Updated: Feb 25, 2020
I first heard Lenny when I was in my early 20's - relatively late in the life of a guitar player. The exact circumstances are lost in my foggy memory, but I remember the feeling of listening to a musician doing things on his instrument that I hadn't heard anyone else do before. The impact was immediate - I was hooked. I needed to know how he created those beautiful sounds. Then I saw some video of Lenny playing; he's using a thumbpick... and he has enormous fingernails! Yikes. Growing freakishly long fingernails seemed like a pretty big commitment, and one that I initially wasn't comfortable doing. But after awhile I had to find out. So I grew them. My sister-in-law worked as an esthetician so I went to her for advice. She gave me a bottle of nail hardener that had a matte finish - the last thing I wanted was to draw attention to my nails with a glossy sheen. It was weird enough for a man to have long nails on only one hand - I wasn't going for presentation here, strictly practicality.
Eventually, after a month or so, mission accomplished. Long, manicured nails on my right hand, ready for action. I went to the local music store, bought a couple of thumbpicks and went home and tried to play. Emphasis on the word tried. I had to relearn the guitar all over again! But back then I was so stubborn and obsessed with guitar playing that nothing would stop me. I was still living at home at the time, and my poor parents had to listen to me practice scales over and over at 40 bpm for months before I built up any kind of dexterity. And I had to learn to live with long, easily broken fingernails on my most used appendage. Opening cans of pop (or, more probably, beer) was tricky. Car doors were hazardous. Picking my nose was out of the question. But I slowly became accustomed to my 4 extra picks, and my playing improved enough that I was ready to start gigging with my new technique.
The rest, as they say, is history. I was comfortable enough to use the fingerstyle method when necessary, but always kept flatpicks around for things that needed a different feel. And I haven't suffered much grief from people about it. Initially it's a bit of a shock when someone reaches out to shake my hand and sees my claws sticking out the ends of my fingers. But when I explain it to them, most people just say, 'Cool, what kind of stuff do you play?'. And a majority of the time nobody actually notices. As I got older, my nails became more brittle, and I sort of stopped using them. Until I went back to school and was studying with Rick Peckham at Berklee College of Music. I asked him about his nails and he said, 'I just go to a salon. For $15 a month I have perfect, virtually unbreakable nails'. So, that's where I'm at now. That's right, I go to a salon. A very strange experience, and I get alot of odd looks, but my nails are stronger than ever and my playing (I think) has improved because of it.
All of this because I had to figure out how Lenny Breau played the way he did. Now, I'm far from being able to play like Lenny, but I've assimilated a few of his techniques into mine and am able to bring them out when needed. So, question time for you fingerstyle players out there: do you use nails when you play? Real or fake? Or no nails at all? Who influenced you to play that way? And for those of you who haven't yet, go check out Lenny Breau - you'll be glad that you did. Here's a great clip of a young Lenny playing 'Georgia' on an old CBC television program: