The Finger Nails


Bernard Sheaff.

Keynotes, Volume IV, Issue 4, April 1928

The scratchy tone produced by some players of the zither banjo is generally caused by the rough condition of the nails.

The nails, particularly the playing ones on the right hand, should never be cut but trimmed with the finest of files. After this operation, the nails need to have the file marks removed, for the portion which comes in contact with the string must be smooth and polished to obtain a smooth, clear tone, A very good means of obtaining this finish is to lightly rub the nails with the finest French emery paper, which can be obtained from any engineer's tool shop. (This material is smoother than the striking surface on a matchbox, and must not be confused with ordinary emery cloth.)

One of the difficulties of the player when he begins to use his nails is to prevent their accidentally becoming damaged or broken off short. Really, it takes a few months to acquire the physical condition of the nails, which makes them satisfactory playing implements--apart from the question of touch—and a longer time to instinctively protect them from inadvertent contact with rough and damaging objects. Taking care of the nails by keeping them always at a uniform length and particularly using them for playing over a long period renders them more than naturally immune from chipping and cracking.

One of the major faults to avoid is that of scraping the inside of the nails with the manicure tool.

This should be quite smooth and have no cutting edge at all, for, if every time the nails are cleaned, a shaving is scratched away, this not only makes the nail thin but interferes with its strong and even growth. Personally, I use a penknife (because it is always handy in the pocket) but only a special blade with the edge purposely dulled and polished. When. as in the case of the playing fingers, the nails are required beyond the end of the finger, the object should be to train the junction of flesh and nail to the top of the finger, as high as possible. This, besides giving support to the nail and preventing " flappiness " when the string is struck, also minimises the risk, should the nail be broken, of its being so much shortened as to require a month or six weeks to grow again. The nails grow strongest and most healthy when they are not abused, and it is then quite easy to keep them always hi playing order.

The fourth finger of the right hand, which is used for resting on the vellum, should have its nail trimmed back short like the left-hand fingers, for only the flesh should touch the vellum.

As regards the right hand thumb, this very definitely requires the nail trimmed well back, for, although some players do so, I can see no reason at all why the thumb nail should be used for striking the strings. I have never heard anything but a poor tone from the 3rd and 4th strings as a result of this method. Some very useful effects are obtainable, too, from the use of the thumb for accented notes on the first and 2nd wire strings, but they are only completely effective when the flesh alone of the thumb comes in contact with the string.