A cracked fingernail is the curse of the finger picking guitar player. It always happens when you can least afford it. It’s happened to me plenty of times before a gig, or worse a residency where I was playing every night. In this article I’m going to touch briefly on things you can do when your nail breaks, 3 places where it can tear. Then I’m going to talk a little about prevention.
Torn thumbnail and I’m playing guitar in two hours
This is of course really common, sometimes it comes because you have been practicing a lot more than usual. Maybe you’ve been messing with technique. That’s what happened to me about a month ago. I was writing a new song and it started off with me pulling the base string hard with my thumbnail and then doing a triple hammer on as part of the riff. It sounded awesome and I was busy writing a song, live on Twitch.
I went straight to the temporary repair, which is Super Glue. A good super glue will do a halfway decent temporary repair. You have to be quick and it’s not super easy getting the right amount on with your left hand, especially because the best temp fix involves opening up the tear and making sure you get the glue inside the crack. If you get it right, this is the best temporary repair IMHO because it tends not to interfere with the tone of the guitar.
Worse luck, the last bottle of superglue I had, was dried up even though I had kept it in the fridge. Now I do have to say here that there is good superglue and rubbish superglue. How do you tell? Price. Good quality product costs more than cheap product.
What’s the catch? It does break down with water, so every time you wash your hands, shower or bath, you are dissolving the glue. What can you do about it? The good thing with super glue is you can apply it again. I’ve gone a week or so using superglue every day.
Where on the nail is it cracked?
Obviously the tear will be on the side of the nail that you use to pick the string, but how far down is important. Almost all tears are sideways to the nail, not a crack or split from the top. I think if the latter happens you have a problem with your nail health or something else going on.
- Sometimes the crack is between the top of the nail and the smile line. That’s jargon for the part where your nail attaches to your finger or thumb. That’s the easiest to repair with superglue because you can easily get at it and you can potentially file underneath and on the side if you need to. It is one of the places where it is weakest, so you need to be really careful with it.
- Sometimes it will crack right on the smile line. That can be tough because that is where most of the pressure is. When you use glue, you need to make sure you don’t get it on the skin underneath. It makes the skin stick to the nail above the smile line and makes it harder to play.
- The one that hurts the most is when it bends or tears further down the nail on the plate. The most common thing is you hit something hard with your nail. I’ve done it on car door handles, the nail folds back and you can see a crease underneath the nail. It may not even be broken, but it will be weak as the nail grows and the crease grows past the smile line.
Fix cracked fingernail in each position
- When it is between the tip and the smile line, you can use superglue, get it inside the crack as I mentioned before. Once the glue has fried, you will need to file the crack edge as smooth as you can, so that it doesn’t catch while you are playing. You also have to stop yourself from annoying it all the time, testing to see if it is OK. It’s like that toothache, or chipped tooth, or perhaps where you’ve had one totally removed. The dentist says not to touch it with your tongue, so what do you do? You keep touching it with your tongue of course. Do be prepared for when it goes again because each time it does, it will tear a little more. The other thing you can try to do is file or cut away the torn part, if it leaves you enough undamaged nail that you can comfortably play with. The challenge is that you have to cut every bit of weak nail away or it will just continue to tear.
- When your nail is torn at the smile line, and you have reasonably long nails for playing guitar, the best thing to do is go to a nail boutique and get them to put an acrylic false nail on top. I had that done a month ago and in the image you can see how it is growing out. It only cost $5 and forms a really good repair. The problem with it is that it sounds dull and feels strange when you are playing which can distract you while you are playing. Of course, you could also play with a thumb or finger pick, or even a plectrum. That may severely cramp your style, but you could also think of it as developing a new skill. I use picks on my electric guitars, but not very often on anything else, but I did learn finger picking techniques at music school and it comes back pretty quick. It might even inspire you to write or learn something new. The big challenge with acrylic nails is that they have to grow out. You do not want to pick the surface off, because it will remove layers of the actual nail with it. Regular use of these false nails will erode the nail underneath so that it becomes software and weaker because it is not being stressed. The stress is what makes the nail hard and strong.
- The tear further down on the thumb is a real problem. You can still pick, but it hurts because the skin underneath the nail is torn and maybe bruised. It will probably hurt if you use a plectrum as well, because even though you are use the pick, there is the pressure from holding the pick firmly as well as when you pick or strum the strings. The best thing is probably to use a thumb pick, but that can hurt as well. The show must go on. Don’t forget that when the crease gets to the smile line it is now potentially a weak link and you may need to follow the idea of the false acrylic nail.
Preventing torn nails
There are many things you can do to prevent nail tears and breaks.
Feed your nails
It’s amazing how important food is. Nails are an unusual part of your body because once it leaves the smile line, it is dead fibrous material. Eating plenty of food with protein in it helps with strong nails. Lean meat like chicken, pork, fish are good and so are spinach and other vegetables. Of course that means eating those things regularly. If your nails are thin or brittle, diet will help, but it is not a quick fix.
Play guitar a lot
Nails are like bones. When you tear or break a bone, it strengthens and can often be stronger than it was before you broke it, if you take care of it while you are healing. You will find that when you play guitar every day, your fingernails will grow harder and harder.
Beware though. Strong nails can snap. There is a balance between fiber and strength. It’s like carbon fiber and other composite materials on an Americas Cup yacht. In certain directions it has astounding strength, on others it has very little.
I’ve had experiences where for some random reason a finger or nail hit something hard, more or less end on and the nail snapped. Now you’re in a worse predicament because you simply have to wait for it to grow back and use a plectrum for a while. Acrylic nails for guitar, need the nail to still be attached to the finger in order to provide strength They will not work effectively if the nail has come off. Gluing it back in place won’t work either.
Don’t play guitar after a shower, bath, swim or doing dishes
When your nail has been exposed to warm or hot water it softens. I’m sure you have noticed that after a shower or bath, your nail is very supply or bendy. Playing guitar before it has fully restored to normal hardness is a big risk. Don’t do dishes before playing guitar and I recommend waiting about an hour or so after being in water.
Apply a nail hardener
What I mean by a nail hardener is a scientific formulation designed to strengthen the nail. My favorite is Mavala. It’s a greenish liquid that you paint on to the nail tips and soaks into the nail. You can apply it once a day and the nail will grow hard. Do not apply it below the smile line. I don’t know what happens, but it can damage your nail health down there.
As I said above, when your nail is hard, it is very strong, but it can snap. Otherwise, this is a very good option.
What’s important here is that you need to use a chemical that is designed for nail strength. The products designed to make women’s nails ‘look good’ will not help your nails in terms of guitar playing.
Care for your nails
Your nails are an extension of your instrument. They are like the hammers of the piano. Check them regularly. Trim and file them into the natural shape that suits your style of guitar playing.
How will you know what that is? Your nails will naturally wear in the places they are used a lot. If you have played for a long time like I have, your nails and even your fingers will probably look slightly different to non guitarists. Your body adjusts. There are lots of opinions of what the best shape for guitar is. In some cases, like Flamenco and even classical, there will be traditions saying, this is how you must do it. I’m sure there are specialists in Spain for guitar nail care.
To me the main thing is having the largest playing surface that works for you. If you had a very narrow point to play with, you heighten the risk of damaging the nail.
It is best to check them and trim them regularly, so if there are any irregularities, you can stop them from getting worse. Understand or learn the ideal length for the style of guitar you play, providing the best playability and optimal note clarity.
What about the other hand?
Yes, that matters too, very much in fact. You need to keep them healthily short. Don’t cut them to the quick, but do keep them short all the time.
- It is hard to press on strings, do slides, hammer-ons and pull offs, when you have longish fingernails. I don’t know how some women do it, but I just think that those who do have long nails on both hands, probably don’t play a lot of guitar.
- If your nails are too long, you will find that when you are making a chord, your nails may end up touching the strings above and distorting your chords, or producing other unwanted sounds, buzzes and scratches.
- Long nails can scratch and damage the surface of the fret board. This may not be obvious at first, but your nails can dig into the timber of the guitar and over time this can affect the playability of the guitar. It will also certainly reduce any resale value of your instrument.
Nails crack, bend and break. It is a hazard that people who don’t use them as a tool don’t understand. You need to protect them with a good healthy diet and regular maintenance.
Trim and file your nails regularly. Be careful though a file can remove more of the nail than you realize.
All nail repairs, like glue and acrylic are temporary fixes and they can damage the nails in the long term. Only use them when you have to.
Your nails are a part of your instrument. You need to care for them and protect them. You need to think about what you are doing. Avoid situations that might damage them, like mechanical car repairs. Think about them when opening car doors, there are so many situations that you take for granted that can damage your nails, both when they are moist and soft and when they are very hard.
Have a plan for when things could go wrong. You should have good quality nail files, nail clippers, thumb picks and plectrums. Practice using them once in a while so you won’t sound like a beginner. Find out what sort of picks you are comfortable using, the variety is huge. Keep all of this gear in your go bag and make sure it is always there.
Update August 2019
I’m not going to add a picture but since I broke that thumbnail the last of the fake nail came off and took with it about half of the layers of actual nail with it. My thumb looks pretty normal until you look more closely and I won’t video it, but you can bend the nail down even when it is dry, so I’m about to start using the Mavala hardener, just to try to make sure that I don’t break it again before it fully grows back. That was a calculated risk and I wanted to be able to play normally, but be aware this is often what happens.