The early Gaelic harp was traditionally played with long fingernails. There is much misunderstanding nowadays about the use of fingernails. It is often erroneously asserted that wire strings were played with nails while gut strings were played without.

My conclusion is rather different: that the use of fingernails was normal and universal across Europe in medieval times, and that the use of finger tips took over during the 16th or 17th century in all areas.

This is an imporant issue for period musicians because the sound of the same instrument and repertory is very different if played with or without nails.

On this page I am gathering source references to the use of fingernails to play early European stringed instruments. If you have more please send them to me.

Medieval references

The early medieval Irish law codes include what may be a reference to a false nail, to be supplied to a timpán player whose nail had been damaged. The timpán was probably a lyre with metal strings, either plucked or strummed. The nail could have been used to pluck the strings, or possibly to fret them.

7 ingu eiti don timpanach ar son aithgena masade dobenad

...and a quill nail for the timpán player in compensation, if [his fingernail] was cut from him

Bretha Étgid, Old Irish1

Two medieval English poems include references to harp playing with sharp fingernails. Though Gaelic harps with metal strings may well have been used in England, these quotes most likely refer to the playing of the more common gut-strung bray harp.

Teach him to harpe with his nayles scharpe

Kyng Horn, late 13th century2

For though the beste harpour upon lyve
Wolde on the beste souned Ioly harpe
That ever was, with alle his fingres fyve,
Touche ay o streng, or ay o werbul harpe,
Were his nayles poynted never so sharpe,
It shulde maken every wight to dulle,
To here his glee, and of his strokes fulle.

Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, late 14th century3

The mid 15th century encyclopedia, ‘liber viginti artium’ by Paulus Paulirinus, contains a description of a gothic bray harp with gut strings, played with long fingernails:

Arfa est instrumentum trigonale nervalibus cordis unguum percussione resonans ...

The harp is a triangular instrument, with gut strings, sounded by plucking with the fingernails

Paulus Paulirinus, liber viginti artium, mid 15th century4

Welsh poetry includes references to playing the harp with long fingernails. The usual medieval Welsh harp was a gothic bray harp, but with horsehair strings instead of gut.

Poed anolo fo ei fin
A'i gywydd a'i ddeg ewin
A gano cerdd ogoniant

Let his lips, his verse,
and his ten nails be worthless,
who may sing a song to the glory

Daffydd ap Gwilym, Y Gainc, mid 14th century5

16th century references

Polydore Vergil's History of England describes 16th century musicians:

...cuius peritissime sunt, canunt enim cum voce, tum fidibus eleganter, sed vehementi quodam impetu, sic, ut mirabile sit, in tanta vocis linguæque atque digitorum velocitate, posse artis numeros servari, id quod illi ad unguem faciunt...

For as they sing with the voice, so they play elegantly on strings, but thus with a certain powerful movement, that it is a marvel that the numbers of art are able to be preserved, with such swiftness of tongue and fingers, what those men do to the fingernail

Polydore Virgilius, Anglicae Historiae Libri XXVI, Basle, 15346

George Buchanan's history of Scotland describes Highland musicians. This is a rare reference to the use of a plectrum:

Musica maxime delectantur, sed sui generis fidibus quarum aliis chordae sunt aeneae, aliis e nervis factae, quas vel unguibus praelongis vel plectris pulsant.

They love music very much, but use their own type of instruments, of which some have strings made of brass, others of gut, which they strike either with their long nails or with a plectrum.

George Buchanan, History of Scotland book 1, 15657

Galilei is here describing both Italian and Irish harps. He says he got some of his information from an 'Irish gentleman'. It is not clear whether he is describing only Irish harpers, or perhaps more likely, Italian harpers as well:

I sonatori della quali costumano portare le ugne di ambedue le mani assai lunghe, acconciandosele artifitiosamente nella manicera che fi vedono le penne ne saltarelli che dello spinette le corde percuoteno;

The players of the harp customarily keep the nails of both hands very long, trimming them artfully in the manner that you see in the quills of the jacks that pluck the strings in spinets.

Vincentio Galilei, Dialogo della Musica Antica et della Moderna, 1581 p. 1438

Ambiguous references

Sometimes early texts refer to playing with the 'tips of the fingers'. While we can use this today to specify cutting the fingernails short, it could easily refer to nail-playing as well in a non-technical sense:

Gur sinneadh linn crithre corphort
d'fhír-rinn mo mheór bhfrithirghrod

So that I have played sparkling melodies
with the tips of my eager fingers

anonymous Gaelic poem, c. 16th century9

Stanihurst and Beare provide a hint of change in the early 17th century. Richard Stanihurst, belittling Irish harpers, describes their use of long nails:

Non plectro aliquo, sed aduncis vnguibus sonum elicit

He (A harper) produces sound not with any plectrum, but with curved fingernails

Richard Stanihurst, De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis, Antwerp 158410

However, in his comprehensive refutation of Stanihurst, Philip O'Sullivan Beare says that the Irish harp was played with the finger tips, while the timpán is played with a plectrum:

Illi lyram summis digitis, tympanum plectris pulsant

They strike the harp with the tips of their fingers, but the tiompan with plectra

Philip O'Sullivan Beare Zoilomastix, 162511

Unfortunately the context is not secure enough to be sure that Beare is explaining that nails were not used.

The dropping of nail techniques in favour of fingertips, 17th - 18th century

By the 17th century the use of long nails was still commonly associated with Irish harp playing, but was seen as barbarous, as illustrated here in a satirical description of a lady of ill repute:

Her Nails were certainly visible, and were much of the length of those that are preserved to tune an Irish harp

The Whore's Rhetorick, 168312

John Lynch includes in his book an extended digression describing the current state of Irish harping. Here he describes how the use of fingernails was falling out of fashion in the later 17th century:

Porro cytharistæ peritiores et cultiores humeris lyræ cervicem cernui ut plurimum, nonnunquam erecti admoventes, fila œnea extremis digitis, non unguibus pulsant contra consuetudinem ut, aliqui scribunt, lyristis non ita pridem in Hibernia familiarem, quæ nunc vel in desuetudinem abiit, vel a rudioribus lyristis frequentatur, contendentibus, editiorem sonitum e chordis ideo elicere, ut eo domus tota personet.

The more expert and accomplished performers (who generally bend over the neck of the harp, but occasionally hold it erect), strike the brass strings with the tips of their fingers, not with their nails, contrary to the custom, as some maintain, which not long since was common in Ireland. That custom is now, if not obsolete, at least adopted by ruder performers only, in their anxiety to elicit thereby louder notes from the strings, and make the whole house ring with their melody

John Lynch, Cambrensis Eversus, 166213

At about the same time there is a glimpse of similar arguments in lute playing. Thomas Mace writes:

...strike not your string with your nails, as some do, who maintain it the best way of play, but I do not;

Thomas Mace, Musick's Monument, London, 1676, p.7314

However this may be less a change from nails to tips, as there are other texts from this time which emphasise that tips are best for intimate lute-playing, while nails are best for accompanying an ensemble:

[a solo song] accompanied by the lute has a much better effect than with the archlute or even the theorbo, since these two latter instruments are ordinarily played with the nails...

Weiss, late 17th century15

Over the course of the 18th century the Irish harp presumably came to be played more and more with the finger tips instead of the nails. By the late 18th century, only two Irish harpers are known to have used long fingernails. Echlin Ó Catháin lived during the latter half of the 18th century:

O'Kane, a celebrated Irish harper... valued himself on having his nails nicely trimmed in this manner.... the best method of punishing him was, to order his nails to be cut quite short... being thus rendered incapable of playing on his harp until they grew again to their former length.

John Gunn, An Historical Enquiry respecting the Performance on the Harp in the Highlands, &c, 1807, p.1916

Denis O'Hampsey (1695 - 1807) was specifically described as a curiosity, and contrasted with all the other surviving Irish harpers who did not use nails:

Hempson was the only one of the harpers at the Belfast Meeting, in 1792, who literally played the harp with long crooked nails, as described by the old writers. In playing, he caught the string between the flesh and the nail; not like the other harpers of his day, who pulled it by the fleshy part of the finger alone.

Edward Bunting, The Ancient Music of Ireland, 1840, p. 7317

It must however be pointed out, that the harps played with finger-tips by these other 18th century Irish harpers were nonetheless early Irish harps, with brass strings. Many scholars have fallen into the trap of equating nails with brass and finger 'pads' with gut, and use this false correspondence to suppose that Denis O'Hampsey was the last person alive to play early Irish harp with brass strings. He was not.

The neo-Irish harp or neo-clàrsach, invented in the 19th century with gut strings, and still the most popular type of harp in Ireland and Scotland today, has always been played like a classical orchestra harp, with the fleshy pads of the fingers.

In its modern revival, the early Gaelic harp (since the 1970s) has almost always been played with long nails as a 'mark of difference', even by players specialising in the 17th and 18th century repertory. For example the announcement for the "Beginning Wire-strung Clarsach" class at the Edinburgh International Harp Festival 2005 stated "NB. Finger nails at least 2mm long are essential"18

My suggestion, which some of my students have tried with success, is to play 18th century style with the tips of the fingers - not the fleshy pads but the very tips.

The playing of medieval harps in the wider early music scene is in a far worse state - bray harps themselves are still rarely to be heard, and the use of nails is almost as rare. The 19th century aesthetic of finger pads on open gut strings dominates.

In medieval times, lutes were played with plectrums. In the later 15th and early 16th centuries, plucking with individual fingers took over, though it's not clear if finger tips or nails were used. There are references to false nails or fingerpicks.19 The quotes above indicate that by the 17th centiru boith nails and tips were used for different instruments, repertories or effects. I'd welcome more input from lute players on these pages.

As Echlin O'Kane's story shows, broken fingernails can be very inconvenient for a working musician. Siobhán Armstrong has an online nail-repair tutorial. (broken link updated March 2015)

Simon Chadwick