Fingernails act as wonderful, built-in picks that are ideal for playing ukulele. But they are tricky to maintain if you don’t know what you’re doing. Here are some simple things you can do to help keep them in good shape.
Using nails to pick gives a bright, articulate sound that’s great for melody playing. If you dabble in fingerpicking they can be a huge upgrade to your sound, depending on the genre you play.
Nail clippers save time in roughing out the initial shape of the nail. Anything will work, but a curved cutting edge that sort of matches the size of your fingertip is best.
The most important thing you can do to support your nails is use the right kind of nail file.
I highly recommend getting a glass nail file. They last forever (maybe not, but I’ve had mine for over 15 years) and create a nice smooth surface.
The original glass files came out of the Czech Republic in 1997, but it seems like they’re all pretty much the same. If you want to be fancy, look for one that’s “genuine Czech” and expect to pay about $10.
I have 5-1/2″ and also 3-1/2″ long models. The big one is overall easier to use, but I keep the small one in my uke case.
Metal and sapphire/diamond files are marketed as “high-quality,” but eat the edges of your nails for lunch! Avoid them at all costs. They create chips and a nail that will eventually peel off.
Fine emery boards and nail sanding paper will also do the trick, but, for the price, a glass file that will last decades is a no-brainer.
The longer you grow your nail, the more likely you will rip it off. Keep your nails long enough to do their job, but don’t just let them go crazy. I usually aim for keeping my nails long enough that they poke over the tip of my finger by about 1mm.
Get the shape in the ballpark with your clippers and then move on to filing. If you start with the file and need to bring the length down a couple milimeters, it will take you a while.
The shape you file your nails into greatly affects how the string slides off. By making sure the angles are smooth and smart, you can get a better tone with less effort.
Here is how I file my nails
I generally try to “fade” the side of the nail that isn’t needed.
In the case of the thumbnail, I only pick with the left inside edge so the opposite side curves gently down to nothing. Less nail means less opportunities to catch it on something and rip it off.
For the fingernails, I find that filing a curve that rises left to right (when looking at the back of my hand) helps create a smoother release. This means there’s not really a side edge to the fingernail that the string has to pass over. It moves directly onto the tip and avoids any hang ups.
As you can see, I only grow out my thumb, index, and middle fingernails. This is just personal preference. I don’t play PIMA style enough to justify growing out the ring fingernail. Do what’s best for you!
Drink more water and eat well. If your cells are all dried up and depleted they can’t do as good a job of making new fingernails.
I don’t use it, but a lot of people swear that gelatin makes their fingernails stronger.