Fingerpicker's corner: putting the ‘man' back into ‘manicure'

What do fingerstyle guitarists do if they break a nail just before a concert? A fingerpicker's technique is dependent on having a good set of nails, so a broken nail can be an embarrassingly significant inconvenience - particularly if it happens right before a big concert. I encountered this problem at the end of last year, and was surprised by the solutions I found online and when asking around. Here are the top suggestions...

Quickly find your feet again

I found an inventive and surprisingly popular solution online: stockpile your old fingernail clippings and superglue them back on to replace broken nails in your time of need. Alternatively, why not simply keep your toenails long enough that they are ready to be trimmed off and reattached as backup fingernails?! The upside is that there is minimal loss to tone when playing, as the material that strikes the string remains real human nail. On the other hand (or should I say foot?), this solution is apparently unlikely to do wonders for your sex appeal and I'm skeptical about the durability and structural integrity of these mutant-nails.

Try the ping-pong ball trick or take el camino flamenco

A few years ago I went to a ‘guitar masterclass', run by guitar-legend Clive Carroll (watch this). His talk included a suggestion for guitarists with brittle nails: cutting a small piece of ping-pong ball and supergluing it to the underside of the nail to serve as a support. He warned that this leads to a much less pleasing, 'plasticy' sound than the sound of the keratin of the real nail. Apparently, a flamenco take on this procedure involves doing the same thing but using a bit of cloth instead of ping-pong ball. The cloth reinforces and strengthens the nail, but can only be used for prevention - not cure. Unfortunately, both of these solutions lead to potentially unhygienic and unsightly nails; what's more, once you've superglued your ball/cloth into place, don't expect to get it out again.

If you're not finicky, just pick up a pick

How about an apparently easier option, like adopting a good old metal banjo pick? Well, metal gives an inferior sound to the real nail, but the banjo-pick still works as a stand-in, as long as you don't use ‘rasgueo' flamenco techniques, which will quickly dislodge it. Also it will take a bit of work to learn how to use it well. In short, a dissatisfying but straightforward solution; picks are not for the picky.

Boldly go where no man has gone before

This solution doesn't seem to be popular among most guitarists (maybe because it's not a manly-cure) but I consider it to be the best of the many cures. Manicurists specialise in nails, so it makes sense to leave your nails in their hands. Instead of getting a ready-made false nail stuck on, you can get one which is made of an acrylic powder, which is applied to the real nail and then solidifies, adding a plastic supporting layer.

Many guitarist forums warn that fake-nail solutions can end in tears (and tears) if the real and false nails separate and a string catches the false one, wrenching it backwards; however, in my experience, this can be avoided by making sure the false nail is shorter than the real one and by ensuring that you return to the manicurist if the two are beginning to separate. A further criticism is that the real nail has to be filed and roughened (and thereby weakened) to enable the manicurist to stick the false nail on effectively; while this is true, this doesn't really matter because the embrittled filed-down natural nail is safely sheathed beneath the fake nail, and the real nail below will grow back at full thickness in no time - problems only arise if you remove the false nail before it grows out.

I hope this round-up of solutions has been useful and/or entertaining. Any questions or suggestions? Drop us an email on