Here’s a series of questions that most clawhammer players ask early on in their studies:

Do I need to grow a nail on my right hand playing finger? Can I use a fingerpick instead? What if I don’t want to grow a nail or use a pick? Is there another way?

These are all legitimate questions and, depending on who you ask, you’ll get a wide range of answers. I’m here to tell you that you can use a fingerpick if you want. You can also grow your nail out for the purpose or you can keep your nail trimmed and play “au naturel”.

All of the above-mentioned approaches have attendant advantages and disadvantages. It’s ultimately up to you to decide what works best for your personality and what you’re trying to achieve with your playing.


What Would Ryan Do?

I tend to use all three approaches myself. Sometimes I grow and maintain a nail, sometimes I keep it trimmed. Other times I use a pick to give me what I need in a particular playing situation.


A Breakdown and Analysis of the 3 Approaches

The Fingernail

Many players prefer the sound and feel that the fingernail brings to their playing. Using the fingernail produces a more “balanced” and “natural” tone than the use of a fingerpick and is, therefore, the go-to method for many clawhammerists.

In order to use the fingernail in your playing, you’ll need to grow it out just past the end of your fingertip. Maintaining this length allows you to strike the string with the nail rather than the flesh on the tip of your finger.

*note: Be sure to maintain the length at “just past” the fingertip. The longer the nail grows beyond the finger, the more susceptible it will be to breakage.

If you currently keep your nails trimmed, you may be having difficulty getting the desired volume and articulation out of your “boom” notes that you strike with your finger. Growing the nail is one way to alleviate this issue.


The biggest disadvantage to using your fingernail is the simple fact that nails can break. If you develop your playing style based on the use of your fingernail and, suddenly, that nail gets chipped, cracked, or otherwise broken, you’ll be at a big disadvantage.

I used to use my nail exclusively until I had a couple of situations where I broke or chipped my nail just a day or so before a show. I found that I wasn’t used to playing with a fingerpick or with the flesh at the end of my finger and therefore, couldn’t effectively play my banjo until my nail grew back!


The Fingerpick

As I alluded to in the fingernail explanation above, the big advantage to using a fingerpick is that they don’t break. Fingerpicks also provide an exceptional amount of volume and clarity that can be quite difficult to achieve otherwise.

You can use a standard fingerpick for clawhammer style playing. Simply place it on your finger “upside down” from the standard method of wearing a fingerpick. For more clarity on what I’m talking about here, watch the first couple minutes of this video:

Clawhammer Banjo for the Complete Beginner – Ryan Spearman

As I’ve already explained, you can use a standard fingerpick for clawhammer style but I’ve found, through years of experimentation, that the Pro Pik brand “fingertone” picks work best for me:

Here’s a pic┬áthe “fingertone” pick.



The Disadvantages

Accolades aside, there are some drawbacks to using a finger pick:

  • Lack of tactile reference – It’s comforting to feel your finger or nail strike the string. When you use a pick it creates a barrier between you and the instrument. Many players find this to be too distracting and feel it inhibits their playing.
  • Dependence – Like using your nail, if you rely solely on fingerpicks you become dependent on them in your playing. If you show up to a gig or jam and you’ve forgotten your picks, you could be in trouble.

*note: The second disadvantage, dependence, is precisely why I recommend practicing with and without a fingerpcick. If you’re comfortable with two different approaches, then you’ll likely be prepared for any playing situation in which you find yourself.


The Fingertip

The biggest advantage here is that you’re not likely to lose or break your fingertip! In the event that you do, you’ll probably have more pressing concerns than your clawhammer playing to worry about. Another selling point is the fact that you don’t have to perform any extra maintenance beyond your normal, day-to-day fingernail trimming.

When using the fingertip approach, you strike the string with the flesh of the fingertip, just above the trimmed nail.

The Disadvantages

This is not a particularly hard surface so, naturally, you’ll have more of a challenge producing the volume and articulation possible with a fingernail or fingerpick. With consistent practice, however, you will develop a callous.

Building a callous will be slightly painful in the beginning (no pain no gain, right!) but, once it’s formed, you will hear a great improvement in sound and volume.


In Conclusion

Each option comes with pros and cons. Ultimately, you need to decide which approach is the right fit for you.

Experiment and take your time with this decision and remember that it’s not a bad idea to try practicing a couple options at once.

If you have any questions or comments about the fingernail vs fingerpick quandary, please leave them in the comment section below. I’d love to get a conversation going on this page!

Take care and happy frailin’,

13 Responses to “Fingernails or Fingerpicks – which option is the best?”

  1. Tony Adamski

    Hi Ryan:

    I use Marc Johnson’s technique. I too kept breaking or chipping my nails until I tried his recommendation. I have acrylic nails done very few weeks. I first tried just my first two fingers as Johnson does, but then I went to all my nails on my pickin hand. This is because I use all my fingers at times and do a lot of strummin in a folk group (Kingston Trio Style). I also tried Ken Perlman’s technique of applying a special nail polish that he recommended. Didn’t work well for me. As I said in a previous email, love your stuff!


    • PlayBetterBanjo

      I just noticed my reply never posted on this page…sorry about that, Tony! Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences.
      Keep in touch and keep on pickin’!

  2. John Cole

    Hi Ryan – I have been playing clawhammer banjo for about six years now and right from the get go I learnt to play using my index finger and my middle finger (not at the same time you understand). This means that if I do chip or break a nail I have the ability to use a different finger and there fore I am not grounded until it grows again. It all started because I could not decide which I felt more comfortable with and just went on from there. It may be my imagination but I seem to get a softer more mellow tone from my middle finger.

    Keep up the good work.

    Bye for now


    • PlayBetterBanjo

      Just now posting some super-late replies to comments that slipped by me a few months ago…

      I feel the same about the middle finger resulting in a more subdued tone. That’s another tip I didn’t consider…if you can use different fingers then you have a back up when faced with a nail break situation.

      Thanks for your thoughts, John!

  3. Burton Kramer

    I have yet to find a fingerpicking that fits, is reasonably comfortable and stays on. The distance from my fingertip to the first joint is hardly 1″, so nothing I’ve tried grips and stays on. Any improvement suggestion is greatly appreciated as my middle fingernail is depleted. Thanks much Ryan.

    • PlayBetterBanjo

      Hey Burton,
      Have you tried the Pro Pik “fleshtones” that I recommend? They seem to fit more snugly and more comfortably than most others, in my opinion.

  4. Steve Colby

    I make my own fingerpicks using 5/8″ aquarium hard tubing and I cut them for my desired length. I also angle cut one end for the “fingernail” portion. Once complete I cut lengthwise down the back to open up the pick and provide flexibility for placing them or removing them from my finger. The edges will require some smoothing which I do with a dremel. They work great for me and the cost is next to nothing per pick.

    • PlayBetterBanjo

      That sounds pretty cool, Steve. Would have never thought of using aquarium tubing (and i’ve used a lot of stuff over the years!)…you have a picture of the end result?

  5. Cammi

    I have trained myself to use my index fingernail as well as my middle fingernail. If/when one of them breaks I have another to use!. However I do prefer the middle fingernail. I also take biotin, which is said to keep nails, hair, etc. healthy.

  6. Janet Marks

    OPI is the best fingernail polish ever. Buy nail polish remover and 2 bottles of clear polish.
    One: Natural Nail Base Coat. Two: Top Coat. Wash fingernails before applying and let dry.
    Apply one coat of Base Coat; wait 3-5 min. Then two coats of Top Coat, waiting 3-4 min between.
    If you have a stove hood I usually do it there in the winter; outside in summer.
    Now the tricky part. You can’t touch them for a while so go watch TV or something that does not use your hands.
    I usually do them at night after practicing and then go sleep on it. Next day, hard as nails and ready to play.
    I paint my thumb, index and middle of my right hand only; keeping all my other nails short.
    This technique lasts for up to 2 weeks.

    Happy pickin’,

  7. Perry

    Thanks for that Ryan. unfortunately my nails are very thin and when I started picking I almost went thro the nail, I could see RED thro it. So I must have some thing to strike with. I will try your recommended pick ‘cos its really a nuisance to go to the nailbar every few weeks for the acrylic overlay, and the extended nail is v vulnerable doing gardening etc


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