Nails, picks, or plectra are a big part of playing guzheng. The design and material change the sound the instrument produces. Below we will look at what materials guzheng nails are made of. Due to quality differences it is difficult to say that one material is better than any other but there are certain trends.
Most finger picks are made either from a type of polymer (plastic) or turtle shell. Turtle shell was historically used because it is a hard material that polishes smooth, can be worked with relative ease, and is associated with concepts of luxury and artistry. Unfortunately so many sea turtles have been killed for their shells that the populations are in steep decline. If demand keeps up we won’t have turtles left. As members of this community we should use other materials for our nails. Thankfully, there are many choices.
Plastics are a relatively new class of materials whose hardness, density, and workability are customizable. They are also far easier and cheaper to mass produce. They are less prone to wear than bamboo and lighter than stone. They can be colored to any hue, stamped with meaningful symbols, or mixed with other materials to some interesting results.
Metal is a choice as well, often coming with the advantage of being shaped into rings that one can wear without tape. Still other materials are possible as most any hard material can be used. Never before have guzheng players had this much choice!
Covers a whole range of materials. Includes names and labels such as ABS, Acetate, Cellulose, and Nylon. These are man made materials. Be aware: Plastic nails are often shipped with a small amount of lubricant on them. You’ll want to wash the nails in a warm soap and water before using them.
A man-made material famous for being incredibly workable thanks to a glass transition temperature just a bit warmer than boiling water. Think of glass transition temperature as where
Acetate and/or cellulose
Cellulose, Acetate, or Cellulose-Acetate most likely refers to nails made of an acetate of cellulose. Cellulose is a material that gives plants structure. It can either be extracted from plants or produced separate from them. We are used to referring to cellulose-derived materials as “plastic” - plastic wrap is one example.
Acetate is a class of materials that all have a similar chemical composition. We often refer to them as “plastic” as well. Put the two words together and you get an acetate that is made from cellulose.
A class of material invented in the 1930s. Dupont created Nylon 6,6 and IG Farben created Nylon 6. You may see these company’s names associated with the nail material. Nylon 6,6 is commonly used to produce fibers while Nylon 6 is used in industrial applications; both are capable of being used as nails.
A class of materials produced by plants for defense against disease and insects. Modern times see humans producing resins artificially. Resins start as a liquid that hardens into a solid.
Different types of plastic can be mixed together. The pros and cons of different plastics can be balanced with these hybrids. JB’s current favorite set of nails (December 2018) is a mixture of ABS and Nylon.
Nails have been said to have been made out of many materials over the centuries. Below are materials I have information on. Other materials you might also find reference to include: Antler, Bone, Carbon Fiber, Glass, Jade, Seashell, and various other Stone.
Less common in modern times but I have seen photographs and historic references (Kao 2003, van Gulik 1951). Likely more prone to wear and breakage than other materials.
Not much information other than a passing reference in van Gulik 1951.
Made from exactly that, the horn of various forms of domesticated cattle. Made of a similar base material as turtle shell, ox horn nails suffer from some limitations. They are regarded as inferior and thus, receive inferior craftsmanship. The best quality ox horn does not go into nails. That which does get used has a reputation for cracking from extended use. Further, oxhorn nails are not always polished, leading to a surface that grips the strings. This unexpected resistance can slow a performer who is not ready for it.
Enriched, hardened, or otherwise treated horn could offer an interesting alternative to turtle shell picks, however I have no evidence of work being done in this area..
Metal nails can be taped to the finger like other materials or they can be built onto rings much like picks used for the banjo or guitar (Kao 2003). Players in Singapore have used those ring-type for years. They retail for around $10 a set. I found one set of taped metal nails advertised as a mix of platinum and silver. These retailed for 8800 yuan or between $1,200-$1700 USD depending on the exchange rate.
Now, I don’t have evidence of this but it should be possible and may produce a unique sound. Also known as the Tagua nut, Vegetable Ivory comes from trees in the genus Phytelephas. It is hard, workable, and has an appearance similar to that of ivory. Tagua has a hardness of 2.5 compared to Ivory’s 3, and a density of 1.2 compared to ivory’s 1.8 g/cm3.
Historic (and Troubled) Materials
Listen, the truth is that we humans are terrible at scaling up production. We too often take more in a year than can be produced in a year. When we are making a material in factories that’s not a big deal - we can just raise the price. But when the material is harvested from the wild that is a very big problem. Raising the price makes the problem worse. Below are materials that have been so over used in the past they are problematic or downright illegal to use today. You should not purchase any of these.
Ivory, “Elephant Teeth”
Picks made from the teeth or tusks of animals, most famously elephants. DO NOT BUY THESE. The ivory trade has led to the near destruction of elephants around the world. Laws have been passed in China, the US, and most countries around the world to stop the selling of elephant ivory and allow the elephants to repopulate. And yet, in 2018 I found “elephant teeth” nails for sale as I was casually browsing a store. It was only one store out of several dozen that I visited, but its a disturbing reminder that they are still out there. Purchasing elephant ivory products is illegal as is crossing borders with them.
Now, I do have to say, the word “ivory” is a category covering more than the tusks of elephants. It is theoretically possible for ivory to be harvested from other animals but most don’t produce it in the right shape to be used for nails. (The elk of the American West grow two teeth of ivory, for example.) When you see “ivory”, assume it means elephant ivory.
"Natural Materials", "Natural Marine Keratin"
“生料” (shēng liào) in Chinese which translates as “Raw material” or “Natural material”. These phrases are used to hide the actual material while suggesting that they are Turtle Shell. That is problematic. If you want to buy nails that happen to list this material grill the seller about what they are actually made of. If they say they are actually made of turtle shell don’t buy them. See the last entry.
Supposedly nails crafted from the scales of the Pangolin a critically endangered anteater that lives in Asia and Africa. DO NOT BUY THESE. These creatures are worse off than turtles. In fact, any nails you find labeled Pangolin are probably ox horn or plastic imitations anyways. The seller makes a profit and doesn’t get shutdown for trafficking in endangered animal products.
Ho boy, okay. The facts around turtle shell nails puts Guzheng Alive in a tight position. On the one hand the goal of this website is to provide exposure to the guzheng world for English speakers and turtle shell nails are factually part of that. On the other hand we do not in any way seek to encourage the use of turtle shell nails. The consequences around their harvesting are too negative. If there were a sustainable production of turtle shell nails then perhaps opinions would change - but as nails come from sea turtles and sea turtles cannot be raised like fish, sustainable harvesting is incredibly unlikely. Further, since sea turtles can live as long as most humans (80 years) harvesting only from turtles dying naturally wouldn’t address current demands. For now then we should all avoid using turtle shell nails and push producers to create alternative nails that perform just as well. Maybe in 80 years time the turtle population will have rebounded and we could again hunt them.
So. With all that said let’s get on to the facts of turtle shell nails.
Turtle Shell - 玳瑁 (dàimào), translated badly as “cockroach”, or slightly better as “natural jewels”. These are the shells of any one of 7 sea turtles. DO NOT BUY THESE. Sea turtle populations are losing out to human activity. Turtle shell was historically used because it is a hard material that polishes smooth, can be worked with relative ease, and is associated with concepts of luxury and artistry. It is less prone to wear and chipping than bamboo and lighter and easier to work than stone.
Now I must warn you, below is a rather disturbing image. It’s important to see it.
These are turtles that were being illegally trafficked through China. They were pulled from the wild and killed long before their 80 years were up. This type of ugliness has no place in a community devoted to such beauty as the guzheng provides. We have alternatives, we don’'t need to do this to these amazing creatures.
The longer people buy turtle products the greater the chance we'll drive them to extinction and then no one can have them.
High quality plastics and ox horn provide a great sound. If you want something rare, get a set of vegetable ivory nails custom made for you by an artist. You’ll be the only layer with them! But please, don’t buy turtle shell. Let’s give the sea turtles time to regrow.