The Ping-Pong Ball Trick

Mark Long

              A stereotypical belief held by society is that a broken fingernail is a problem only for women. Men (in our ego macho way) often times laugh when we hear women complaining of what seems to be a minor crisis. After all, a real man doesn't concern himself with a broken fingernail. Right fellows? Well......not so if you're a classical guitar player. Trying to play classical guitar with a broken nail is like an artist trying to paint with a frayed paintbrush. Fingernails to the classical guitarist are what the bow is to a violinist. It's the device we use to draw sound from the string. If they're damaged, the guitarist just isn't going to be able to play.

              When it comes to guitar playing, if you break a string, you can always replace that. But what do you do if you break a fingernail? A fingernail won't grow back overnight. One solution, that has worked well for me, is what I like to call 'The Ping-Pong Ball Trick'. This solution has bailed me out more than a few times when I've broken a fingernail before a performance.

              The Ping-Pong Ball Trick has been around for years. If you talk with enough guitar players, eventually you will hear of someone trying this. I'd first heard about the trick about ten years ago when I was visiting in Minneapolis. A friend of mine who was studying at a local guitar college told me "You won't believe the tone that you can produce with ping-pong balls glued to your fingernails. Some people even think you can produce a better tone with the ping-pongs than with natural nails." I took mental notes as he explained how to use ping-pong balls. I decided that it was just a little too bizarre for me to try.

              A few months later, I had broken not just one but two nails on the same day. Trying to play my guitar that evening with broken nails was incredibly awkward. That's when I gave in and tried the ppb's (ping-pong balls). To my amazement, the tone that I was able to produce was very smooth and sweet. Furthermore, my right hand felt very natural and I didn't feel like I had to adjust my playing technique whatsoever. I was so impressed with the tone that I used ppb's on my PIMA fingers for months after first trying it. Even when I stopped using ppb's exclusively I would carry an emergency ppb kit just in case I broke a nail.

Here are the list of items to create your own kit:

Ping-Pong balls are of different thickness' and are made of slightly different materials. Personally, I preferred the ppb's that are fairly thick. But thin ones do well also. Use whatever brand or thickness that best works for you.

The curved fingernail scissors are what my friend suggested and I was able to find them at a local drug store. I've seen them in certain grocery stores in the states where the nail and makeup stuff is. I guess you really don't need curved scissors, but it does seem to help when you're cutting out the shapes and trimming.

The fast drying super/crazy glue is used to hold the ppb's to the underside of your nails. Let me take this opportunity to make this warning

Using fast drying glues to glue ping-pong ball material to the underside of your fingernails can be dangerous to your health. Only ADULTS who are fully aware of the dangers and are willing to disregard such warnings should try such practices.

              Let me point out the obvious to using fast drying glues. One should use very, very little amounts during the application of these glues. Some people have had to go to the emergency room after gluing their fingers together or to other parts of their bodies (funny, but true!) Never get these glues near your eyes. These glues emit vapors while drying which will cause eye irritation if in close proximity. In addition, some people may have allergic reactions to these glues. Use at your own risk.

              The metal nail file is very important to have as that will be the first item to use to shape and polish the striking surface of the nails. As far as the sand papers and emery papers are concerned, I would use about a 250 grade sandpaper and then about 400 grade emery paper. The nail polish remover helps to clean off the excess glue from your fingers after applying the ppb's.

Step One: Preparing the Ping-Pong Balls

              Cut the ping-pong balls in half. Using the curved nail scissors, cut a crescent shape from one of the ball halves. You may want to first place the ping-pong ball half between the finger and fingernail and draw an exaggerated fingernail tip pattern with a pencil. Don't include the seam of the ball!

              The crescent shape should slide up underneath whichever fingernail (or thumbnail) that it will be attached to. Make sure that the curve of the crescent is shaped to the curve of the underside of the nail. It will feel uncomfortable if it isn't. The crescent should be big enough so that it extends past either side of the nail and long enough to extend past the fingertip. You will be trimming and shaping the crescents in a later step. Cut out all the crescent patterns you'll be needing before proceeding to the next steps.

Step Two: Applying the Ping-Pong Balls

              Make sure the underside of the nail is clean of dirt and debris. With the crescent underneath the nail, drop one drop of the glue between the nail and the crescent. Take the tweezers and clamp the crescent to the nail in the middle and to the sides to make the nail adhere to the flat surface of the crescent. Be sure to also have paper towels or tissue nearby during this step to get excess glue that squeezes out. You may need to apply more glue on the sides of the nails. The tweezers should clamp the crescent about 10~20 seconds.

Step Three: Shaping and Polishing

              Shape the crescent to the contour of the fingertip with the curved nail scissors. Use the metal file for the fine shaping and for preparing the striking surfaces. Polish the string contact surfaces with the sand and emery papers working from the coarser grit to the finer grit papers. The nail polish remover can be used with clean paper towels to remove any excess glue off your fingers and hands. However, be aware that the nail polish remover will dissolve the ping-pong balls!

Some Final Thoughts

              To remove the ping-pong ball crescents I usually would simply bend the nail downward causing the crescent to break off. To clean up just soak the fingernail tip in a cap full of nail polish remover or use a file.

              Personally, its been a few years since I've last used the Ping-Pong Ball Trick. I've found that regular shaping and maintenance has helped to prevent nail breakage. I've also began the use of colloidal minerals in my diet which have not only made my nails harder, but thicker as well. But if I ever break a nail before an important gig I'll always have my Ping-Pong Ball Kit there for the rescue.

For further information on nail care issues for classical guitarists go to the
How do I take care of my nails
article located in the
Classical Guitar FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions).

Click here to go back to the Classical Guitar Aficionados Page

Copyrightę 1997 Mark Long
Users may download this web page for personal use only.
Unauthorized copying or distribution of this page or any of its contents is expressly