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
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!
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:
Here’s a pic the “fingertone” pick.
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 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.
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.
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’,