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Clawhammer and Nails

When you play clawhammer banjo, you need to repeatedly bang your fingernail against the strings on purpose. There are some people who have very very strong nails who never have a problem with this, others whose nails can’t handle the rigors of playing at all, and players like me who are somewhere in the middle.

I grow out 3 nails on my right hand, just a little. I don’t grow them long, but just long enough so they are past the tip of my finger. I play best with the nail of my index finger, but I keep my middle fingernail ready just in case I break the other one while I’m playing and need an emergency nail. I use my ring fingernail to achieve percussive effects. If I don’t let my nail grow out too long, I can go several months without breaking a nail, but at a certain length it weakens considerably.

Sometimes I use nail hardener on my nails, but I’ve come to think it doens’t really make much difference. For me the important thing is to be on the case with a nail file keeping my playing nails at just the right length and shape. Other players have different solutions.

Some people use picks, with those designed for clawhammer or pics that are designed for bluegrass banjo or guitar and modified for clawhammer. I’ve read about other people who make picks out of ping-pong balls. I’ve tried out various pics but I’m not satisfied with any of them. I like to feel the connection between my finger and the strings and if there is any instability it really bothers me and affects my playing.

Other players go to nail salons once a month or so and get fake nails applied. Ted, who plays guitar with me in Jack Antler, does this and he is very happy with the results. I’ve never been to a nail salon.

Yesterday morning I cracked the nail of my right index finger. It was the kind of crack that pointed directly into the nail. It wasn’t a big crack, but big enouth that it was difficult to completely file out, and I know that playing with it would cause a bigger break.

I was going to simply switch to my middle finger. After some practice, I can play just about as strongly with it as with my index. However, I had scheduled a session with Ted for that morning, and it does really take some practice for me to get used to changing fingers. It happened that I was going to the drugstore to pick up something or other we needed at home, and I remember reading on Facebook something from Joe Newberry (a great player who I really look up to), saying he uses drugstore press-on nails with some success. I ventured into the nail care section of the store and bought a box of these things. I wanted only the biggest ones they had but all the boxes there came with a selection of sizes. I bought a box anyway and went home to apply one.

It turned out application was easy. I filed the crack in my nail right down. Then I stuck on what amounts to clear, very strong, nail-shaped double-sided tape, then pressed on the fake nail. After that it was easy to shape the fake nail with a nail file. I played for hours with Ted yesterday and it felt right and I was able to play well with this stick-on product. Hopefully I’ll get a few days playing out of it.


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