The “sonority” of Andrés Segovia’s sound so often commented on is in part caused by his use of equal parts flesh and nail of his right hand. As the first joint of the plucking finger yields to the string, whether in free or rest stroke, it momentarily reverses, bending backward, as does the flexible tip of a painter’s brush daubing canvas. Pressing the string, the flesh of the tip of the finger momentarily adheres to it, thus rolling it, and in the act of releasing it, the nail focuses the snap. Acting very much like the rolling shake and shimmy from head to tail of a thoroughly soaked dog’s attempt to free his coat of water, the momentarily flesh-distorted string then not only describes SINE waves its entire length, but spins—creating the familiarly visceral growl and whine that so moves us.
That’s why Andrés Segovia’s nails, and those of so many others, like Oscar Ghiglia, are short—to permit the flesh a firm hold on the string, just long enough to impart a spin as it leaves. One of Segovia’s students, Philip DeFremery, told me that Segovia explained to him that in his early years he, Segovia, tried to play entirely without nails, but discovered that no matter how short he cut and filed his index fingernail, there was always enough to strike the string, whereas the thumb, middle, and annular fingers of the right hand could play without touching nail. Eventually, as Maestro Segovia related to Mr. DeFremery, he had no choice but to play with some nail on all his fingers to balance the sound. Although the felicitous combination of flesh and nail aids in producing the sonority so characteristic of his playing, it is apparent (to some!) that his spiritual, emotional, and physical relationship between the strings and his ear somehow produce a sensual depth of sound that apparently only he can raise from the guitar. I’ve heard brave attempts to imitate it (yes, even by me).
Additional comment: those who say there are now better, faster, more skilled players than Andrés Segovia commit two sins and suffer from two areas of ignorance: as to the sins, one is that they inadvertently reveal that they have not listened to much of Segovia’s vast recorded repertoire; and two, they shamelessly lay bare their narrow prejudices and likes in interpretation. Their ignorances are that they have not personally heard, as I have on separate occasions, the wistful voices of several modern day masters who, after listening to one of the Maestro’s recordings, murmured “Why do I even bother?”; and lastly, some among us have forgotten or do not know that almost all the repertory we long to play well was either transcribed by Maestro Segovia, or written for him. We ride forward, yes, but on the shoulders of his sonority, voicing, fingering, harmony, his transcriptions and recordings.