Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Fingernails of a Guitarist

There is a post up on NPR's Deceptive Cadence in which Jason Vieaux talks about the correct use of a ping-pong ball. Yes, it's true, the best replacement for a missing thumbnail is a crescent-shaped piece cut from a ping-pong ball. Though I think he is incorrect when he says you glue it under the actual nail. It is much better glued, with Krazy Glue, on top of the nail. Oh yes, this is the only solution to the loss of a nail. It also works on the other fingers too. The sound is not quite the same, but you can get used to it.

Few non-guitarists know how crucial the fingernails are to the sound. They perform a function roughly similar to that of a clarinet or oboe reed (oboists, by the way, spend about half their waking hours making reeds). This is where the sound originates! So the shaping and care of the right hand fingernails is of the utmost importance. As I discovered as a young guitarist, the speed of your nail growth also can limit how much you can play. If you play more than six hours a day, your nails wear away faster than they can grow. When I was learning the Concierto de Aranjuez, which puts a lot of wear on your thumb and index nails, I had to find a solution. Turns out the best is to wrap a bit of scotch tape around the playing edge of the nail. It doesn't sound very good, but it prevents wear. Just remember to take it off when you play the concert!

Typical guitarist nightmares include breaking your thumbnail opening the stage door on your way to the concert and, one that has happened to me, opening your case just as you are being announced to the audience and finding your fourth string has snapped! You should always have an old, pre-stretched set handy. Luckily that didn't happen when I was playing a concerto, but at a private gathering of cast and crew at the Shaw Festival in Canada. I quickly replaced the string and went on to play, discreetly correcting the tuning from time to time.

Strings are the other big problem for guitarists. I hear that big-time rock guitarists have guitar technicians that replace strings and tune them up as needed. But I have always done that myself. If you are playing on a heavy schedule a set of strings will only last a couple of weeks so you can go through twenty-five sets in a year. The problem is the frets, which cut through the winding on the bass strings. Bowed string instruments don't have this problem!

I'm sure this is all terribly boring to non-guitarists, but all instruments have their secret lore. I once was trapped in a car driving from Vancouver to Seattle to play a concert and had to listen to two flute players discuss C# trill keys for hours and hours! Here is the first movement of a lovely Sonatina for flute and guitar by Castelnuovo-Tedesco that we played in that concert.


Nathan Shirley said...

I've never heard that about a ping-pong ball. I've heard about using horse hoof conditioner, and even formaldehyde on nails to strengthen them. I sure am glad I'm a pianist! Of course we have our own problems, always at the mercy of whatever piano happens to be available.

Bryan Townsend said...

For a while everyone was recommending taking gelatin tablets to strengthen the nails. I'm lucky I have good nails. It's the thickness, curvature and flexibility of the ping-pong ball material that makes it suitable as a nail substitute.

Yes, guitarists are lucky we can take our own instrument with us wherever we go. I have been playing the same guitar for twenty-nine years now...

RG said...

I can remember (as your house-guest back when) seeing you begin each day intently squinting and sanding to get just the right shape for your nails. I believe there was even a pre-pre-paration to the paper you used.

Chinese calligraphers (those worth their salt) begin each morning for an hour or so "grinding" a soot and resin stick against an apparently smooth stone painstakingly to produce the black ink they will use that day.

There is more back-room drudgery to Art than consumers usually realize.

However, you could hardly have chosen a more perfect refreshment after those labours or more powerful example of their justification than this lovely, lovely Sonatina!

Bryan Townsend said...

That's a remarkable analogy! I don't think I ever mentioned this to anyone, but I used to think of the fingernail preparation and polishing process before playing as being exactly like the calligrapher's preparation of ink. I think I came to this through Zen, where it was regarded as a mental preparation as well as a physical one--you are also clearing your mind.

Stanley Dorn said...

Gluing the ping pong ball crescent for the thumb and all the fingers is, in fact, correct for two reasons: 1) the pressure of the string pushes the ping pong ball against the vestige of the existing nail, so the ping pong ball is provided with structural support (not good for rasgueado,however); 2) the less glossy surface of the underside of the nail sticks to the crazy glue less well. While unfortunately causing the patch to loosen and fall off within a few days, it at least does so without doing damage to the nail. When the patch is glued on top, it is inevitable, in my experience at least, for the patch to come off without taking one or two layers of the nail tissue with it, thereby greatly weakening the remaining nail.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Stanley and welcome to the Music Salon. Not sure why this old post is attracting so much attention these days... As for the over/under debate on replacing a broken nail with a segment of a ping pong ball, I have tried it both ways and I just don't think it works under the nail. There are two problems: first is that there is little surface for the glue to bond to, but there is also a difference in angle that is distracting which it doesn't seem to be when the replacement nail is glued on the outside. Mind you, I haven't had to do this for years and years. I recently did break my thumbnail very badly on a door, but was able to almost instantly apply Krazy Glue and it bonded so well it was as if it hadn't happened. This is the secret really: you can fix almost any nail break if you apply a small amount of Krazy Glue within a few minutes. I don't recall a problem with losing some of the original nail.