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My nails tend to chip and crack when playing steel-string acoustic guitar. Cracking and ripping can be kept partially in-check by keeping my nails well-trimmed. However, a far worse problem is that the nail on my right index finger (that's my strumming hand) tends to wear down over time when I'm playing a lot. It's never worn away completely, but it gets uncomfortably thin.

Part of the problem is that I use fairly heavy strings--.013's. Another factor is undoubtedly my heavy right-hand technique when strumming.

Question: Is there any way I can prevent my nail from being shaved away, short of wearing gloves while playing?

I've seen stuff you can paint on your nails that's supposed to reinforce the nail, but it doesn't work very well. More calcium in my diet? (I already ingest a lot.) Is humidity a factor? Impure thoughts?


Clarification: This is happening when I use a pick.

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hahaha, impure thoughts^^ Well humidity could be a factor, but I don't think you can do much about this problem, except to don't use your fingers and use some sorta pick... But I doubt you'd change your style because of this problem. –  Markus Schwalbe Jun 16 '11 at 8:37
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You mention "nail strengthener," have you tried clear nail polish thickly applied? –  horatio Jun 16 '11 at 14:36
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thanks for the clarification. It seems that you need to work on your technique. For example, I mainly use picks and I hold them really thight. It always says that it should show 2-3 millimeters of the tip of the pick, in my case it's only about one mm. I have a rather strong picking style too, but I don't have the problem you have. So, maybe you should work out on your precision, to prevent your nail from dissolving. edit: maybe it's the way you're holding the pick? I checked my grip, and It's not possible (under normal conditions) for my index finger to even touch the strings! –  Markus Schwalbe Jun 17 '11 at 7:07
    
Perhaps in the near-term, a larger pick is in order. –  neilfein Jun 17 '11 at 16:35
    
You mention "calcium", but if it's straight tablets, they may not do you much good without Vitamin D to activate it. Whole-milk Lattes will do more. And prefer a multivitamin to calcium tablets. –  luser droog Nov 13 '11 at 5:26

7 Answers 7

up vote 13 down vote accepted

You say in your update this happens despite using a pick - in which case I would say the most appropriate solution is a slight change of technique.

Using a pick, my nails never come into contact with the strings, despite using a fairly short amount of pick beyond my thumb/fingers. For songs where I want to use my thumb to create pinch harmonics I pull the plectrum even closer, and for loud strumming I use more of the plectrum beyond my fingers but the difference is only a matter of 2 or 3 mm.

Have you tried to keep your fingers further away from the strings?

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+1 if this is happening, your technique is wrong! –  yossarian Jun 16 '11 at 20:10
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Screw you, world, you couldn't have told me this two decades ago? :) Seriously, yeah, this is it. Gotta work on how I hold the pick. Until then, a small band-aid or maybe a fingerpick will hold me over for rehearsals and gigs. –  neilfein Jun 17 '11 at 22:54
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A combination of holding the pick with more of it exposed as well as clear nail polish on my index finger nail seems to be doing the trick. The trick is to put the nail polish on in several layers, with the intent of it wearing away slowly over a few hours. –  neilfein Jul 15 '11 at 21:24
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Checkin: This is without a doubt a technique issue. My right index finger nail is now an indicator of sorts; when it's wearing away, I now know to hold the pick correctly. This is the best advice on playing I've ever gotten from this site. –  neilfein Nov 16 '13 at 20:17
    
@neilfein - that is really good to hear! –  Dr Mayhem Nov 16 '13 at 20:44

I play fingerstyle and flatpick as well on steel string and don't have the problem... I take it that as the guys above say you're holding the pick too close to the tip, thus the index nail is hitting the strings on the downstroke. Expose a bit more pick and the problem should go away.

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If you are doing fairly heavy strumming, a pick would be your best bet. You could also get finger picks for a number of your right-hand digits, if you want to actually retain the use of use of your index finger.

There should absolutely be no nail above the flesh on your left-hand digits. You really do not want to have nail problems with your left hand. I use medium-tension strings, and my fingers get sore on occasion from playing too hard, but I'm only building my calluses. Once you feel your nails getting in the way, it's time to get them cut!

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+1 for finger picks. I think this is the best solution here. –  awe Jun 16 '11 at 12:57
    
I'm mostly fixing this through changing how I hold the pick, but I'll also try a small finger pick on my right index finger and see if it helps any. Having many tools for the same problem is a great thing, IMO. –  neilfein May 17 '12 at 15:21

I too suffer from the effects of using a finger for strumming and flat picking. I use a fingernail polish strengthener, not polish. Apply two coats and let it dry for a whole day. It stands up for about a week, the other option my wife had me do was go to the manicure place with her. She had them build me an acrylic finger nail, like one of those french nails the girls get. It worked great for about 2 weeks - real hard and feels like your own nail. However, your real nail tends to get soft underneath the phony nail. The fake nail will fall off eventually.

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I want to add that I also suffer from this same condition but it doesn't stop with my index finger also my middle and ring finger nails are wearing down and chipping I have tried hardener though hardener is acrylic the strings are much harder, I have glued false nails over my nails this helps though the false nails wear out and replacing them can cause your nails damage, I think some answers are good my technique is self taught and probably not a technique practiced by anyone but me, I think I will try buying some mylar and trimming and gluing in place,

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This always happened to me back when I was gigging a lot, one of my teachers called it "funk nail" (oh yeah!); although for me personally, it was more "Soca/Calypso/Reggae/Ska nail" (I just wanted to throw in my two cents). Regardless, the above answers were effective, (multiple coats of clear protectant/polish), if you're playing hours of rhythm guitar a day it wears your nails thin, and then they get brittle, and then crack and break. There are a couple of manicurists who work in the L.A. area who are known for doing acrylics for some professional guitarists as well (one of my past teachers was a client… different one than mentioned above); you'll find a slight difference in tonality though with acrylics, the increased nail thickness also changes the feel/attack (or so I've heard from those who've gone that route).

The trick in my experience was to stay ahead of the game by applying new coats of polish all the time (make sure to give them time to dry before playing). Different picks are for different styles in my opinion (whatever that's worth), I like medium tortoise shell fenders for steel string acoustic strumming, and 2.0mm stubbies (small… of course) for everything else, call me crazy (people have).

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I play with 0.6 mm to 1.0 mm guitar picks on electric and acoustic guitars. My right index fingernail obviously takes some incidental damage while strumming or chugging (the metal) to the point where it wears thin. It's thin enough that it actually starts bending upwards in the overgrowth! It's certainly annoying that it is thin, to the point that my search for help led me here... but I guess not annoying enough to actually do something about it like put nail polish/hardener or an acrylic nail on it, because I have thought about it.

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