There are some fine clawhammer banjo players who have unbelievably short fingernails, trimmed or bitten to the nub. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how they manage to get anything like a good sound without nails, but they do. But for the rest of us, whether or not we have a decent fingernail on the index or middle finger of our right hand means the difference between a sound that is clear and audible vs. one that is mushy and muted. My own natural fingernails are absolute crap; they used to split and tear – and even wear through in the middle of the nail when I played a lot – before I discovered, about 25 years ago, the perfect solution for me. I timidly went into a nail salon and put myself at their mercy. I’m so glad I did! But notice that I said this was the solution for me. It might not be for you, so in addition to discussing how to get great nails at the salon, I’ll also suggest some alternatives. Just remember that the one thing you DON’T have to do is to sit at home on jam night crying into your beer and wishing your nail had not snagged on your sweater and torn off. You might need to plan ahead for that possible scenario, but you have options!
First of all, if your natural nails are working almost well enough, you might want to try just making them stronger. Before I started using salon-applied nails, I tried almost all the available “nail hardening” techniques I came across: eating lots of gelatin and applying various strengthening polishes. (I did NOT whack my finger with a hammer to damage the nail bed, which is what one old-timer suggested I do, and I strongly suggest that you don’t do this either!!) Nothing really worked well enough for me. But what I’d suggest you try if you want to strengthen your natural nails is to keep them out of water as much as possible, moisturize your hands and nails regularly, try to avoid frequent use of acetone (for removing press-on nails, for example), and perhaps try a biotin (vitamin B-7) supplement.
There are, of course, folks who for one reason or another are not able to have a bit of length on their nails. One of my banjo students who was a massage therapist comes to mind; for her, using a clawhammer pick was her only option. When I first started playing banjo in the early 1970s, there were no fingerpicks specifically designed for playing clawhammer banjo, although folks did use picks designed for fingerstyle banjo but modified in some way for clawhammer. I personally have been so happy with my nails for so many years that I must admit I haven’t even tried any of the newer designs out there, but you can now find lots of options in various styles and materials: plastic, brass, etc. Tom Collins has a great review of the Cling-Pro here: https://youtu.be/kgKxaXBkzfM. A fellow Ohio banjo player did a nice review of several styles of picks here, on his blog The Glory-Beaming Banjo: http://glorybeamingbanjo.blogspot.com/2018/01/clawhammer-picks-and-you-review.html And you can read about Perfect Touch Picks here: https://www.perfecttouchpicks.com/clawhammer-picks.html#/ Finally, John Balch gives directions for how to make clawhammer picks from a ping pong ball here: https://www.banjohangout.org/blog/30790 I’ve certainly left out lots of options in this department, so just search the internet for “clawhammer picks.” As I said earlier, I’m no expert in this area, as I’ve been a “fake nail” proponent for a long time.
Next in the list of options: the “press-on” nail. Unlike the nail tips that are applied in a salon, these cover the entire nail. They can be purchased in various shapes and styles. Just match up a nail to your finger or fingers. Clean your nail beds with acetone or alcohol and apply the nails according to the box instructions. Whichever kind you use (glue or tape backing), put the adhesive directly onto the nail and apply the false nail to it. Hold and press down in place for about 10 seconds, and that’s it. This type of nail is sometimes seen on banjo players at old-time festivals, and tends to be pretty obviously fake, as it seldom matches your natural nails in color. Be very careful when removing these, so you don’t damage your natural nail. If you play a lot, but don’t want to live your daily life with one or two obviously fake nails on, these might not be your best bet. But if you can usually get by with your natural nails, and just want to keep a few press-ons in your banjo case for security in case your nail breaks, these could be a good option. (By the way, the fingernails come in sets with sizes for all your nails, so you’ll end up with lots of big thumbnails and tiny pinky nails that you won’t be able to use. The bigger ones will come in handy to slide under the fake nails to pop them off when you want to remove them though.)
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Finally, if you want to try my solution, here is what to expect. I go to a Korean-run nail shop in my local mall. Similar places are everywhere, and the process is not expensive. I get 3 fingernails taken care of there (index, middle and ring fingers.) You may just use one or two of those fingers… I’m just weird and use them all. The whole process, excluding any wait time, takes about 15 minutes. For my 3 nails, I pay $12 plus tip (I generally give $16 total) and they last me, with touchups (see below) about 8-10 weeks. And I have a day job that’s pretty hard on my nails. Anyway, here’s what you’ll do.
1) Go to the shop. (They usually don’t take appointments.) Take some cash, as it’s quite likely they won’t take a credit or debit card. Tell them you want tips and acrylic, with gel over them, and show them which nails you want done. You can tell them you’re a musician. It’s very likely they’ve dealt with this before, as classical guitarists also get this sort of nail work done.
2) The nail tech will rough up the surface of your nail with a Dremel-type tool. Don’t worry; if you decide fake nails aren’t for you, you can buff that out.
3) He or she will then glance at the nails you want to do, open a box of fake nail tips, and eyeball the right size for you. They put a drop of glue on your own nail and press the tip on. Dries pretty much instantly. The nail is ridiculously long. They then cut it to the length you prefer. They’ll file it a bit later but do speak up if it seems much too long after they cut it, and they’ll cut or file it shorter. They may ask what shape you want. I usually just tell them I’d like it gently rounded.
4) They then will dip a brush into a solvent and dip it into an acrylic powder. It immediately become a sort of gooey thick liquid. They will brush it on with amazing skill, covering both your own nail and the tip they glued on. You’ll then sit with your nails up close to a light bulb or sometimes in a fan until the acrylic hardens (a minute or two.)
5) They then begin filing and shaping the nail. When they’re done they may have you go and wash and dry your hands. You’ll often move to a different station for the gel process.
6) They’ll ask (the first time) what color polish you want. I just say no color or polish, just gel. Then they brush on a very sticky clear sort of polish (the gel) and indicate an LED infrared light machine you are to stick your fingers into for a minute or two. This cures the gel and leaves it rock-hard.
7) When the timer goes off (sometimes they’ll have you leave your hand in the light through another cycle) they’ll wipe your nails with alcohol on a cotton swab. And you’re good to go!
The first time or two that I had nails applied, I felt very conscious of them for about a day. This feeling passed, and I never notice them now. Occasionally my fingers feel slightly sore on the day I have new nails applied. I’m not sure why, and it’s not a big deal to me.
Of course, even with acrylic tips on, your own nails keep growing, and after a few weeks this creates a gap near your cuticle. Between nail salon visits, I deal with this by pushing back my cuticles, filing the nail to my desired length AND filing the top of the whole nail to rough it up a bit, then then brushing on gel primer (which I air-dry for about a minute) then clear gel to fill the gap and cover my entire nail, avoiding covering the cuticle. I then cure the gel using my own little LED infrared gel nail light machine, followed by the obligatory alcohol wipe afterward. I can do this process, including filing down my nails when they’ve gotten too long) in about 8 minutes. In this way, I can generally make my salon visits last 8-10 weeks. I’ve been using the same bottles of gel and primer for maybe five years now! There are lots of brands out there, and some may be cheaper. I’ve never tried any other brands as I’m satisfied with what I stumbled onto. Here’s what I use: this primer and gel https://www.sensationail.com/sensationail-essentials-kit ($24 US at time of this writing) and this LED light: https://www.sensationail.com/led-nail-lamp ($14.)
Whatever method you ultimately choose, may your banjo strings ring out clear and true!
For more great tips and lessons, check out Hilarie’s Patreon banjo instructional video page.