DON’T GLUE YOUR NAILS
It’s one of the most asked questions among flamenco guitarists: what do you do with your nails?
And everyone has their own method – from industrial strength resin glue (Paco Peña) to acrylic to silk, superglue or nail polish (Cañizares). I have tried most of them (Paco Peña: ‘I don’t recommend it!’) and eventually discovered the method that works best: leave your nails alone!
When you start building them up with any kind of glue, or even plain nail polish, they dry out and break eventually. What is worse, it is addictive! You become so dependent on a certain feel (acrylic is so inflexible, it changes the way you touch the strings completely) that when one of them breaks you have no choice but to rebuild it with something possibly even more abrasive. Any form of glue or superglue creeps into your nails making them brittle. Nail polish seals and dries them out and even buffing produces little cuts in the nail that can eventually turn into cracks. In the end I went with the words of Juan Manuel Cañizares: ‘There is something more important than playing guitar: your health.’
Keep your hands clean and moisturised, especially during dry winter months. Always try to keep a small (glass or ceramic) nail file at hand to work out snags and keep the edges smooth. Of course sometimes a nail will break, usually at the most inconvenient time, either right before a recital or a recording. But for a while now I have been working with natural nails nevertheless and after an initial phase where everything seemed to sound weak (compared to thick acrylic nails), it eventually started paying off. My nails don’t break as easily, even though they are not extra strong by nature. I started filing my nails a little shorter than I used to which allows for higher speed and the tone for both picados and arpeggios becomes more compact and balanced (they say you need long nails for rasgueados and short nails for picados – or as Manolo Sanlúcar puts it: ‘your nails will tell you how long they want to be.’) I improved my technique in a way that the nails stay intact even after long practice sessions and rehearsals or even accompanying dance (which can be a lot of stress on the nails). If you lose a nail it might not sound as crisp at first, but once you have learned how to cope with such difficulties, breaking a nail during a performance will cause much less stress – and the difference is really more inside your head than in the actual tone.
In the end, everyone has to work out their own formula, and it is not my job to tell you how you should take care of your nails, but since this has been a subject of discussion for such a long time: do consider it. Your health feeds into your music. Remember you are not a slave to the guitar, the music has to come from within you. Whether you are playing your own inventions or interpreting someone else’s material: what affects your health affects your music too.