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Pros & Cons of Nails vs Plastic Finger Picks

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Let me start his section by saying – There may be times when nails are preferred over picks. (even with steel string guitars)  However, if you have learned to use finger picks and use them well, you will find that in most cases using plastic finger picks is usually the best way to go because picks are better suited for delivering good quality, fuller high volume sound in most situations.  Let me explain a little more about these things.

Using only fingers and nails can be a beautiful thing. There are subtle nuances of sounds that bare fingers and nails produce that CAN NOT be gotten in any other way. These sounds are produced when the fingertip and fingernail pick the string together. Those sounds are subtle. This is true! But never the less those sounds are beautiful. In solo performances for example, where there is full attention only on the guitar, these unique nuances may be very important to the artist. So he may prefer to only use bare fingers and nails.

However, as is usually the case, most performing musicians have more in the mix then just their guitar. There are usually other guitars, bass, vocals, keyboard… ext. As more and more is introduce into the mix of a given song those beautiful subtle sounds of bare fingers and nails are “LOST” in the mud of the mix. Even the best trained ear can no longer hear them. Volume then usually becomes the most common problem. In these cases it is finger picks that are the obvious solution.

So there are times that finger nails are preferred. But with this option comes several problems. First of all, the finger nails on your fingers are growing in the wrong direction as compared to the finger picks. Finger picks are designed in such a way to have the guitar string role off the pick tongue. Finger nails grow straight out or even curve slightly down from the finger tip. Because of this the nails tends to want to ‘bite’ or ‘grab’ the strings. This makes it more difficult to get consistent rhythmic sounds. To demonstrate what I mean. Try this with your guitar – Coming up on the strings – strum your finger across the strings so that it is only the nail that is playing the strings.  Now strum the strings going down – again, using only your nails to play the strings.  Which was easier to do?  YES!  Going down is always easier!  Why? Because the way your finger nails are growing.  This direction that the nails grow makes it more difficult to pick the strings fast, smoothly and consistently. 

To overcome this problem a classical guitarist must completely change his approach. His picking hand must be in such a position to allow him to sweep his fingers across the strings for faster consistent sounds. It certainly can be done but to accomplish this his fingers must be almost straight and coming from in front of the strings. In contrast the plastic finger picks are designed with the curve of the pick tongue going upwards toward the finger nail.  This allows the guitarist to have his hand in a more relaxed position. When wearing finger picks the fingers are coming up onto the strings from below.  The pick is designed in such a way that the strings just simply roll off the tip of the pick creating a clean, clear high quality sound.

Another problem with using nails is the nails themselves. They will need to be a certain length and in a certain condition. (how long is a personnel matter of taste, style and feel). The problem is that these things are always changing.  They are always growing so there is a need to have them trimmed and filed.  Also, your finger nails are organic! Not plastic! If you wash your hands it affects their stiffness and strength.  What you eat and drink affects them, and even the weather can change their condition too.  Again, finger picks eliminate all those problems and worries while playing finger style guitar.  Especially if you’re a professional who performs before audiences on a regular basis then you know how important consistency can be.  Again, for this, finger picks wins over nails hands down.

Another problem is you cannot get the same amount of volume from nails that you can with finger picks, because nails are just not strong enough. Even with finger nail enhancements (explained in next few paragraphs). This factor is especially important if you are a professional performer. When you are performing, it seems like there is always a need for more volume. That’s exactly why people break their nails while performing finger style guitar! It’s because their nails just can’t deliver the volume they are needing.  Nails just can’t hold up! Braking a nail!!! – Now that is not a good thing in a live performance!  

I had a student email me one time that had been doing some of the exercises that I recommended in learning new picking patterns and he was using his new custom finger picks I had made for him.  He said that he was exaggerating the exercise and picked the strings with so much force that one of the pegs came flying out of the bridge on his guitar.  I thought to my self…”no way you could do that with bear finger nails”.  Now I know… he couldn’t have had the peg in correctly or that just couldn’t have happened.  Still you wouldn’t be able to do that with just nails because of their inherent problems. Still, even though finger nails have their limitations there are reasons that you may at times want to use only finger and nails. So here are some things you can do.

To over come the weakness issues of the natural nails there are some guitarist who enhance or improve the strength of the nails.  To do this you can use acrylics and or even false nails for this purpose.  This can greatly improve the durability and strength of the nail. But I must honestly say that doing this will never make your nails equal to a plastic pick.  On the plus side; if you choose to use this option, unlike finger picks that you can loose, or forget to bring with you, you will always have your nails with you. That’s a good thing!  On the down side, sometimes those false nails and acrylics come popping off right in the middle of a performance and there is no way of knowing when that is going to happen.  Suddenly they give way and it happens… that’s it… you’re done finger picking for that gig!  NOT GOOD!  When that does happen you are up the creek without a paddle because it takes considerable time to “mold” another set of nails.  In contrast if plastic finger picks are used in aggressive, forceful, hard playing and one starts to slip you can feel it starting to happen and you can just make a needed adjustment.  This can be done even in the middle of a song without drawing too much attention.  Or if a pick should brake (I’ve never had that happen while playing! That has happened only when I step on one by accident.) you can have spare picks with you in your guitar case. I always carry a spare set so I can replace the bad pick.  So at least the whole performance isn’t lost.

Another down side with the enhancements of the nails is this only last a week or ten days. Someone told me the longest for them was three weeks. Then you have to remove the old remnants of the last nails you shaped and reconstruct a new set. This reconstruction project is not too expensive. It will cost just a little more then a set of new finger picks would cost. But it is quite time consuming and can be very frustrating.  You see you’re using your left hand to work on your right which, if you’re like me, can be a real challenge.  Another frustration is that once you have the new set of finished nails they are new!  They are never exactly like the last set of nails you just had so now you’ll need to get used to them.  This may only takes a few minutes or it could take much longer. Sometimes you may need to take them off and start all over. Once you got them the way you like the good news is you’re good to go until you need to do it again in five to ten days.  

I know this is all sounding a little negative about the way I talk about using nails but please don’t get me wrong.  One of my favorite sounds is when using only nails.  It is when the finger tip and the nail are both touching the string just before it’s played. This is a sweet sound, especially on a classical or Concert type (nylon strings) guitar. You just cannot get ‘that sound’ using plastic or any other kind of finger picks for that matter. It is unique only to fingers and nails. However, to get ‘that sound’ consistently, you have to get your finger placement just right, just when you need it, and that means you must slow down. Even then, for me it has always been a hit or miss proposition.  Sometimes you get “that sound”, other times you miss!

Still bare nails and fingers does have it’s appeal in certain situations and it’s something that can be learned. Here is an instructional video of how to prepare or repair acrylic nails for playing the guitar!  You will get a real good idea of all that is involved in doing this process from watching this video.  Please note the time involve in preparing nails and also how long the new nails last once completed!  You can compare that with just putting on some plastic finger Picks.

In my experience I have found that finger picks are much more forgiving when it comes to consistent sound quality.  Also finger picks allow some margin for error in finger placement upon the strings before the strings are plucked as compared to getting the bare finger and nails just right on the string. (for that particular desired sound)

For beginners one of the appealing advantages of using bare fingers is that you can actually “feel the strings” as you play.  This can certainly be a desirable thing especially when you are first starting to learn how to finger pick your guitar because without finger picks in the way you can “feel” your way around, as you go.  This can allow you to “know” by “feel” if you’re on the strings correctly or not.  This is not true when you wear finger picks because with the finger picks on it is the pick that touches the string and not any part of your finger.  So you are not actually “touching” the strings. (There are some new types of picks out now that allows you to “touch” the strings as you play, but the ones I’ve seen are metal picks and therefore I don’t recommend them because of the metal against metal issues.)

However, even with the finger picks on YOU CAN “know” where you are.  You must learn to think of finger picks as a tool.  Just like a carpenter “knows” or “feels” how to hit the nail with his hammer (a tool) so too the guitarist can “feel” or “know” when he’s properly on the strings of the guitar.  However, you must learn to use the tool! When using plastic finger picks you will learn to depend on your anchor for “knowing” where you are in relation to the strings for finger placement.  This can very effectively be done, but it does take some practice. (I explain about use of an anchor in the finger picking patterns and lessons pages as well as in the “Right Hand Position” page)

Another “apparent” advantage of bare fingers for beginners is this – Beginners are not trying to get that “desired sound” we talked about earlier.  They are only trying to get the finger picking pattern down.  So then they may think you don’t have to be quite as precise with your finger placement as when you’re wearing finger picks.  This is another reason why  beginners many times prefer not to wear picks.  Then they fall into a sloppy picking technique that needs to be “unlearned” later.  What happens is they kind of just haphazardly put their fingers in there anywhere and just play anything that happens to be there at the time.  It’s like “what happens…happens” kind of thing.  For the beginner many times precision finger placement on the strings gets cast aside for wanting speed and wanting to progress too quickly.  For these reasons many beginners feel that they can learn  finger picking quicker without finger picks, or that it is easier for them to learn this way!  This is faulty reasoning!  Please do not fall into this thinking.  This approach to learning to finger pick your guitar is a sad approach and definitely has it’s down falls.  Namely poor finger picking technique and you’ll never play a song the same way twice.  Please don’t cut corners!  Instead think in terms of applying yourself more in the beginning.  Learn to finger pick your guitar using plastic finger picks.  You’ll be happier if you do. Do you still say WHY should I learn to finger pick using finger picks?  Consider this fact!

Try this!  This will demonstrate how the above things I’ve explained are true.  Put plastic finger picks on someone who has already learned finger picking BUT without wearing finger picks.  If he has played that way for some time and gotten used to it, you will find that all of a sudden they can’t finger pick anymore when wearing the picks!  I have done this many, many times, to convince someone that they haven’t learned properly.  It’s always the same!  Try it yourself sometime.  I’m sure you’ll find the same thing.  Why does this happen?  Well it’s because they haven’t really “learned the basic techniques” necessary for proper finger picking the way they should have.  They have done what was explained in the previous paragraph.  They did what they felt was “EASY’ at first or what was “FAST” when first learning and  as a result they have now developed bad habits! They now have a sloppy style that in the long run will actually hinder there music rather than improve it.  That’s why when they put the picks on they complain that they don’t like them or that the picks just get in the way.  Well yeah….they “get in the way” all right.  They “get in the way” because their playing technique is poor and they don’t know how to use the finger picks.

Can you see from these things that the solution to these problems is very simple.  The solution is THIS. Learn finger picking right from the start while using plastic finger picks.  This is just another reason why I teach my students that you should learn to finger pick, using plastic finger picks right from the start.

Another reason, or advantage to using plastic finger picks when beginning is related to the above things.  Finger picks will “quickly bring to your attention” where you need to make improvements in your hand and finger placement, your finger movements and your overall style of playing.  Basic techniques are always better learned while wearing finger picks because those wrong things have to be correct right away when using the picks.  It’s like the finger picks magnify the wrong or poor technique. Without the picks you can “get away” with being sloppy.  Not so when wearing finger picks.  When wearing the picks your finger must be place correctly on the stings as you play.  If not it will come to your attention RIGH NOW that you made a mistake because the picks will “tell you” you’re finger is not hitting the string properly.  Also the sound quality will be better when using the plastic finger picks and this makes for better and more motivation to keep trying to learn to finger pick using the picks.  So let this improve sound quality that you get wearing the picks be your incentive and inspiration to keep with it.

Finally you should remember this – if you learn how to finger pick your guitar using finger picks you will have no problem at all with finger picking your guitar when you take the picks off.  So for those special songs when you want that “desired sound” that only bare fingers and nails delivers, just take your picks off and use bare fingers and nails!  It’s that’s EASY!

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