‘The best way of play’

Around 13 years ago after my end-of-year recital as a student studying classical guitar in Dublin I ceremoniously cut off the fingernails on my right hand. I had decided to become a lutenist! I preferred the music, there was more of it and the possibility of far more social music making made my choice an easy one.

Approximately 5 years ago, I decided let the nails on my right hand grow. Was I intending to take up the guitar once more and shun the lute?! The answer is no – I had decided to play the lute with nails.

At the time I didn’t consider the controversy I would cause by this decision and even today I find there is often confusion regarding the authenticity of this approach. Like most people, I hate to be judged at all, but as someone for whom historical accuracy has always been of the utmost importance to, I didn’t want to be accused of historical heresy!

So, what’s the deal? Modern guitarists play with nails, lutenists don’t (or at least shouldn’t) – right?! Let’s think about that assumption for a minute: When the 20th century lute revival began, lutes were often lightly constructed and strung with very low tension strings. A modern school of lute playing evolved, where lutenists tended to play with a technique radically different to that of the modern classical guitar. Many of the pioneers of lute playing utilized a historical technique detailed in several 16th and early 17th century sources, where the thumb of the right hand is placed inside the hand (not stretched outside the fingers, like modern guitar and harp technique). The string is then plucked using the flesh of the finger only.

In the early days of the revival, this was really what differentiated guitarists from lutenists. A generation or two later and we’re in a position to re-think the assumption that there is only one appropriate historical performance technique for the lute. Whilst the technique described above is indeed a historical technique, it is in fact only suitable for the music of the 16th and early 17th centuries and it is only one of several different historical approaches. As the lute acquired more and more strings, this technique was gradually and universally dropped in favour of the technique of playing with the right hand thumb outside of the hand which facilitated in reaching the additional bass courses – Dowland himself changed his technique to the more modern ‘thumb out’ mid-career.

That’s all well and good, but the question remains: Can playing the lute with nails be considered a valid historical performance technique for historical plucked string instruments?

In his Intavolatura di Liuto e di Chitarrone (1632) Alessandro Piccinini advocates the use of fingernails on the right hand. In fact, some of the advanced performance techniques he describes in his book I don’t think are really possible without fingernails. One such technique is where the nail of the index finger plucks the string back and forth alternating with the front and the back of the nail in rapid succession.

Francesco Corbetta, the Italian guitar teacher to the King Louis 14th of France played with fingernails. As recorded by Adam Ebert in his Mémoires of 1723 ‘having had the bad fortune of breaking a nail, [Corbetta] was unable to play at the Festival with his consort’. In Gaspar Sanz’s Introducción de Musica sobre la guitarra (1674), the licenciado S. Alfonso writes ‘There are some who play with the nails, who ravish the senses, and others who grate the nerves’. The following picture shows that yet another guitarist, Domenico Pellegrini also played with nails.

Thomas Mace in his Musicke’s Monument of 1676 writes ‘…take notice, that you Strike not your Strings with your Nails, as some do, who maintain it the Best way of Play, but I do not, and for this reason ; because the Nail cannot draw so sweet a sound from a Lute, as the nibble end of the Flesh can do’. Mace obviously had a preference for playing without nails, but it’s also clear that it was not uncommon to play with nails.

Silvius Leopold Weiss, probably the most famous lutenist of his generation, travelled to Italy in the 18th century where he both saw and undoubtably played with many Italian lutenists. In a letter to Matheson regarding the lute and theorbo Weiss writes that the archlute and theorbo in Italy are ordinarily played with nails. Weiss – like Mace – expresses a preference for playing without fingernails, adding that that when heard at close range, the archlute and theorbo played with nails can sound harsh. Regardless, the fact remains that Weiss’ writings imply that it was in fact the exception and not the rule to play the theorbo and the archlute without nails in Italy in the 18th century.

I want to stress a couple of things at this point. Firstly and most importantly I’m not saying that it’s more correct to use this technique that any other historically justifiable performance technique – a point already indirectly made by both Weiss and Mace! My only goal is to demonstrate that playing with nails is a valid technique for historical plucked instruments. Secondly, I think it’s worth pointing out that this playing style is very different to modern guitar technique! I was a classical guitarist for several years before I played the lute and I played with nails. I also played the lute for many years without nails, so I figure I’m qualified to compare the styles!

The pros and cons.

Over the past several years of playing with nails I’ve made some interesting observations. I’m not trying to persuade anyone to change their technique and I’m certainly not saying that it’s better to play with nails that without. I’m also sure that the results of changing techniques will vary for person to person, but for those of you that are interested, here are some of my experiences since I started playing with nails.

The pros.

1. I can play faster. The ‘thumb-out’ technique has a reputation of being a little slower that ‘thumb-in’, but I can play much faster than I could before by using less of the flesh of my finger in the stroke and more of the nail in faster passages. If I employ Piccinini’s trick (actually it’s not just Piccinini’s trick really, the same technique is described in several 16th century Spanish vihuela sources too) of using the same finger to play fast passages, I can play really fast. It is however a bit difficult to control this and string crossings I find almost impossible!

2. I can play (a bit) louder. Using fingernails also makes the sound I produce brighter which tends to carry better in ensemble (this is all debatable I know – please remember this are just my own experiences!). Personally I find the theorbo benefits greatly from a brighter sound, but a lightly constructed lute played with nails can sound a little harsh if one is not careful. Most of my instruments are built by Ivo Magherini who doesn’t shy away from using a decent amount of wood and I think these instruments tend to sound great with nails.

3. I don’t get calluses on my fingers anymore! When I want to give a bit more, I can use a bit more nail and a bit less flesh thus saving my poor fingers.

4. Another interesting side-effect of playing with nails is that I find historical arpeggiation on the theorbo – as dictated in the theorbo books of Alessandro Piccinini and Girolamo Kapsberger – much easier to pull off with nails, in fact I would almost go so far as to say that they only really work with nails. This is all subjective though and may well be as a result of that nobody really takes historical arpeggiation on the theorbo seriously. Now that’s a post in waiting right there! Where I often struggled in the past to play Kaspberger’s prescribed right hand fingerings I find that they are greatly facilitated with nails. Kapsberger makes no mention of nails or lack thereof.

5. I find the strumming patterns of the baroque guitar to be considerably easier with nails and I also much prefer the sound now! This is all down to personal taste of course!

The cons.

I look ridiculous! I’m constantly ridiculed by my long-suffering 12 year old daughter Miah for polishing my nails in public (sorry Miah – such embarrassing parents..). Nails can be a pain to maintain and they can break. Once, whilst browsing through music for sale at the lute society stall at the early music exhibition in Greenwich in London I was asked if I was a curious guitarist…

As with every assumption regarding modern-day ideas of historical techniques, let’s not rest on the laurels of the pioneers! As historical performers it is our responsibility to question everything we hear, see or do. Let’s encourage people to find their own way and let’s learn to love and embrace the limitations of historical performance!


Thanks to Diego Cantalupi – http://www.diegocantalupi.it/ – for sending me the following images of Filippo Della Casa (1737–1810).

Della Casa

15 thoughts on “‘The best way of play’”

  1. A thought provoking article Richard. Are there other comparisons valid here with the guitar? Nail wear for instance, nail shape, combination of flesh and nail on the string, uniform length of nail or not-ring finger slightly longer?


  2. Thank you for this interesting post. While I don’t use nails and never studied modern classical guitar, I am very interested in the evolution of right-hand position in lute playing today.

    As near as I can judge, there survives just as much evidence for a thumb-out technique as for thumb-inside from the 16th century onward. Obviously, thumb-out technique is required for more than seven courses, and was the most prominently depicted style from the 17th century onward. Lutenists today, especially baroque lutenists, seem to shun the authentic thumb-out technique for something in between, probably because of anachronistic associations with the differences between right-hand position in modern classical guitar and lute. I think it’s time to get over it.

    The one ‘con’ I missed from your summary of the disadvantages of using nails in lute-playing is that you simply cannot use nails on gut strings – unless you are a millionaire.


  3. @Ron – interested comments, thanks for your input!

    I totally agree with what you say regarding thumb-out technique in the 16th century. People can be really funny about this. Once, in a master-class with Paul O’Dette in London I was nearly lynched for playing some 16th century music ‘thumb-out’! Paul was great and pointed out that although there seems to be more mention of thumb-in than thumb-out, that it too should be considered an option historically.

    I’ve heard lots of interesting reasoning around this subject – including that only larger lutes where played thumb-out because the player couldn’t reach otherwise! Nonsense. Also, if nails were also used during the 16th century – and I have no doubt that they were – then this obviously necessitates a thumb-out technique!

    Hands up for the gut strings point. My thumb works great with gut, but my fingers can slice up strings if I play too loudly. I’m still scratching my head about this one, but there must be a solution! Actually I’ve always wanted to ask Andrew Lawrence King about that, I figure he’d know something about it.

  4. Very interesting point!

    I tried to use nails on my lutes, and I played my last exam with the ‘modern guitar’, using very short (symbolic) nails and gut strings (with some Villa-Lobos and Martin).
    What I now think, after some years of playing lutes is here.

    I don’t use nails on renaissance lutes: I’m not able to obtain a good sound, both using thumb-in or thumb-out.
    The situation is almost the same on the archlute, but I (now) use nails on the theorbo, baroque guitar and baroque lute.
    The strange thing is that the baroque lute sounds much better with the nails, and the archlute doesn’t: tis means it’s not a problem concerning the double strings.

    Piccinini is perhaps the most famous player who used the nails.
    He explained also in a very detailed way how to use a combination of the flash of the fingertip and nails:

    “che quando si farà una pizzicata … si piglierà detta corda con la sommità della carne, & urtandola verso il fondo, si farà, che l’ugna lasci sfuggire tutte due le corde, e faranno armonia buonissima….”.

    “when you pluck a string, you touch the string with the highest part of the flash, and, pushing the string toward the soundboard, you let the nail escape the two strings, and it sounds very good” (may be someone can do a better translation…)

    In the sources you mentioned, you should add Dalla Casa.
    He says “tasteggiare con le unghie” and clearly shows the use of the nails on the right hand (I’m sending you a photo I took som years ago: perhaps you can put it here).
    Also there is a source about Francesco da Milano using silver thimbles with a goose feather on it (using, I think, thumb-in)

    Certified an historical use of the nails, for me there are some unanswered questions.
    How could they use nails on thiny gut strings?
    Also, where they able to have very smooth nails without the abrasive paper we have and use today?
    In any case, I’m sure that one system is not better than the other, and both were used at the same time, and also later (Sor never used and liked nails).
    Each one shuld make a choice, judging what is better for him, his technique, his approach with the instrument and his esthetic feeling.
    And these two last elements are the heart of the matter: it’s enough to have a look at this video to understand that nails are not the real problem…

  5. @Diego, thanks for your comments and for the images of Dalla Casa – I’ve added them to the post.

    I remember also reading about Francesco da Milano using silver thimbles on his fingers. That’s a really interesting one and food for thought with regards what sound we associate with 16th century lute music.

    I think your approach sounds really great – to be able to adapt one’s technique to different instruments is a good thing in my book, although personally I’ve not been able to do it and prefer to use the same technique. Interestingly, I had an archlute (by Magherini of course!) which I thought sounded fantastic with nails.

    My 10 course lute (by Jacobsen) doesn’t really work so well, but the instrument is already so bright (I bought it when I played without nails and loved the brightness then) that I have to be very careful when I play it. I’m planning to replace this lute with another instrument by Magherini and am confident that will solve the problem!

    Thanks also for the link! Mr Pianca is an ‘interesting’ case but has nothing whatsoever to do with historical performance.

  6. dear Richard I am very happy to read your opinion. I ‘ve been studying renaissance lute for 30 years ( I started with Luca Pianca) and finally I know someone who is thinking like me. Always I played it with nails, I’m sure it’s correct to play the lute in this way, the sound is like a pearl ( as Piccinini says) the voices are better separated, so the music is not boring. A comment to reinforce this opinion is the fact that in many paintings you can see the hand of the player very close to the bridge, I’m sure that the sound of the lute is closer to an harpsichord reather than an Harp. What do you think?

    I play only renaissance music especially Elisabethan period. I play two 10 courses lutes made by Luc Breton ( Lausanne)
    one of them was owned by J. Bream, and I ‘m very proud to of it!

  7. dear Nicolò, I also think that the aesthetic of a baroque guitar or a lute sound was very close to an harpsichord as you write in your comment. Richard, interesting post! claudio

  8. This is a personal preference. As you say, there is no correct way to play but one can be more or less authentic for the time and now, it seems, the place. (When will it stop ?) The only critique I have is that most of the examples of nail technique come from the end of the lutes prominence, at the time the guitar was already favoured at Versailles, and most of the music that I want to play comes from the 16th century when fingernails were evidently frowned upon in the best circles. I agree with the comment regarding gut strings and I prefer thumb out finger tip tone and attack with the hand on the bridge. Lastly, can ornaments be played in full if the tempo is quick ? But who am I….

  9. Hi David, cheers for your comment! Do you have a source that says that playing with nails was frowned upon in the 16th century? I’d be interested to see it.

    I’m sure you’re right regarding personal preference, I’m reminded of Mace and Weiss’ comments about nail playing sounding awful! One thing I’ll say to sceptical non-nailers is that I’ve always managed to surprise people with the sound you can make on the lute or theorbo with nails. There doesn’t have to be anything ‘harsh’ about the sound and I actually much prefer the sound, but that of course is just another example of personal preference I guess! Listen to my audio samples and judge for yourself.

  10. I shall have to go back to my sources but if your read Thomas Mace’s comments with a nanny like chill you may get the impression that the “some” were misguided. Isn’t there a comment also in the Variety of lute lessons about scurvey knaves ?

    I believe that it is not possible to touch (a commonly used word in this context implying the nibble ends) both strings at once in a double strung instrument if one uses the nail alone. If one (horror of horrors) plays a single strung “lute” then anything will do, even a plectrum, except perhaps with a chitarrone. There is ample evidence of single strung chitarrones and certainly many modern chitarronists use them but were they altered in the late 17th century ? Diana Poulton certainly thought so.

    So this is what I believe : throughout the lute era, the finger tips were preferred giving that lovely human yelp to the the attack and a distinct legato like an un-notched organ pipe and requiring deliberate tempos which allow full expression of the expected ornaments. One could not be refered to (approvingly) as artificial (full of artifice) unless the music was fully ornamented, which it seldom is these days. Compare the inventions in the Clavierbuchlein to their ornamented cousins in the Willhelm Freidemann version for an appreciation of what was expected mid 17th century. If one opts for fast (undanceable) tempi the ornaments are not possible as they need time to speak. Music is a living art so anything is “right” as long as it is sincere and communicative. Whether it is authentic is another thing and whether that matters is another thing also. I play the Brahms chaconne for the left hand. It is definitely not authentic baroque music but I love it anyway and have no intention of stopping. The same with the Bach Busoni chorale preludes, pianistic photographs and exquisite. What gets up my nose is the oft encountered narcissistic and aggressive defence of evidently unauthentic performance practice as “right”, frequently ornamented with quotes like Bach et al would have done it this way if they had our imporoved modern instruments. I acknowledge the more resonant modern strings and the need for a performing musician to have quickly tunable instruments (to avoid pennies being thrown) which leads me to another interminable point. Music in the 16th century was not public : it was private and happened mostly in the home. Of course this was not always so but even performers of the callibre of Dowland played for small groups only. In this setting there was plenty of time. There were no trains to catch and no destination other than bed afterwards. Halcion days. Perhaps it was the needs of professionalism, more volume and more reliable tuning and the display of virtuosity, that changed things. Begining, like football, of course in Italy. Whatever happened to the renaissance ? Best wishes, David Richards

  11. Very interesting post! I tried both over many years, and it seems to me that the stigma that using nails has with many lutenists is just over the top. In my view, it really depends to a large part on the physical layout of the hands of the individual player. People have very different shapes of fingertips, as well as \”consistency\”, if I may say so. And if one combines nails and fingertips, this \”hybrid\” is even more individual. So – one cant say one size fits all. Time to lay off the dogma.

  12. What a wonderfully illuminating page! There is great wisdom here . . . Might I add that I agree universally with everyone(esp.Rich & Phill – time to break out of the box) and have adopted a more \’Iberian\’ approach to music making. What freedom and with such instinctive joy! After all, we are all individual in the eye\’s . . . Nice tone on the intro Herman . . . are you selling something? ; ) Merry on pluckers . . .

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