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 that 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!
If you’d like to hear what it sounds like when I play the theorbo with nails you can have a listen to the audio samples at https://richardsweeney.com/lute/
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’s some of my experiences since I started playing with nails.
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 lute books of Piccinini and Girolamo Kapsberger – much easier to pull off with nails. 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 otherwise and the topic of period right hand fingerings for the Italian theorbo is at least a post in itself. It’s also one I promise to write soon!).
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!
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).