Can You Play Guitar with Long Nails? Dolly Can!

We make all kinds of sacrifices in life, especially when it comes to our health and appearance. We sacrifice some of our favorite foods in order to maintain healthful diets, we put our bodies through pain and stress when we exercise, and when we go to the salon, we make sacrifices to accommodate vivid, stunning, stand-out manicures, and doubly so when those manicures include extensions. It’s no secret that long acrylic nails make life a little harder. Typing, using a smartphone, and just about any activity that requires manual precision is rendered obnoxious when you have to work around long nails. And, sadly, there’s not a huge pool of tips and life hacks that help with this issue. However, there is one area where long nails won’t necessarily hinder your performance — and sometimes, they might even help. That area? Playing the guitar.

During an interview on The Graham Norton Showcountry music legend and fashion icon Dolly Parton went into detail regarding her long acrylic nails, and how exactly they change her approach to making music.  As it turns out, the nails were integral to the writing of her famous song “9 to 5”, having been used to develop its beat. Parton even granted her nails instrument status in the album’s credits. “After we recorded the song, I brought all the girls down that [were] on the show and I played my nails. So I have a credit on the back of the album that says, ‘nails by Dolly.’”

But when it comes to actually playing the guitar with her long red nails, there are both happy surprises and small obstacles. “I’ve learned to work with them,” Parton says. Long nails make her left-hand approach more difficult, with the formation of chords and fingering of lead melodies usually relying on free fingertips. Her solution? Sometimes, she just files them down. This may not be an ideal solution, and it’s not wholly necessary, but it does make things easier. As for her right-hand technique, Parton has found having nail extensions makes playing a little bit easier, since they function a lot like guitar picks. So, at the very least, she never has to make a trip to the guitar shop to buy picks!

It turns out Dolly Parton’s nails aren’t totally unique; there’s a serious precedent for long nails in the world of guitar playing. Bluegrass guitarists often use fingerpicks, guitar picks that are worn like thimbles to emulate long nails. This is preferable to using your actual nails since bluegrass and related genres are most often played on guitars with tense steel strings. Of course, your typical guitar player is more of a strummer than a picker, and most acoustic guitarists have used their nails to strum in situations where they had no pick available. In a pinch, nails provide enough of a percussive element to make up for the lack of a pick.

For classical guitarists or those who play classical guitars — guitars with wide necks and soft, flexible nylon or gut strings — finger-picking is the norm, rather than the exception, and while soft fingertips will do the job, many find that long fingernails are best for creating a clear, bright, unmistakable tone. It’s not uncommon to meet classical guitarists with long nails on their dominant hand. Flamenco players, known for their lighting-fast right-hand fingerstyle and percussive strikes and taps on the body of the guitar, are known to sport long fingernails.

So if you’re worried getting a fancy manicure will prohibit you from playing the guitar, don’t fret — not all is lost. There are ways to work around your long nails, and you might even find a burst of creativity comes from having to approach your instrument differently.

Remember, however, that your nails are still part of your body, even if you’re rocking extensions. It’s always important to take care of your nails. If you’re going to play guitar, take it slow until you know exactly how much your nails can withstand. Make sure your manicurist is using quality products on your nails, and make sure you’re getting a strong, robust manicure. Gel manicures result in an extremely durable, hard finish; some, like SNS Gelous Color, are made with nail-nourishing vitamins and are known to last two weeks or more.