The Well-Tempered Guitar is a monthly series of articles by Yogi Ponappa that addresses the life of a performing or practising classical guitarist, and can range from nail shape, to practice methods to serious listening. This first one is a life hack on fixing hooked nails.
Everyone has different nails, it’s true. And each person’s technique may require a subtly (or vastly) different nail length and ramp shape. However, there are a few constants when it comes to the physics of how nails move across strings, and for the purposes of guitarists, they dictate that a nail should ideally grow straight out from its fingertip, and be filed to a ramp of some sort. But what do you do when your claws curl down over your fingers, to form hooks? (like mine) If one doesn’t already know how to re-shape hooked nails, to maintain anything close to an ideal body posture, one is forced to either file one’s nails almost down to nothing, or contort one’s body into what amounts to terrible posture, which in turn leads to all sorts of other problems. A large number of people do indeed experience this predicament, and this post is for them.
Nails are made of keratin, just like hair. As a consequence, nails (just like hair) can be straightened with the application of heat. A few solutions are already out there, ranging from David Russell’s mention of a hot-but-not-too-hot spoon in his on-stage interview with Benjamin Verdery at the 92nd Street Y, to Renato Bellucci’s soldering iron (also on youtube, last time I checked). However, if you’re chary about having a hot soldering iron lying about (they’re something of a dangerous power tool, after all), and are a doubtful of putting hot things under your nail or need more specifics than Maestro Russell’s description, here’s a step-by-step guide to straightening your nails like I do.
You’ll note that I’m a little quaint in how I heat my spoon (think of it as the ‘straightener’ in this exercise) – you needn’t use a candle and put up with all that soot, a lighter or stovetop will work just as well to heat the spoon.
Here’s what my set up looks like:
It usually takes anywhere from 30 to 45 seconds to get the spoon hot enough. You can be pretty relaxed about this part – you’ve gone too far if the metal starts to glow, but short of that, anything goes (go ahead, kiddies – giggle away about, ahem, lifestyles!).
Essentially, you’re now going to mould your curled/hooked nail to the desired shape (straight out from your fingertip), then apply a little heat via brief contact with the hot spoon. The heat will quickly soften the keratin that constitutes your nail. As it cools (also almost instantly), the nail that was under some tension from having been stressed by your pushing it away from its natural growth direction will ‘set’ in the new direction, albeit temporarily. All you need to do is apply more heat, and it’ll spring back to its original hooked shape. In other words, every time you take a hot shower you’ll have to repeat this process – but once you’re used to it, it only takes a few minutes, and is otherwise quite dependable in terms of results.
I use the ball end of a tuning fork to push my nails into the desired shape, starting at the left side of the nail (the side that the string first makes contact with), and working my way over across to the other side. Only touch your nail briefly with the hot spoon, as any prolonged contact risks burning the nail (just as you don’t linger over one bit of hair with a hair straightener, if you have ever used one, or seen one being used – ladies, looking at you here, mostly). Until you work out your ideal touch, you may need to go over a nail, or work on one part of it, more than once.
The approach: this is how I press down with my finger on the tuning fork, to push the nail up and into shape.
Here is a short video of me straightening my i and m nails. Note that I only touch the spoon to the nail briefly, and then too, to be safe I first touch the spoon to the tuning fork end, and then roll it on to my nail. You can also see that I go back to the middle of my m nail for a second pass, because I didn’t quite nail it the first time around (puns! Yes I know, terrible. 😉 )
Often, the spoon cools off too fast to get all your nails done in one go. I usually average two nails before I have to heat the spoon up for a second round.
Here are some before and after photos to show the effect of this morning’s straightening:
Before & after from the side:
That’s all, folks. If you have hooked nails and haven’t ever come across a solution, I hope this helps!