Ask the director of any graduate-level performance degree program how he might teach an applicant who plays without the use of fingernails, and he will probably look you straight in the eye and say "You must be joking."
Yet the truth beneath this hypothetical scenario is actually quite otherwise.
When armed with basic understanding of the common ground shared by the two systems, plus the one important difference, the initially stereotyped opinion suddenly gives way; the teaching of the fingertip player actually ends up feeling exactly the same as the teaching of those who do use their nails.
A brief overview of the common ground centers on the position of the right hand. It is the same for fingertips as it is for nails. The player strikes the string from the main joint, the one which attaches the finger to the hand. The basic location of the hand in orthodox situations, such as in chords or arpeggios, places the main joint of the "m" finger directly above the 2nd string, give or take an eighth of an inch. We will call this, for want of a better term, The Great Similarity. Once we establish this we are in a position to explore The Great Difference.
In learning to play with our nails, we are taught that in order to gain control of all dynamic levels, plus all available color shadings, it is best to start at (or very near) the top of the dynamic range. It is there that we quickly discover how to locate and repeat, time after time, the exact same level of volume and color. Once this is done, we move in tiny steps down through the range, all the while confirming that we are able to achieve perfect duplication of the volume and color at each level in turn. If there are any differentiations we must go back up to the previous level, where we were in fact able to prove our control, and gradually work our way back down.
We remind ourselves that if we are able to create and maintain duplication at each level, we are actually playing the guitar. If not, the guitar is playing us.
On the other hand, if a fingertip player were to use this approach he would soon develop deep, dense and very unwieldy callouses, much too firm. The fingertip would literally bounce off the string, rendering the control of any level of volume or color absolutely impossible.
The escape from this trap is amazingly simple. The fingertip player simply starts at the bottom of the range, rather than at the top. He plays the string with different degrees of speed. This is not speed note-to-note, which of course is the usual meaning of the word "speed" when used in connection with the guitar. It is the actual and differing rates of speed with which the finger can address the string when playing one single note, over and over again, with plenty of space between the notes for analysis of what was just heard.
What follows below is the crux of the situation, The Great Difference:
The goal of the fingertip player is to learn, from the bottom of the range proceeding slowly up to the top, how to create notes which actually sound with the beauty and clarity of the expert who plays with his fingernails.
You read that right. We all know that the fingernail technique, through the careers of the great virtuosos of the last hundred years, has established once and for all the gold standard for control at all levels of volume and color. It therefore follows that guitarists who choose to play with their fingertips must emulate and ultimately match the precision and clarity which have been so conclusively established by the distinguished concert artists who have all – each and every last one of them – used their nails.
So to return to the issue at hand:
The use of the fingernails for the technique of the concert guitar inherently tends to produce focused tone, with clear access to all the color shadings. Given proper guidance, the serious player quickly learns to refine the very clear points of attack and in so doing he creates the desired baseline of instrumental control.
The use of the fingertips is the polar opposite. Their natural tendency is to be unfocused. There is no clear attack point from which to gain control of the pure entrance of the pitch. One may think of the difference in diction between consonances and vowels: consonances enter the ear with a very noticeable aural pull, such as in the pronunciation of the word "scout", wherein we hear the "sc" before the vowel "ou"(think: pitch) enters. And conversely, when we say the word "out", the vowel sound (or in our case the pitch) meets the ear without any of the natural friction of "sc" (think: unfocused fingertip attack) leading up to its entrance.
There are two reasons why the fingertip study of the guitar must begin at the lower extreme of the range: First of course is the practical necessity of avoiding the onset of huge and unwieldy callouses, which would quickly occur if the player's efforts are centered high in the range. The second reason is that when the player concentrates his efforts at the piano-pianissimo end of the range, he learns that in order to create clean entrances he must develop extra speeds of attack from the main joints, which lead to the pure entrance of the tone without the extraneous consonance muddying the execution.
It is critical to keep in mind that it requires the highest levels of concentration for the fingertip player to achieve control at the low end of the range. It therefore follows that each step taken higher in the range will feel noticeably easier to control. Therefore, it comes as a real relief when we understand that we do not have to practice for long periods of time at the high end of the range. It is the simplest level to control. The player can always raise the volume for short intervals and to any degree, if he wishes to prove to himself that the power and control are there. They will be there.
The intrepid souls who have stayed with us through the above sixteen paragraphs must still be wondering why this topic is even being set for publication. No mystery there; it is probably safe to say that in the length and breadth of these United States there has not been, in this past year, even one single advanced applicant who plays without nails. Therefore there appears to be no reason why any performance director at the graduate level should give this topic as much as the time of day.
Well, not so fast.
There is reliable record of players whose applications and subsequent auditions to long-established Masters programs were summarily rejected, with the proviso that if they grew their nails back they would be considered for admission. Another case surfaced more recently, when a casual exploratory interview was met with the same quick closing of the door without a note being heard.
To counter that these applications are rare occurrences is beside the point. Sooner or later the situation will come around again. It is understood that any fingertip player will have to play either at or better than the level of the fingernail applicants. Our premise here is that when one does, as stated in the opening three paragraphs of this essay, there need not be any difference whatsoever in the interactive teaching experience of the director.
With all of this said, it is not to be assumed that anyone in a position of influence will be any more than mildly curious when presented with such unorthodox claims unless accompanied by the litmus test of live sound. The following mp3 excerpts present contrasting guitar solos which are (mostly) from the known repertoire. It is hoped that these examples will stimulate dialogue among the leaders in the field, and it is further hoped that the young man -- who was recently refused consideration -- will be allowed his rightful opportunity to audition for advanced study.
Mp3 examples on the playing of the guitar without fingernails