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Tuning Up: Nail It!

One of the drawbacks I’ve encountered in my general move toward more hands-on elicitation of primal rawness in my playing is that … well, I was busting nails.

If you’re bored enough to read or care even a modicum about what I say here on a semi-regular basis, you may recall that I’ve evangelized about celebrating your uniqueness [“Fly Your Freak Flag High,” September 2011], shaking off the chains of preciosity [“Banishing Gollum (or Discovering Your Inner Punk),” August 2011] and simplifying your rig to get more sounds with your hands [“To Stomp, or Not to Stomp,” November 2011]. In retrospect, I guess all those diatribes have highlighted various facets of a general curmudgeonliness that’s coming over me as I get older. Naturally, I think it’s a healthy crustiness, but you may have a more unbiased viewpoint. Anyway, one of the drawbacks I’ve encountered in my general move toward more hands-on elicitation of primal rawness in my playing is that … well, I was busting nails.

Yeah, you read right. Nails. The problem began three or four years ago, when I switched string gauges to get a tougher, tauter sound and tamp down on the string warble I got when I dug in for heavy riffs. Moving up to .011s fixed the problem, but soon a couple of other evolutions in my approach changed everything again. First, thinking about the range of sounds that Jeff Beck and Brian Setzer—two of my favorite players—get with hardly any gear inspired me to decrease my stomp-able distractions and try to wring more sounds from my bare hands.

Soon after that, I acquired an amp whose unadulterated tones were so bloody titillating that I felt less need to augment them—an amp that enabled me to dial in a single sound and either play light as a feather for glorious clean tones, or attack ferociously for nasty, in-your-face sounds. More recently, I’ve taken to flipping around my heavy, textured-grip nylon picks to get even more bristling tones out of my axes—which sometimes unconsciously spurs me to ram my picking hand into the strings even harder. I know, I know … my inner punk is out of control.

Integral to all this is the fact that I do a lot of hybrid picking—another nod to Setzer and Beck, and probably the biggest single takeaway from all those teenage years of listening to Eddie Van Halen and Eric Johnson. But there’s been a pretty significant drawback for the keratin plates at the end of my picking hand’s index, middle, and ring fingers: They’ve not increased their gauges one iota to keep up! And the result isn’t pretty. More importantly, it does not feel good. If you’ve ever had a nail detach, you know what I mean. It doesn’t even have to come off that much for your finger to scream every time you touch a string.

I’ve known for years, of course, that hardcore fingerstyle guitarists have pretty drastic fingernail-care regimens—routines that require multiple specialty products, a lot of annoying filing and buffing, and, worst of all, clunky, ugly-ass artificial nails. But I spend most of my guitar time playing electric, so I never really thought much about that until my recent predicament (besides, I always liked the sound of a little flesh rather than full-on nails on my acoustic).

When this whole fingernail-detachment thing reared its head a few months back, I had to decide whether to curtail my attack and sacrifice the sounds I’m totally digging, or figure something else out. Given PG’s slogan—“The relentless pursuit of tone”—I think you can guess which I chose. But as I thought of how to avoid pain and still get my sound, I had to come to terms with the fact that I’m either too vain or too lazy to put that kind of time and money into something I know will bug the living hell out of me every second I’m not playing. Yeah, I like it au naturel, baby.

So I showed my wife my owies, told her about freako fingerstylists’ nails, and asked for help figuring out a solution that wouldn’t feel weird, take forever, and cost too much. Turns out, we already had everything I needed. My loverwoman just had to sit me down and teach me how to do my nails.

I don’t claim this is the ultimate solution, but it’s working for me. Here’s what the missus taught me. After making sure my nails were trimmed neatly, she used a buffing block to polish the surfaces. But, like I said, I’m lazy—plus, I’m not worried about how smooth and perfect my nails look, given that they’re going to get scraped to hell anyway— so now I skip the buffing and go straight to applying a pH balancing agent that helps the protective final coat adhere longer and not chip as easily.

Although not indestructible, my nail treatment lasts through a whole week and a long band jam, puts my sound literally at my fingertips, and isn’t annoyingly distracting. Here, my nails had gotten a tad too long and ripped near the end of a long band rehearsal, but half of what you see is two layers of topcoat—imagine the damage if they’d been unprotected!

That stuff dries faster than water, so step two—applying a coat of nail-polish adhesive—comes fast, and it serves the same purpose as step one. Let the adhesive dry for a couple minutes, and then the final step is to apply the first of two layers of heavy-duty topcoat. Let that dry a couple more minutes, then do one more coat, and you’re done. I now do this after every band rehearsal, and it usually lasts all the way through the week until my next two- or three-hour jam.

Happy manicuring, tone freaks!