Dealing with a Bum Thumbnail: There’s an Answer!

Fingernails are always an issue for folks who fingerpick, whether they are classical guitarists or pop/folk/roots types. Classical guitarists tend to be purists, relying on natural nails which they tend with files and varying grades of micro fine sand paper, only turning to artificial replacements when absolutely required. Other folks tend to be more open to experimentation until they find something that they’re happy with, whether it’s fingerpicks, fingernails, fleshy fingertips or artificial nails. While finicky nail care renders far superior tone with nylon strings, steel strings tend to be somewhat more forgiving, which is fortunate because they’re also harder on the nails.

For some time now I’ve been dealing with a split down the center of my right hand’s thumb nail, several years in fact. This creates a weaker playing surface, with too much flex and a much smaller attack area. I’ve tried gluing the split with superglue, which works until I use my thumb for anything other than playing guitar. As soon as I do, the seam splits and I’m back to where I was, except with a nail coated in glue. I’ve also tried going to one of the local salons and having a coating put on to create a solid nail. This works pretty well for a few weeks, however it is physically uncomfortable. When it is applied you can feel a burning sensation down into the nail bed, which passes but not entirely. The entire time I had the coated thumbnail my thumb was uncomfortable, feeling tight around and under the nail.

During this time I wasn’t encountering classical guitarists locally and I was uncertain what my options were. I tried using a thumb pick for awhile. As someone who was a classical guitar major in college it was awkward, to say the least.   Over the many years that have passed since school I’ve learned to adapt and not be quite so rigid in my approaches to making music, for better or worse, so I tried. I found the hand position that the thumb pick forced my right hand to adopt to be uncomfortable and I was afraid to use any percussive elements due to fear of damaging the instrument top. I also found the clamping sensation on my thumb to be a major distraction in itself. I did like being able to switch to being able to pick single lines and then switch back to fingerstyle at will, but the trade off wasn’t satisfying for me.

So, it was back to the split nail. It worked well if it was kept on the short side which limited the flex and provided a stiffer striking surface but still wasn’t as responsive to being able to really dig into the bass strings like you can with an intact nail. A couple months ago as I was exploring the Guitar Foundation of America website I came across the url for Player’s Nails. I’d heard of these but never tried them. Having reached wit’s end I went ahead and ordered the nail care set, which arrived within the week. When it came, I opened the kit, examined the contents and read the instructions. Since it involved using superglue and I was coming up on a series of concerts with the guitar ensemble I play with, I decided to wait to experiment until the concerts were past, just in case I didn’t like the results.

A few days ago I pulled out the kit and set to work constructing a new nail for my thumb. I followed the instructions and now have what I’m calling my prosthetic thumbnail. It is my first attempt and I now know some things that I will try on the next iteration. For one thing I should have cut the nail further back than I did, because I initially ended up with a double strike surface. After some tricky filing under the veneer surface to deal with the natural nail, I eliminated the double strike. Despite it not being perfect I can say with confidence that the artificial nail surface is more satisfying to play with than my nail in its natural damaged state. It does look somewhat odd since it is essentially a clear piece of material attached to the nail and extends over the fleshy tip of the thumb. It doesn’t look like a thumbnail and you can see the nail underneath quite clearly. I’m hoping that the veneer will provide the support that my natural nail needs to finally grow out the split and eliminate the need for the veneer, but only time will tell on that front.

While it looks odd, the surface does respond very well to filing and sanding to provide a very nice smooth and solid surface. The tone is much better and I can once again dig into the bass strings in a way I haven’t had access to in years, which is giving me great pleasure. I’m very glad that I took the plunge and tried another alternative. We’ll see how long the nail lasts and what happens underneath the veneer as time goes by. All I can say at this point is I’m relieved that I’ve found a better way around the issue.

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