Fingernail Care: A Discussion for Bass Players

Bassist's right hand

Photo by Hani Amir

Q: As I’m getting pretty deeply into a right hand technique using a ramp, light touch, etc… I’d like to hear your thoughts on fingernail care, particularly for your plucking hand. I keep mine pretty short (it’s hard to open canned drinks), and I’m guessing yours might be similar. Also wondering if you so anything to keep up your nail strength – gelatin supplements, how varied weather while touring can affect your nails and what “fingernail first aid” you’ve had to deal with, if at all. What do you recommend? (Sorry about the weird question, but I thought throwing a curveball might make for a good article).

A: Interesting topic! Although it’s one which I might have to pass on to the readers, because I’ve bitten my nails since I had teeth, and I have ZERO chance of a nail ever coming close to a string.

I’ve only really ever heard flamenco or classical guitarists speak about this in length. Many flamenco guitarists that I know file their nails to avoid snags, and many use clear acrylic nail polish to provide extra strength. Most also carry false nails in case of a broken nail emergency.

For bassists, it really comes down to whether you like the extra pick-like click of the nail when you strike a note or not. I’m more of a no nails, all meat on the string kind of guy, but I do have friends who like the extra attack and click that they get from a longer nail.

Most bassists I know train their nails to be very short (i.e.: keep cutting them a little too short until they get them where they want them – out of the way – and then keep them there).

Here is a video where James Taylor talks about using a fiberglass wrapping on his nail:

I’ve also heard of people using super-glue and tissue paper to build up a tough synthetic layer on the nail.

I’m not sure if any of those methods would hold up to bass strings, though.

Your turn readers! Do you pay your nails any attention? What do you do? Please share in the comments.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Joey Garcia

    I’ve always kept mine short, specifically the the fingers I play m strum with.
    I clip them to “no whites” length

    Although, I hear that isn’t good, I feel better knowing I don’t have to worry about clicks and unnecessary discomfort for about 3 weeks

  2. john shaughnessy

    Funny story – I went tot he doctor for a checkup a few years ago. The MD checks my nails, and gets to my RH thumb – which is fill of scratches and ridges from slap bass and string muting. He absolutely freaks out and starts calling for tests and for the nurses to get me admitted to an oncologist. I tell him, relax, I’m a bass player, it’s part of the job. Took a few tries to get him to chill out.

  3. I like to keep my nails short for the same reasons..that clicking on the strings.
    And I always keep some nail clippers and a nail file in my gig bag! ( thats GIG Bag) not hand bag!
    If I wanted the attack sound id use a pick.
    Or play harder on the strings.

  4. I tend to keep mine very short on both hands, but if I’m having problems with my nails breaking or anything (can happen) then I’m happy to use nail polish. Hell, depending on the gig you can even be colour co-ordinated if you want!

  5. Dave

    I like to keep them short enough so that for the most part they’re out of the way but long enough so that there’s a bit there if I need it. If I want to get a bit more of an attack I can let the string ring off the nail…sometimes a note or a passage just needs a little more emphasis and I find that helps.

  6. John

    I have slanted fingers tips with very little padding. > So finger nails always get in the way no matter how short I cut them. Well, too short and they bleed. So, I always use a pick for playing bass. I get a more even sound when hitting strings that way and save my fingers. There is this irrational stupid unwritten law that bass players can’t use a pick. Well, if you want to ruin your fingers, then be my guest. My point being, it’s not sacrilege to use a pick. I’ve used a pick for 40 years and I’ve never heard a guitarist, singer or drummer complain about my bass playing. Bottom line, if playing with your fingers and it’s going to be too taxing on you fingers, then use a pick and ignore all the stupid snooty criticism. I’m sure there are others on here who are giving great advice for how to strengthen your nails. Mine is an alternative.

    • Goodwin

      Remember, everyone, Carol Kaye, Paul McCartney, and Allen Woody use (used) a pick.

  7. I’m blessed with amazingly strong nails, I keep them long on my plucking hand for bass and guitar. The sound is halfway between pick and normal finger playing, basically the articulation of finger style with more attack. For even more attack, I’ll use a pick on occasion, and for more traditional finger style sounds I’ll use the side of my index finger and my thumb, but playing fingerstyle with my nails works for the majority of needs.

  8. James Hand

    When I played in school band I’d forget to cut my nails and it would be like hitting two notes. Annoying as hell. So when that happened I’d cut them off. I just trim them every couple weeks so they have no whites.

  9. David

    I use a nail clipper to keep them real short.

  10. Chris F.

    I always trim them to no whites. And it’s actually more so because I hate the feeling of nails on my fretting hand (the feeling of your nail hitting the fretboard before your finger does – yuck).

  11. Well here’s my story.

    Since about 7 yrs i keep my fingernails long, but they kept breaking and sometimes wear and tear shortened them, so i was not satisfied …
    Approx. 3,5 yrs ago i decided to let them (Index, middle and ring finger of my right hand) artificially been strengthened by using acrillic nails … that was exactly what i was looking for! Now they (hardly) don’t wear out anymore, i can even use my index finger like a pick, and even then they keep their length ….!!
    For me this artificial nails are the thing. I just have to let them be re-strengthened every 4 weeks …..

    Check out this vid for an impression …

  12. alex

    I’ve been bitting my nails for more than 20 years, including the first 10 years or so of bass playing, so I learned to play bass with very short nails, even when playing with a pick, and experimented a serious discomfort every time a nail was to long, resulting in more nail bitting.

    When I decided to quit this very bad habit, the only solution that worked for me was to cut and file my nails to “nothing to grind my teeth on” lengh and rigourouly maintain this lengh. It has the double advantage of getting my nails out of the way from the bass strings, and away from relapsing on nail bitting. I cary a nail file in my gig bag, and also in my day-to-day back pack, and I don’t shy away from filing my nails when I need to, whether it’s at home or at work. 10 seconds of nail filing can save you from a lot of discomfort.

  13. Maik

    Being active in Death Metal bands most of my time I always kept my nails a bit longer (but not too long because of that weird “double hitting” James mentioned) to get more attack. I changed that a while ago when I got into two-hand tapping styles because the long nails made it really, really uncomfortable. That gave me quite some blisters on my plugging fingers in the beginning but changed after building harder skin. I never used anything to make my nails harder, though, and I just carry a clipper with me in my gig bag in case there are cracks or something.

  14. Mike Green

    As a lead guitarist for many years (before I saw sense…) I started with a pick then swapped to a Mark Knopfler like picking style with nails to get more variety in tone. Now primarily a bassist I keep the relatively long nails on my picking hand so I can use pick sounds or angle my fingers for flesh sounds as needed – even swapping mid riff. Provided I drink milk regularly (for calcium) I’ve found I don’t have to think about looking after or strengthening my nails more than any non musician. I hope this helps you too. As a final note – isn’t it great there are so many approaches to playing our instrument, and they’re all right…

  15. skugger

    I’m still struggling to find the right balance with this. I wish you could adjust your nails the way you adjust the tone knob. There are some songs I play really well that sound great with just enough nail hitting the string to get it to ring out a little more, but other songs that require a more muted tone, and I find that I just can’t EQ my fingernails out for those songs, so I trim them, but then have to wait for them to grow to play the other songs. Maybe i’ll just have to learn to play with a pick after all. I, too, have clippers and a nail file in my gig bag.

  16. I use a lot of different techniques, many of which use some of my fingernails. I use a nail strengthener, sometimes super glue on my pointer and middle finger on my right hand. There are some notes that I want the bright attack to ring out, or chords that I will strum, with the result that my nails have literally worn through.

  17. I keep my nails very short – I too like the ” all meat on the strings no nails” that Damian spoke of. In fact one of my most important items to have in my guitar case on gigs is a nail clipper.

  18. I keep my right hand nails short, but not cut all the way down. I can change sounds by changing the angle of my finger hitting the strings. Sometimes, I’ll play with just the nail and sometimes none at all and sometimes a combination. Often I’ll just use one finger to get a more consistent tone. I can play pretty fast with just one finger.

    My nails are pretty fragile and are always chipping, cracking, or breaking. I use superglue to repair them.

  19. Darren Shilton

    This is a topic I’ve got a bit of experience in. I started out as a guitar player (and it’s still my first love – sorry!) but I play bass with a few bands as well. I play a lot of acoustic fingerstyle stuff and, as such, get my right hand nails done every two weeks or so. I get them done at a nail salon (which, with enough time, has yeilded some fairly hilarious experiences) with a full acrylic coating about a mm thick. I keep them long enough that when looking over the tip of the finger – palm facing eyes – you can see 2-3mm of nail, and a bit longer on the pinky to make up for the shorter finger length.

    The nails are plenty strong and do provide a ‘clicky’ tone simliar to a pick. Now, I’m mostly playing rock and blues bass that calls for a rounder sound that can be best achieved with very short nails. To compensate and eliminate the ‘click’ I tend to roll my treble off almost all the way on the tone controls of my Jazz bass. I also turn off the horn on my amp and ease off the treble a bit on the amp EQ. It is far from a perfect solution. It makes it really difficult to get good slap tone, though I rarely slap so it isn’t a big issue. Alternatively, when playing country or something that calls for a simple root-five bass line with a warm, round sound, I’ll pluck with the meat of my thumb which has a short nail (I use a thumb pick on the guitar).

    If there was a way to keep the nails short but have something I could still use to pluck when playing guitar I’d do it because I HATE the longer, strong nails on the bass strings. I’ve tried finger picks but they just feel uncomfortable, are more difficult to play with, and, frankly, don’t sound as good. And press-on nails don’t have the strength and tone that applying acrylics to my natural nail does.

    But my advice for bass players that have no experience in nail care is as follows: 1) Keep clippers and a file in your case and another file in your vehicle. 2) Get into the habit of regularly filing and clipping, as opposed to biting and ripping. You eliminate a lot of the potential hang-nails that can be quite painful and prone to infection (been through it, sucks) 3) If you still have issues with breakage and cracking, get acrylic nails done professionally. You can still get them very short, and the acrylic will make them much stonger and likely prevent you from biting if that’s your thing. My manicurist (and yes, it feels wierd to say that) says she gets a few guitar players in, and most of the other males getting acrylics are plumbers that have problems with breaking and ripping nails.

  20. I played bass back when I was about 20. Switched to classical guitar for 20+ years. Now am coming back to bass. I find the nails to bring about a nice crisp sound. Keep them short, you dont want them breaking and the bass strings will break them easily. Just grow them out so that they are just barely visible over your finger tip. Use a finger nail file and shape them to the shape of your finger tip. When you play strike the string with the meat of the fingertip and let the nail just glide across the string. It will give you a nice crisp sound….if that is what you are looking for I love it.

  21. Enrique

    I recall reading, in a list of medical myths, that consuming gelatin doesn’t really help nails.
    Nails are made of keratin whereas gelatin comes from cartilage. Check with your doctor or
    mad scientist. I recently shook hands with a well-known harp guitar payer and received quite a nail jab. My classical guitar teacher struck me funny with his extra-long nails on his right hand and the extra-short ones on his left. But when the dude played, well let’s just say that
    if it worked for him, more power to him. As far as the bass is concerned, I haven’t seen any examples in which nail length was an asset, but who knows for sure? I’ve recently taken up
    using a Vpick for arpeggios on an EADGC setup. Like Mr. Garcia, I favor the “no whites” length. I saw a dude in Peter Gabriel’s band attach small mallets to his index and middle fingers, a new variation on the “hammerstroke” (lol).

  22. tongueinanew

    I use nails to get a clean sustaining ringing when I need harmonics especially on all four strings on last note rakes.