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Jeffry Hamilton Steele

This was prepared for the "Guitar Sessions" web-zine put out by Mel Bay Publications.

Tips on Nails, Hands and Forearms

October 2000


Shown below are direct scans of my right hand, showing pressure marks, white paint splotch [don't think I just play guitar all day] and, most importantly, how I shape my nails.

My hand and nails may look very different from yours, so all I say may not necessarily apply to you. In playing position, my wrist is straight -- resulting in a normal stroke that is at a 45 -- rather than 90 -- degree angle to the strings. My nails are shaped such that with each pluck the string "rolls off" my nail [left to right from the perspective of Fig. 1]. The upward slope of each nail -- particularly m and a -- makes for the smoothest "trailing edge." This gives me a base "round" tone, which I can make more "brittle" by angling my wrist downward -- closer to the Segovia crooked wrist position. Notice also that from index to pinkie, the nails are progressively longer -- required by the trajectory natural to each finger. I use the pinkie primarily to pluck right-hand harmonics, it being the furthest from the index -- the latter touching the node point on the string. [Having the thumb touch the node point is also an option, but I prefer the index in the majority of instances]. Fig. 2 shows the degree to which the nails extend past my actual fingertips.

I shape the nails with a "sapphire" file, now common in drug stores, and smooth the edges with #400 "open coat" sandpaper. Historically it has been the case that you had to buy a box of the stuff, though some guitar retailers have already done this and sell separate sheets. If you do not find the latter readily available, you may use the "wet or dry" variety -- which works fine if you don't mind having to lick or wet your nails first.

My nails grow strong and break infrequently, so I don't offer particular suggestions on strengthening them. One of my teachers years ago once remarked, "If I played the Miller's Dance as you just did I'd have broken every one of my nails!" When I do break one, however, I cut a patch from thin plastic and glue it across the break with Crazy Glue -- applying a coat of glue over the patch as well to keep it from catching on things. If the nail breaks off completely, I find the amputated nail scrap and glue it back on, using the aforementioned plastic brace. Anytime I have tried using an artificial nail [thin guitar pick or whatever], I have found the tone unacceptable.


While in college [in 1974], I commissioned a small guitar from Michael Cone with a string length of 64 centimeters. Happy as I was with the dry sound of this instrument, I was advised that for the more romantic styles of music I would need a larger guitar with a deeper sound, so seven years later I commissioned such a one from Frank Hasselbacher -- with a 66 cm string length. My left hand was not comfortable with having to stretch further in certain passages, but I just assumed -- in spite of my left hand's protestations -- that this went with the territory and that I simply needed more practice. Recently, however, I was playing a piece for a student on his fancy new guitar and marveled that certain passages were so much easier than I was used to. He pointed out not only that his string length was 65 cm but that this had become the standard for serious classical guitars. I don't know how this fact has eluded me all this time, but I suddenly realized that an amicable end to my 66 cm "marriage" was imminent.

All this is by way of saying that it is never too late to question whether the string length, string spacing, neck shape, fret curve ["radius"] and action are optimized for your fretting hand. Subtle differences in any of these measurements can make the difference between a flubbed run -- or even a hand too fatigued to finish the concert -- and an all-round masterful performance. As with other dysfunctional relationships, we often fail to see that something better awaits us. I have a new 65 cm instrument which, relatively speaking, "plays itself." Though I will stay friends with my Hasselbacher, I no longer expect to execute my more difficult repertoire on it.

The most common source of fretting-hand stress, most guitarists will agree, comes in having to bar frequently across the strings with the first finger. One should determine that the frets are favorably shaped; some of us prefer them flat across, some with a convex "radius", but few would benefit from a concave shape -- which sometimes occurs naturally as a guitar ages. One can also ease stress on the fretting hand by forcing the bar finger itself into a concave shape, such that more pressure gets applied to the middle strings than the outer ones, without having to increase pressure from the thumb behind the neck.


In most cases, fretting-hand stress accumulates not so much in the hand as in the forearm. The forearm to the plucking hand is also vulnerable -- though I find in my case this forearm's strain comes from over-use of the computer mouse. Of benefit to almost anyone feeling strain in either forearm is to fill a sink with hot water and immerse hands and elbows. I go for bi-monthly massages, which have been essential preventative maintenance; my message therapist has reported I was, at times, close to getting tendonitis in my left arm. It has also become crucial that, on a regular basis, I self-message the points in my forearm that she routinely "irons out" -- even between pieces in a recital if needed.

Fig. 3 shows a scan of the top of my left forearm, the three arrows indicating where you should apply [a fair amount of] pressure using your other hand. Pushing towards the left hand, release as best you can all the hardening of these tendons and muscles until you sense a new suppleness. No pain, no gain! Shake the arm rapidly to and fro, dangling from the shoulder. Try also grasping the points shown between the thumb and fingers of the right hand while vigorously shaking a limp left arm. Doing this on yourself, you do run the risk of putting new tension in the right, massaging, forearm. So you may need to return the favor back and forth a few times, the arms exchanging roles. Alternately, teach a friend to do this for you.