Acrylics are the longest-lasting option, but also the most taxing on your nail beds, often leaving deep and startling ridges you can see when you dissolve the acrylic by soaking your fingertips in acetone. A first set costs between $35 – $65, but expect to get two refills at three and six weeks for slightly less money.
  • Finally, there’s dip powder, commonly called SNS—it’s my personal favorite method after trying all three. This involves applying a gel-based polish and then sprinkling a powdered glue on top (or dipping your fingers into a jar of powder, depending on the hygienic standards of your salon.) It creates less ridges than acrylics, requires less filing down of your natural nail, and doesn’t need a U.V. lamp. (However, it’s still not very healthy. None of these options are, and truly eco-friendly salons won’t perform any of them.) Since the powders themselves are colored, you can pick something fun and don’t have to worry about a top coat flaking off or getting in the way of your playing. You’ll pay about $30-$50, soaking the old polish off at subsequent visits. These last as long as acrylics.

My Favorite Shapes for the Guitarist’s Manicure

At the salon, be very clear about your intended length and shape. I usually show up with my fretting hand nails cut down as low as possible, because it’s rare for nail techs to believe I want them as short as I do. Warren, King, Friedman and I all opt for almond-shape nails, which mimics the curves of a normal pick, although Friedman is considering experimenting with something like stiletto nails to closer approximate their favorite Tortex Sharp picks. 

Two to three millimeters is a good starting length for your first set of extensions, although you may wind up growing them longer (Warren and I prefer them about twice that length). You’ll also want to be conscious of how many coats of polish you want—I like about three, but your mileage may vary. 

Momma’s Etta Friedman waiting it out under the UV lamp.

“How thick do you really want them? It’s about pick preference, it’s about tone and timbre, it all has to do with your personal style. It’s a rabbit hole to go down but it’s like you’re creating a new body part, it has to be very specific to you and what your playing is, so just be patient with the process of discovering that,” advises King, who calls nails her “favorite topic.” 

You’re likely to get some strange looks for wanting one hand short and one long, but every once in a while you’ll meet a nail tech or customer who relates to the strangeness of musically necessitated mismatched nail lengths, which is a nice conversation to have in the 45-90 minutes you can expect to spend at the salon (I typically allow about two hours, just in case). And speaking of salons, Warren has some good advice: “I try to find salons that seem relatively on top of good hygienic practices and aren’t too intensely fumey, as I’m scent-sensitive and that can be rough.” She does concede that “on tour sometimes, you have to just take what you can get.”

Better in Color

While aestheticizing your nails is by no means a necessity, one of my favorite parts of performing with long nails is that it’s one more opportunity for artistic expression onstage. I love matching my polish colors to the album art of bands I’m touring with, or even my own record cover during the launch of a new release. 

Pastel nails to celebrate my band Sad13’s tour with Deerhoof, and their then-new album ‘Mountain Moves’

One of the best parts of needing nail maintenance on tour is accessing the infinite spectrum of nail colors available nationwide; between heat-sensitive mood colors, chromes, rainbow pastels, and ombres, I’m never restricted to the offerings of a single salon—and Friedman’s with me. “I’ve decided that I might as well go all out and be as bold as possible and try to make a real statement out of my nails,” they told me, also noting that gender dysphoria initially made them hesitant to embrace acrylics for their playing. “I never fully felt, or have wanted to outwardly express myself as too femme. However, understanding the notion that my gender presentation doesn’t invalidate my internal gender identity, I developed a newfound confidence in reference to my nails. Subconsciously, I believe getting acrylics has helped me become more explorative of my identity, and has allowed me to lean more into my fluidity.” Warren, who occasionally dons black polish on top of her acrylics, echoes that sentiment: “I love the asymmetry of having one hand with no nails at all and one with crazy talons. It pleases all my genders.”

Break A Few Nails

Even with the best salon care in the world, it’s best to be emergency prepared. King and Warren travel with nail kits and superglue; King even carries a pouch of recycled acrylic nails she can re-glue quickly, having learned her lesson after losing a nail or two into the crowd from the stage. That’s happened to me, too, and while it’s an entertaining source of stage banter, it’s not so wonderful for finishing your set on a high note. 

Johanna Warren’s acrylics at work. Credit: Jean-Marie Aubry

Make sure not to let your nails grow out longer than three weeks (or less, depending on how fast your nails grow); the space between your cuticle and the base of your thick polish can catch on the undersides of your strings, muting something you want to sustain and resulting in a shred fail. Regular maintenance is key, especially as prolonged contact with strings creates tiny indentations in the sides of the nails you pick with most, which can also snag as you play. 

“My biggest piece of advice is to file and file and file. You can’t file enough,” warns King, whose initial filing on a new set of nails can take as long as an hour. “I think sometimes people go and get nails done and they come back to their guitar and it’s unplayable. What they don’t realize is you have to create a flat edge underneath and all around. It’s an epic amount of filing. Be aware that this is a lifestyle.” A lifestyle that determines your playstyle. It’s work, but it’s also a lot of fun, and can open you up to a whole new arsenal of rhythmic and tonal choices. Hope you enjoy picking with your brand new nails!  

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