Using the Right Hand Nails

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© Josie Elias 2018

A couple of weeks ago I ran a poll in the I Love Classical Ukulele Facebook group asking what material people would like to see in future blogs. The options were:

Technical material

Easier piece

More challenging piece

Don’t mind

The majority of people opted for technical material. After some preliminary notes I realised that this was a big enough topic for a series of blogs. In this first blog I’m going to look at the right hand position and using the fingernails. Using your fingernails, as opposed to just the flesh of the fingertips, is optional. I prefer the tone and projection I get with nails. In this blog I’ll share some ideas on how I prepare and look after my nails. It takes time and effort but the results make it all worthwhile. 

Before we start you’ll need the following: 

1. A good quality glass nail file: I only ever file my nails with a glass nail file. The glass file is ideal for shaping. There are plenty of brands out there but my favourite is a Leighton Denny glass file.

2. A nail buffer: once the shaping has been done the buffer is used to create a beautiful, smooth surface on the nail. The smoother the contact on the string the better the sound. I use a 3 way nail buffer made by the Body Shop. The most important thing about the buffer is that it has at least one really smooth surface for polishing. Don’t confuse a buffer with an emery board. Emery boards are rough and can be used for filing but I don’t recommend them. 

Shaping the Nail with the Glass File

Before you start filing I recommend reading through this blog first and watching the video below. 

I only ever file my nails in one direction. I file the nail from right to left using long smooth strokes. Never file in a back and forth motion. It’s a file not a saw! 

The image of the saw is quite useful. Imagine your nail is a piece of wood. When a piece of wood is sawn the surface is left really rough and splintered. The back and forwards motion with the nail file has the same effect and will leave your nail weakened and more likely to split. 

The ideal length and shape of the nail varies from player to player but here’s what I do. I keep my nails quite long for playing the machete. Longer nails also work fine for uke and guitar I just need to spend more time buffing them (we’ll talk about buffing in a minute). A good way to determine the length of the nail is to turn your palm towards your face. You should be able to see the nails poking over the fingertips by a couple of millimetres. If you can’t see any nail then you’ll need to grow them. 

Notice that your fingers are different lengths. My middle finger is taller than my index and ring fingers. To compensate for this I make the nail of the middle finger slightly shorter. I also prefer to have the ring finger nail slightly longer than the index nail. The ring finger is the weakest finger and a slightly longer nail gives more security. As you can see it’s not an exact science! Sometimes I have my nails shorter and sometimes a little longer depending on what repertoire I’m playing. For example: when playing a tremolo piece I prefer to let my nails grow little longer. You’ll need to do some experimenting to find your ideal nail length. 

Pay attention to the shape of the nail. Use the contour of the fingertip as a guide. At this stage aim at having your nail rounded like the fingertip. Get rid of any ridges or edges that catch on the string.

Once the nail is at the desired length I create a small ‘ramp’ on the left hand side of the nail (I’ll explain why below). This only takes one or two gentle strokes with the file.

The Thumb Nail

For the ukulele I don’t actually use the nail of the thumb. I prefer to use the flesh. The reason my thumb nail is so long is that I use it to play the machete. I also use the nail for playing the guitar but would prefer it a bit shorter. Life is always about give and take! 

Buffing and Polishing

Once you have shaped your nail use the buffer for polishing. If you have a 3 way buffer you’ll find the 2 smoothest surfaces work best. It’s OK to use the smoother areas of the buffer in a backwards and forwards motion. Buff the top of the nail, the end of the nail and also under the nail. You should use the buffer before you practise and also keep it handy during practise in case you get any small catches in the nail. If you have old strings on your uke you might want to change them. There’s no point in having nice polished fingernails if your strings are old and worn.

Btw, left hand nails, or fretting hand nails, are kept as short as possible.


Right Hand Position

Aim for a relaxed right hand position with the wrist as straight as possible and the hand fairly flat. If you use the thumb nail you’ll have to turn your hand more. I notice a lot of guitarists do prefer to use the thumb nail when playing the ukulele and consequently get a lot of bend in the wrist. One reason I don’t do this is that the extra angle in the wrist can lead to strain and tension in the hand, arm and fingers. Another reason I use the side of the thumb is that the flesh creates a warmer and more rounded sound. The nail sound is quite brittle and strident. 

The fingers should curl gently in from the knuckles. When you pluck the string aim to contact it with the ramp on the left hand side of the nail. The initial contact is both nail and flesh. Using the side of the nail gives a fuller tone. When you pluck the string the finger should move in a sweeping motion towards the palm. One of the most common mistakes when plucking the string is pulling it up, or clawing at it. The word pluck is one of my pet hates as it’s hugely misleading. The immediate image conjured by the word pluck is pulling the feathers from a chicken. This is exactly what you don’t want to do to the string, unless you are playing Bartok pizzicato. It’s not just the wrong image but the wrong sound. Onomatopoeia is when a word phonetically imitates, or suggests, the sound it describes. Some examples are meow, buzz, oink and boom. The word pluck sounds very flat and staccato. Try saying it out loud. This is exactly how you don’t want to sound. You want your notes to project and bloom. 

The movement of the finger across the string is more of a sweep than a pluck. Ok, let’s not start saying ‘sweep’ the string! But you get the idea. 


Alternating Fingers

Alternating, or walking fingers is an essential classical guitar technique which can be applied and adapted to the ukulele. Firstly, let me introduce you to the p i m a system: a convenient way of annotating your right hand fingers:

p = pulgar (from the Spanish pulgar)

i = index (indices)

m = middle (medio)

a = ring finger (anular)

Using this simple system clearly differentiates the right, or plucking, hand from the left, or fretting, hand. We’ll go into more detail about right hand fingering in future blogs but for now here’s a simple scale exercise using i and m to get started. This exercise will also help you to understand the layout of the fingerboard.

C Major Scale

This is the most basic scale as it has no sharps or flats. Click on the blue link below to download the C major scale. Watch the video below for more tips.

C Major Scale


In the next technique blog we’ll look at some of the differences between playing scales and playing arpeggios.

Thanks for reading this tutorial. If you like these tutorial blogs and would like to make a small contribution to help keep the website (and me!) running then please click the donate button.

13 responses to “Using the Right Hand Nails

  1. I enjoyed reading this! God and good nutrition have blessed me with strong, trouble-free nails. I find trimming dry nails produces a rougher result than trimming them wet, such as after bathing. I will try the glass file. Scales and selections is a great next topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • …s/b “scales and arpeggios”…I think a typo, “helped” by autocorrect, resulted in “selections”… I recently texted someone “autopay” and autocorrect changed it to “autopsy” for me…funny…


  2. Hi Sam
    I was going to ask you how you looked after your nails as you always have a nice full tone. I do exactly the same with mine.A good tip is to run one of your other nails over it to check it.I get a very thin sound as you described as I used to use my thumb nail.
    I think for another blog you could tackle the difficulty of moving on from the beginner stage. I guess everybody has learnt as I did from you tube and get stuck on the first 3 frets and not comfortable moving up the neck.You either find lessons as I just mentioned or very hard ones. I have noticed you have put out some playable ones that sound nice. I am sure there are plenty of people in my situation that would just like to pick up a there uke and play something that sounds good but not over difficult.
    Anyway you are doing a great job.


  3. Thank for wonderful playing and for this helpful post. My right hand’s nails are in recovery from great damage after having false nails done especially for the ukulele. I have to admit that the sound production was very beautiful with false nails… In order to strengthen my nails after removing the false ones, I am daily using a formula of 1 drop of essential cedrus (cedar) oil + 1 drop of lemon essential oil in 5ml of cold pressed almond oil 🙂


  4. Thank you for the very interesting information about nails. I had no idea of the complexity of the subject. Didn’t even know of the existence of glass nail files! I have been keeping my right hand nails long and until recently they were looking ok. Unfortunately the start of the gardening season has taken its toll. I must remember to keep the gloves on and/or do as much as possible with my left hand. Best wishes and thanks for the blog

    Liked by 1 person

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