Zither-Banjo Causerie by J. McNaghten November 1951


THIS month I want to write about the question of "nails or fingertips" on the zither-banjo and, although this will entail retracing ground I have covered in previous articles, I hope the repetition will not be tiresome to those readers who may recall the gist of what I have written on this subject.

Nail-players are of two types: those who use the nails alone and those who favour the Cammeyer "composite stroke" - fingertip, followed by fingernail.

Personally, I think the latter style is the better for the zither-banjo - or for the banjo strung in the same way - but the contention is rather difficult to prove without actual demonstration and I would use many gramophone records in the process because the results speak for themselves, especially in the Cammeyer/ Sheaff duets and certain of Jan Wien’s discs.

To illustrate, let us consider the type of tone produced by five famous zither-banjoists: Cammeyer and Sheaff (who sound as one), Jan Wien, and - at the other end of the zither-banjo scale, so to speak - Jones and Oakley.

Taking the two last-named first, we find in the recordings of Ernest Jones and Olly Oakley a strong, clear, incisive tone but, because the nails alone were used, the gentle, round legato (so characteristic of Cammeyer) is lacking in the majority of their solos. Both these soloists favoured a vigorous attack with plenty of "punch" in the bass - not a strict zither-banjo essential - which resulted in a complete contrast to the style of Cammeyer.

Jan Wien occupies the middle position in this particular "tone line-up", being less forceful than Jones or Oakley yet not quite so restrained as Cammeyer. Joe Morley summed up the constituents of his style when he was quite young with this shrewd remark: "He has my speed, Oakley’s tone, and Cammeyer’s touch."

Wien's tone on some of his recordings - notably "A Race to the North" - is remarkably like Oakley’s while the Dominion disc of "Valse Gaiete" and "Rhapsodic Hongroise " depicts a vibrato and legato worthy of Cammeyer. Unfortunately, these two sides are marred by an audible clicking which could have been caused by over-long nails.

"Zigeunerweisen", I am told, presents the lightning speed of Morley’s heyday, in fulfillment of the latter’s assessment made some forty years ago.

Early Beltona discs by Jan Wien offer the same kind of tone - but less clearly: as in " Kilties", I presume he used the fingernails alone on these recordings; there is a sort of "aura" around his tone which is akin to plectrum click but, of course, much reduced.


Cammeyer’s recordings, on the other hand, present an unblemished tone throughout and he, as indicated in "The Cultivation of the Hands", preferred "the composite stroke" - the fingertip cushioning the string; conditioning it, as it were, for the impact of the nail. In this method any strident tendency of steel strings is overcome.

Although Cammeyer’s right-hand action was always gentle - a caressing of the strings - every note was distinctly audible.

For those, then, who wish to emulate Jones or Oakley in the production of strong tone from the zither-banjo: the nails alone, clear of the fingertip - which means they must be fairly long and thus more liable to breakage than the shorter nails required by the nail-and-tip player.

Tone and volume will suffer when the unaided nail is broken as the player becomes more dependent on his nails than the one who prefers the composite stroke.

Hence the advantages of adopting the nail-and-tip method. I have tried both styles and definitely recommend the Cammeyer idea. Even with very short nails, the player who suffers a breakage can still produce a reasonable tone. He will not be as handicapped as one who relies on nails alone.

The tone produced by the composite stroke is round, sweet and clear even in pianissimo passages. Using nails alone, tone is strong and vibrant—but can easily become raucous.

Care of the nails involves the regular use of "emery boards" - the nails must never be cut - (Oakley would not touch is right-hand nails with a steel file or any scissors!). Warm olive oil, dabbed on the nails and round the cuticle "last thing at night" will help keep them flexible and promote smoothness. If preferred, apply the oil un-warmed, keeping a small bottle in the bathroom cupboard. It takes only a few seconds to dab the oil on the right-hand fingernails.

A close watch must be kept for the slightest sign of cracking or chipping; otherwise the whole nail tip may accidentally be stripped. File a new playing edge level with the base of the tear the moment it appears; thus preventing the spread of the split.


Avoid the use of the thumbnail - a twanging of the octave siring will inevitably result - and, possibly, hooking the bass with a monotonously hard tone on third and fourth strings. The effect of the thumbnail is hard to control.

Once the fingernails have been coaxed into the use the player should experiment with every possible right-hand position - from the end of the fingerboard to within three inches of the bridge. Attention should be given to the quality and quantity of tone - with the ear alert for any extraneous sounds or contact noises.

Chord tremolo will be found easier to execute with the side of the nail (either first or second finger) - the tremolo will sound smooth, clear and mellow even after comparatively little practice. The quality and clarity of harmonics will also improve, as the player becomes accustomed to the "feel" of nail playing.

In Cammeyer’s method the cushion of the fingertip softens the impact of the fingernail thus helping to impart the desired mellowness. Without nails, this mellowness may still be obtained - but the clarity essential in pianissimo passages will be much more difficult to achieve.

Carelessly handled, the zither-banjo can twang abominably; over long nails will serve only to emphasise this fault. Nail-players with a strong picking action should take especial care to avoid any hooking of the strings to which long nails may contribute.

The zither-banjo undoubtedly responds better when nails and tips are used for, I think, the Cammeyer/Sheaff duets demonstrate the perfect tone, which every player should strive to produce. The fingertips alone do not seem to give this most desirable quality to the same extent, therefore I strongly urge all finger-stylists who use zither-banjo stringing to adopt the composite stroke used by Cammeyer on the zither-banjo and Alfred Kirby on the banjo.

Both these players were superb in their particular fields; the recordings they left us offer incontrovertible proof of the supremacy of nails on any instrument strung with "silk fourth, gut third, steel first, second and fifth".