BY HEIDI SWEDBERG | FROM THE SUMMER 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Music is made up of two basic components: pitch and rhythm, and for the most part, these fundamentals are divided between the chording and the speaking hand. For 90 percent of us (with apologies to the left-handed 10 percent), the right hand is all about rhythm.
Fingerstyle playing, picking, and strumming techniques unique to each player are often reflected in their most intimate tool: their nails. Manicures are not just for the pampered. Musicians’ fingernail requirements are very specific and often have little to do with visual aesthetics.
The first thing you might notice about a string player’s manicure is that it is lopsided. Most serious players have very short nails on their chording hands. As a result, chording hands often look alike. The right hand, however, is where things get crazy.
The manicure on a ukulele player’s picking hand can tell you a lot about how they play. Today’s top players bring a wide variety of styles to the ukulele: Hawaiian, classical, vintage swing, jazz, pop, folk, reggae, and flamenco.
Here, the ukulele’s right-hand women and men share the long and short of their rhythm styles and manicure strategies.
Hawaiian-style playing combines fingerstyle melodies and strumming. These two players use the pinky finger to stabilize their right hands against the instrument, and pick mostly with index and middle fingers. The thumbnail is a powerful tool, often kept a little longer.
“With my acrylic nails, I get more articulation that bites through amplified music when I’m performing on stage. When I get my nails done, I tell them ‘thicker than normal’ for added strength. I usually file down my two nails (index and middle) as they get longer.”
HERB OHTA JR.
“Shorter is better, but sometimes I grow them out. Don’t use nail-strengthening products on your nails; your nail needs to breathe. Instead, drink gelatin tablets or eat a lot of Jello.”
Uke players with a background in classical playing are often first schooled on guitar and develop a strong feel for the string and a keen awareness of tone.
“I took classical guitar lessons in high school, so a lot of my picking comes from that background. In an ideal world, I would have longer nails that have a bit of an offset curve filed into them, but then I would have to stop sanding saddles, playing in the dirt, and loading donkeys. Being a rabid nail biter, it took me about two years to train myself just to bite my left hand.”
“I take the classical- guitar approach where I use the p i m a (thumb, index, middle, and ring, respectively) of my right hand. I find it useful to have nails that are just long enough to clip the strings. I have the ‘i m a’ acrylic additions—with pinky and thumb natural. I noticed all the guys [at NAMM] have a long thumbnail for picking and tremolos. I’m going to try that at my next appointment. I need strong nails that won’t shred after one set, and also offer more volume with less effort. Most nail salons don’t shave the top surface down enough, leaving me with chunky acrylic that deadens my sound. Density doesn’t seem to work so good—I suppose that’s why guitar picks are so thin.”
“I studied classical guitar and both my left- and right-hand technique are in the classical-guitar style. I keep my nails as short as possible so I can feel the strings with my fingertips. I have a lot more control and power with shorter nails, and I don’t break them as often. The shape just follows the tips of my fingers. I file them a little bit every day to keep them at precisely the right length.”
Traditional techniques are so detailed and varied, they require a lifetime of study and a hand of fully armored nails.
“I file each nail differently so it hits the string at the best angle for my hand and gets the smoothest tone. For me, that’s fairly flat in the middle (but at an angle) and rounded on the sides, so the string is plucked right where the flesh and the nail meet. I file them constantly. Even the nail edge is rounded, so the string can connect and ‘roll’ around the nail. I keep the thumbnail longer so I can use fast flamenco techniques like alzapúa (cross-string flips), double bouncing, and a type of sweep picking.
“I would break a nail in the first 30 seconds of playing without my acrylic ‘armor.’ Even the pinky, as I strum with the backs of the nails, too. My ukulele needs tap plates to keep me from putting holes in the wood—so, don’t let me play your uke! I will scratch it unless I’m really careful.”
JAZZ & POP
The province of individualists: strum it, swing it, and bring it!
“My nails are short because I also play the piano. I prefer short nails. Really long nails creep me out. If I play a lot, my strumming will break my fingernail, even though it’s short, so I go to a nail salon and get a clear false-nail painted on top of my index fingernail. My strumming is almost always a straight swing strum, downstrokes with my index finger, and occasional accents with upstrokes from my thumb (nail). For softer volume and texture, I use the fleshy part of my thumb for downstrokes, instead.”
“My nails are all about the same length—1/16-inch past my actual finger tip. This allows me to just clip the string with the nail, to allow the pad of my finger to be most of what hits the string. My thumbnail is a tad longer—maybe 1/8-inch past my fingertip. They are my natural nails and I feel very fortunate to have very strong nails.
“I notice any time I put nail polish on, it changes my tone when I strum. I also will totally wreck a nice manicure, so it’s just a waste of money.”
“I used to have all of my nails at a decent length but eventually fell in love with a mellower tone created by keeping my fingernails short to the tip. Getting a really warm tone was much harder with longer nails. My thumbnail is just a hair longer so that I can get a very solid note on the way down (hitting both my thumb tip and nail) and have a nice solid hit on the way up using the longer nail. This is how many of us can get that very fast thumb speed up and down.”
Don’t try this at home, kids!
“I feel like what I’m doing is a really bad thing to encourage . . . I am getting a good sound out of it, but mostly people don’t.
“When I first started playing ukulele with The Yes Yes Boys (stand-up bass, washboard, sax, and clarinet), I tried bare fingers—blood on the frets. I tried acrylics: have you read up on those chemicals? Nasty! So I started using the same picks I use on guitar, with a smaller thumb pick. I’ve gained the volume and crispness I like, but I’ve given up down-strokes—so all the classic ukulele strumming techniques and rhythm strokes are out. It takes a lot of practice to turn force into sweet sound instead of pick noise. In most instances, a musician’s time would be better spent playing bare-fingered. I often play without picks for fun and pleasure, when I’m just enjoying the instrument for its own sake.”
Nail-Care Tools They Can’t Live Without
Craig Chee and Sarah Maisel “We love our nail clipper—it’s from Japan, the brand is Green Bell, and it’s the sharpest and smoothest nail clipper we’ve ever had.”
Herb Ota, Jr. “Glass files.”
Bryan Tolentino “Jake turned me on to Nail Sandpaper, but you can only get it in Japan!”
Daniel Ho “When I record, I use foam blocks with four very-fine sandpapers.”
MIM “My best friend sends me a container of hand cream from Lush every year for my birthday. I am stingy, so I just use a little bit when I realize my hands have gone downhill, and I make it last all year until my birthday rolls around again.”
Daniel Ward “Super-glue and baking soda for repairs—the flamenco speedball.”