Nails are an essential tool for performing on a nylon strings guitar. All through the history of Spanish guitar the nails as tools were an inevitable part of the gear, so to say, although rarely mentioned by early classical guitarists. (from early flamenco guitarists there are no records at all). First because of being ashamed of having long fingernails like women; and second, they just didn’t want to be compared with any Gypsy playing flamenco with long fingernails, considering themselves to be “elite” citizens. Although left out from records, the nails were simply an inevitable asset, allowing for more variety of tone colors, and more precise dynamics.
From the pieces of Fernando Sor it is absolutely obvious that he was performing as any modern guitarist, and that had nails on at least the thumb, index and the medium finger. At one point of his career he decided not to use the “annular” finger, or the ring finger, what we can also feel in his pieces and composing language. Almost a whole century later, Francisco Tarrega had went through various stages and tried many different lengths of his fingernails. The story that he ended up cutting them off completely – simply is not true. Especially after having composed the most elaborate tremolo piece in classical guitar history, it would be ridiculous to prevent himself from performing it forever. He has just filed his nails to “zero” (which still leaves the nail some 0,8 mm “longer” than the finger), but after having long nails for decades, that is a completely different thing. I can guarantee this because I have entered the 4th decade of having long fingernails, and when I file off my nails completely, (so there is no more white nail surface) so all the way to the flesh beneath – there is some 0,8 mm of the nail that I can not file off, because the flesh beneath it grew and went forward a lot to support it better. Lately, when my nail breaks off and I file it off totally, to the flesh – it still sticks out enough, and I can still play with it, almost like nothing happened; (so I don’t even notice it, as opposed to the nervous breakdowns I had early in my career when my nail breaks). That is what “I am filing off my fingernails completely” meant in Tarrega’s case. Like me, he was letting the nails grow up just to a maximum of 0,2 mm (the white bit, so literally nothing), and than had more than enough material to play brilliantly. In the rhythmical and the melodic elements in his pieces is also obvious that he had long nails. The composer’s language is so elaborated, demanding such variety of tone colors, that that level of expression can only be obtained with precisely formed fingernails.