76. Hard as Nails

So what does a gentleman do when he is socially distancing at home with plenty of time on his hands? The answer is of course, his nails!

Actually, nails are a serious issue for the acoustic guitarist, especially for those who play finger style. The rule of thumb (!) is keep your fretting hand nails short but your plucking hand ones longer. However, how to achieve super hard nails that are strong enough to pluck steel strings is a major headache. Some guitarists try nail hardening fluids, some have their own personal recipes involving layers of glue and tissue paper, while others simply resort to fingerpicks. My secret is that I regularly visit my local nail bar (the same one my daughter uses it turns out) to have them apply acrylic nails to my right hand. These have proven to be super strong and effective pluckers, just like having fingerpicks glued tightly to your fingers.

Of course they look fetching too and this got me thinking. Why not apply Carolan’s Artcode decorations to my extended nails? My nails might then become recognisable by a computer, perhaps even allowing me to use them to trigger interactions as some further kind of gestural control. Hmmm.

So time to try a new life experience – painting my nails. I choose a plain white varnish which I think will show off the Artcodes best and give the most chance of them being recognised. Then onto the decoration. This involves making some transparent decals for my nails. I shrink Carolan’s designs down to a size where they will fit on my nails but still be recognisable. Some early testing suggests that around three quarters of an inch diameter should scan OK. Next, I print them on to clear decal paper before applying several layers of artist’s varnish spray to strengthen them up a bit.

Carolan’s Artcode decals ready to apply to my nails

Twenty seconds in warm water and I can then slide them off the backing and onto my nails and let them dry. However, I must say that the result is a bit ugly due to a combination of my (lack of) varnishing skill, the decals being on the larger side and also being slightly wrinkly when they dry. Let’s be clear, I wouldn’t wear these out on a Saturday night, but who knows, with some practice … just maybe. If only I hadn’t wasted my teenage years learning to play the guitar!

So what about that idea of interactive nails? Initial tests on a couple of nails (thumb and first finger) show that they scan successfully with the Artcodes app. The app could potentially respond to seeing different combinations of nails, for example, triggering the playback of different media clips that I could play along to. In theory it could be programmed to recognise up to 32 combinations (5^2) of different nails, which gives me quite a large number of possible interactions to play with.

Some of these would be associated with appropriate gestures – the classic ‘sign of the horns’ rock gesture as practiced by Ronnie James Dio, Gene Simmons and numerous other metallists springs to mind. I’d love to try triggering a musical interaction by flicking the horns at a nearby camera!

Evidence from the womb reveals that the sign of the horns is an innate gesture

In practice, I anticipate many practical problems: will this work for the much smaller little finger nail? where does the camera go? what about poor lighting on stage? can the system recognise all four fingers and the thumb at once (as they don’t easily lay flat)? Can guitarists easily gesture with all combinations of fingers (though surely a good fingerpicker has that kind of control)?

So it remains very much a thought experiment for now. At least I’ve learned something about decorating my nails, if only that it’s tricky to do well. And my acrylics remain strong and tough for picking. And just maybe sometime in the future I’ll be able to use Artcoded nails to control musical interactions.

Now where did I leave that nail varnish remover?

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