Nails And Their Nature
Get broken very easily, especially when you throw guitar strings at them. Make them hard with Making Music.
The care and repair of those shiny bits on the ends of your fingers (no, not the bogies). Adrian Legg explains.
IF YOU HAVEN'T used your nails much before then unless you're one of the lucky few with talons that could strip the flesh off an uncooked rhino, the odds are they will be very weak. And who knows, maybe the urge to play the guitar is a psychological side effect of calcium deficiency.
The catch is that real nail strength will only come with use over a period of years. There will be an inevitable bodge for a while as this happens and the transition from picks doesn't help as you get used to working a certain distance from the strings. To achieve a similar feel, you'll want to grow your nails long, and that increases the risk of breakage.
It is possible to boost strength artificially by building up layers of varnish and tissue paper and filing the resulting mess to shape. This doesn't do the natural nail much good, and when one of these wodges catches a string the wrong way it can pull off and take some of the top layer of nail with it.
Superglue can be used in the same way, and may give a slightly harder layering, but the same problems apply. The only good thing to be said about such measures is that they do make you much more conscious of your nails and thus much more careful about fridge handles, car doors, and the myriad other hazards which will leap forward to put your digits out of business. Typewriters are bastards, incidentally.
The best answer is to keep your nails shorter, and throw away the picks so that you can't cop out of the more difficult bits. Take as much of the strain as possible on flesh, using just enough nail to give you an edge in the tone. Look up the classical apoyando technique — striking down rather than across — and see if you can move some way towards it. At first it will be hard, painful, and clumsy. For the pain and tender flesh, we take a lesson from the ballet. These ethereal fairies that leap and pirouette lithely and delicately across the stage do so on the most disgustingly corny and calloused feet that a Romeo ever had nightmares about.
When a girl goes up on pointe for the first time, she does so with the aid of gallons of surgical spirit, rubbed into the feet wholesale to harden the skin. Do the same to your virgin pinkies where they contact the string, and they too will grow tough as old boots.
But the spirit will not help your nails particularly, and may dry them out as it evaporates. Not good. Go to the chemist and get a bottle of white iodine, about 40-50p, and rub this into your nails and nail roots. Use it in conjunction with an oil to prevent drying out. Terry Gould's Tuff Nail is based on white oil with a small extra ingredient that my chemist brother in law didn't have time to analyse. If you use this stuff (available in classical guitar shops — I think expensively) or a manicure cream like Nailoid (just as good and cheaper in chemists) then remember that the actual rubbing is probably doing as much good as the stuff by stimulating the blood supply to the nail root and bed, so allow for a good few minutes pre-kip massage. Very nice, too.
"GELATINE COMES FROM HORSES HOOVES, AND NOBODY EVER SAW RED RUM BREAK A NAIL TWO MINUTES BEFORE A GIG."
Results come slowly but surely, and during the strengthening period use Superglue only for emergencies, for fixing cracks and splits at the nail tip. For desperate straits, you can buy Player's Nails from good classical guitar shops to stick over a bad break. These are roughly twice the price of women's fancy nails which you get from posh chemists, and which can be stuck on and cut about to do the same job.
A chap can feel a bit of a wally buying women's nails, but put on the gruff voice and grill the beautician for tips on nail care — women guitarists, of course, don't have this problem.
Be sure that you're getting enough calcium in your diet — milk and cheese and so on, ask your doctor or see the diet books — and you may like to try the two cubes of jelly a day that I was told about. How much it actually helps I can't say, I did everything all at once out of paranoia, but gelatine comes from horses hooves, and nobody ever saw Red Rum break a nail two minutes before a gig. You now have a perfect excuse to get out of the washing up, until someone buys you some rubber gloves. Check them for sneaky punctures by blowing them up like a balloon; detergents will dry out your nails and wreck them.
You may run into musicians' over-use syndrome. You'll be using your fingers differently, possibly straining at the nail bed, and pushing joints and tendons about a bit more. This also shows up in the left hand, particularly where double bends or bends within chords can strain joints sideways. A doctor writing in 'The Lancet' recently suggested a five minute break for every 25 minutes of practice.
We can take another lesson from the ballet, where no dancer will work muscles and tendons flat out when they are cold. To do so invites injury and professional disaster — they must be warmed up first. I got slagged nastily for recommending this some time ago, but I'll do it again: if you've got to play on a freezing stage (any British summer festival, many old theatres, big stages with high lighting etc) and do a bit more than a chugga-chugga job or a few crutch thrusts, fingerless gloves will keep your hands warm enough to actually be able to move your fingers as well as your ass, and won't get in the way too badly. Woolly ones catch on the frets so you can cut the fingers off silk bike gloves, or have a look in Damart's — their more recent ones will need a bit of extra cutting back. The funny thing is, they got quite fashionable after I got slagged.
If you get consistently bad pains in your left hand fingers from bending, then maybe you should rethink your fingerboard. Low fret bead is kinder to your finger-tips, slightly faster in some situations, and often less rattly, but it requires that you push down harder as you move a bend across the board, and this stresses your joints.
Finally, a watch-strap can restrict that movement, so can tight cuffs, and bracelets will work like heatsinks and make them stiff and cold. But maybe you're so good you need handicapping?
Feature by Adrian Legg
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