Is it possible to play at concert level without nails?

Discussions relating to the classical guitar which don't fit elsewhere.
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Stephen Kenyon
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Re: Is it possible to play at concert level without nails?

Post by Stephen Kenyon » Sat Dec 08, 2018 5:15 pm

rparkera wrote:
Sat Dec 08, 2018 1:53 pm
Sometimes I feel that we 'no-nails' players are an endangered species!

So let's turn the question around for a change. Imagine that no-nails was the natural way to play once? So when did we start playing with nails and who, why and how did it happen?
Well you are no endangered species. Many amateur and a very few professional players deliberately do without nails (e.g. its not because of a physical reason, such work, weak nails etc). Nobody in the first category is under any unreasonable pressure to grow nails, though they may be encouraged to grow them by tutors. Any pressure on the second category is hard to define, and it would take another thread to properly explore whether concert audiences, reviewers etc are actually biased against no-nails, such that there is so to speak an evolutionary pressure against it, or whether they are simply exercising their personal tastes.

You won't be surprised to know the question comes up countless times on this forum. Historically, the matter has cropped up enough to make it clear that over the centuries there were some players following either path. Sor vs Aguado is one signature case of this. It is also often pointed out that even a player who did not consciously grow, shape and maintain their nails, probably at least some of the time was contacting the strings with them. I would say that in my youth this was almost certainly the case, and many of my younger students go through such phases as their nails grow out in between trimmings. No, its not ideal, but one does not always have perfect control over everything a young person does!

To properly answer your question, while some players have always used nails, more or less deliberately, it became a near-universal orthodoxy under the influence of Segovia in the early 20th century. This was reinforced by those who followed his trail, especially the likes of Bream and Williams. For most of that century very few if any serious players would have done without nails by choice. More than a few fine players found a difficulty with nails as they got older was part of the reason for their retirement from performing, along with other aspects of health or simple things like a need to earn a living!

As the whole business of classical guitar has matured and moved away from the dominance of a very few titanic personalities, it has become possible for this to become a question, though I suspect that pretty much all the promising young players in conservatoires are under at least some serious persuasion to go with nails, or move over to the early music route (no-nails in lute etc playing is the standard). Though I also personally doubt that many such promising young players need any persuasion.

I am a keen nail player, encourage my students to be so too, but very much welcome the fact that the guitar world is more open to this and support the work of Rob Mackillop is supporting players who wish to or have to go no-nails.
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Re: Is it possible to play at concert level without nails?

Post by 2lost2find » Sat Dec 08, 2018 6:43 pm

I started out fingerpicking steel string without nails, but I grew my nails out when I started playing CG in the late 90s and have had them long since. I just cut them last week and was expecting a lengthy adjustment period but... not at all. I'm not having any trouble. I've lost a small amount of speed in single note alternation, but not enough to worry me. I'm capable of more speed than I'm generally likely to use.

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Re: Is it possible to play at concert level without nails?

Post by RobMacKillop » Sat Dec 08, 2018 6:50 pm

It's not an either/or thing, historically. Throughout history there is plenty of evidence that both techniques were used. Today is no different. By necessity or by choice doesn't matter. Do what you must, but what you must do is play. Love what you do, and love life. All else is folly. And don't ever let anyone convince you otherwise.

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Re: Is it possible to play at concert level without nails?

Post by GuitarsWeB » Sat Dec 08, 2018 7:16 pm

I would reccommend a low or normal tension string, as D’Addario makes...without nails playing

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Julian Ward
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Re: Is it possible to play at concert level without nails?

Post by Julian Ward » Sat Dec 08, 2018 7:48 pm

I have a pupil that I spent a few years trying to get to grow nails... I am a stickler for nail playing. But she has shown me that it is not actually necessary. Where she has played for so long like this, her finger tips have hardened and she can get reasonable volume. The tone is quite sweet and soft. I find that you can clearly get more tonal variations with nails, and there is no doubt it is louder, but if you play for long enough without them you can sound pretty good! She is good enough to be taking her grade eight in March and wants to take it to music college level.

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Re: Is it possible to play at concert level without nails?

Post by Argent » Sat Dec 08, 2018 7:57 pm

I have never heard a non nail player produce as good a tone as someone with good tone using nails but that’s not to say that there isn’t non nail players out there with great tone. I just haven’t heard them ...

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Re: Is it possible to play at concert level without nails?

Post by RobMacKillop » Sat Dec 08, 2018 9:25 pm

That's funny, as Fernando Sor said exactly the same thing in reverse:

Fernando Sor: “Never in my life have I heard a guitarist whose playing was supportable, if he played with the nails. The nails can produce but very few gradations in the quality of the sound: the piano passage can never be singing, nor the fortes sufficiently full.” [Method]

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Re: Is it possible to play at concert level without nails?

Post by Argent » Sat Dec 08, 2018 9:51 pm

Perhaps the guitars used then with gut strings were better suited to no nails. As the nails would damage the gut strings so quickly.

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Re: Is it possible to play at concert level without nails?

Post by Argent » Sat Dec 08, 2018 10:11 pm

RobMacKillop wrote:
Sat Dec 08, 2018 9:25 pm
That's funny, as Fernando Sor said exactly the same thing in reverse:

Fernando Sor: “Never in my life have I heard a guitarist whose playing was supportable, if he played with the nails. The nails can produce but very few gradations in the quality of the sound: the piano passage can never be singing, nor the fortes sufficiently full.” [Method]
Rob I just watched some videos of you playing and you have a beautiful tone. I feel like it has a different quality to a nail sound but is still beautiful sounding. Do you find modern day strings sound better with no nails or are gut strings best?

Thanks for changing my initial opinion!

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Re: Is it possible to play at concert level without nails?

Post by RobMacKillop » Sat Dec 08, 2018 10:24 pm

Well, thank you for that, Argent. I work hard on my tone production, and have found that good-quality gut gives me the best sound, failing that something with a slightly rough texture, like Savarez white card, 520b. But I don't want or expect the extremes of tone that, say, Bream has. My fingertips are soft, without caluses, as i have no desire to imitate a hard nail sound. I use hand cream every day. It's a different sound aesthetic, one that will not appeal to everyone, but it speaks loudly to me, and has historical resonance.

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Jorge Oliveira
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Re: Is it possible to play at concert level without nails?

Post by Jorge Oliveira » Sat Dec 08, 2018 10:36 pm

RobMacKillop wrote:
Mon Dec 03, 2018 6:56 am
Wow, that's the greatest, most Brazilian version of HVL's Choros #1 I've ever heard. I would love to know what he is saying when he starts talking in the middle and at the end of it. I can't ever imagine a non Brazilian playing that way. The rhythmical inflections are a joy to behold.
Hi Rob:

A fabulous player indeed, this Paulinho. As what he says before, during and after his rendition of Villa-Lobos Choro No. 1, his answer to a question from audience (which one cannot hear) goes like that (translation in blue):

Oh, Villa-Lobos… Villa-Lobos é considerado um dos maiores mestres do Tom Jobim, só isso, não preciso de dizer mais nada. Villa-Lobos, aqueles acordes dissonantes... aquilo motivou muita gente, não é? Eu até gravei o Choro No. 1
(Oh, Villa-Lobos... Villa-Lobos is considered to be one of the great teachers of Tom Jobim, just that, I don't need to say anything else. Villa-Lobos, those dissonant chords... they motivated lots of people, isn't it? I even recorded (his) Choro No. 1) (start of the piece 27:03) ... (29:50)... lembro-me como ele tocava isto. Bonito, não? Acorde legal ... (I remember how he played this. Beautiful, isn't it? Nice chord...) (31:54 end of the piece). Este programa tem uma coisa interessantíssima. É que, os que estão aí em casa, quem é que (ouve esta peça?). Eu não toco este Choro há não sei quanto tempo, de modo que não se preocupem, de vez em quando escapa uma coisinha mas a gente não se preocupa com isso, não, porque o que interessa é a gente dar vazão àquilo que a gente está pensando. (This program has a very interesting thing. It's that, those of you at home, who (usually listen to this piece)? I don't play this Choro since a long time ago, so, don't you worry, sometimes I make a small mistake, but one should not worry with that because what matters is to let go what one is thinking) (32:17) (silence, another question from the public) Ah, o Toquinho foi um caso muito especial... (Ah, Toquinho was a very special case...) and he proceeds to recall his encounters with this guy, of whom he was briefly a teacher of violão (as it is named the classic guitar in Brazil). He says that Toquinho was then, barely, 14 or 16 years old when he came for the first time to his house accompanied by his mother...

Notes:
  • Tom Jobim is how the Brasilian maestro António Carlos Jobim is commonly known.
  • Toquinho is a composer and guitar interpreter of Brasilian popular music - samba, bossa nova, chorinho, etc...
You should also listen to his rendition of Samba em Prelúdio of Baden Powel/Vinicius de Morais (42:38 - 45:36), a piece normally played by two guitars. He had to record it the following day for some reason and he still did not have the second violão player. He was dead worried then, until his brother told him, "en passant" that he did not see any advantage in having two instruments and that he should go it alone. He started then experimenting different combinations of the two melodies and somehow he achieved to play the two melodies, simultaneously (starting at 44:27), interspersed in each other, and ending with him singing the main refrain of the song "Sem você, meu amor/Eu não sou ninguém" (I without you, my love/I'm nobody). Amazing :D . And that's all.

Regards,
Jorge

Edited to replace "one of the great masters of Tom Jobim" by "one of the great teachers of Tom Jobim" and correct some other minor things.
Last edited by Jorge Oliveira on Wed Dec 12, 2018 6:35 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Is it possible to play at concert level without nails?

Post by RobMacKillop » Sat Dec 08, 2018 11:00 pm

Thank you, Jorge, for taking the time to do that! Much appreciated.

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Re: Is it possible to play at concert level without nails?

Post by tateharmann » Sun Dec 09, 2018 3:17 am

In the case that anyone would like to hear, I've been building a YT playlist of what playing without nails can sound like (very good haha): https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=P ... F0PNluDJC-

I'm up to 60+ videos!
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Re: Is it possible to play at concert level without nails?

Post by Argent » Tue Dec 11, 2018 10:45 am

RobMacKillop wrote:
Sat Dec 08, 2018 10:24 pm
Well, thank you for that, Argent. I work hard on my tone production, and have found that good-quality gut gives me the best sound, failing that something with a slightly rough texture, like Savarez white card, 520b. But I don't want or expect the extremes of tone that, say, Bream has. My fingertips are soft, without caluses, as i have no desire to imitate a hard nail sound. I use hand cream every day. It's a different sound aesthetic, one that will not appeal to everyone, but it speaks loudly to me, and has historical resonance.
One of favourite sounds is with the thumb playing bass notes tasto with no nail. I use it often but can’t avoid my nails on my fingers unfortunately. Be great to have best of both worlds!

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Re: Is it possible to play at concert level without nails?

Post by Gutyev » Tue Dec 11, 2018 11:58 am

It seems like it's the age-old friendly fight between Sor and Aguado. When you look at their styles in music it's pretty clear what each one has to offer. I'm a Nail player, but I have a few students that just can't get their head around it. Seems like if the player develops the right level of callous and accuracy the difference shouldn't be that great. When you compare it to the discipline needed for Nail development and care, the accuracy of strike and motion... We're all dealing with the same amount of problems. I would be interested in the room volume that is achieved through no nails by a professional. I saw Luque play Aranjuez, but that was 20 years ago and I'm 80% sure it was miked.

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