Finger Pick Materials
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 modern finger picks are made either from a type of polymer (plastic) or turtle shell. Both are relatively recent inventions. Master players spoke of playing without picks or using metal, bone, or ivory picks for much of their lives. Turtle shell came in to vogue 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 can be customized. 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 a plastic becomes workable, but hasn’t fully melted.
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.
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.
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. Resins are commonly used to mimic the appearance of turtle shell.
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 used in 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 domesticated cattle. Chemically similar to turtle shell, ox horn nails suffer from some limitations. They are regarded as inferior and thus, receive inferior craftsmanship. Ox horn 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. They have a reputation for cracking from extended use.
Enriched, hardened, or otherwise treated horn should perform as well as turtle shell picks, but such nails are hard to find.
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. Something tells me those aren’t in common use.
This is more of a theoretical material. 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, Troubled, and Illegal Materials
Listen, the truth is that we humans are terrible at scaling production. We demand more than we can make. When the material is harvested from the wild that is a very big problem. 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 other countries to stop the selling of elephant ivory. And yet, in 2018 I found “elephant teeth” nails for sale in a store. It was only one store out of several dozen that I visited but it was a disturbing reminder that they are still out there. Purchasing elephant ivory products is illegal. So 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 that means elephant ivory. Don’t buy it.
"Natural Materials", "Natural Marine Keratin"
“生料” (shēng liào) in Chinese 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 list this material ask the seller what they are made of. If they say they are actually made of turtle shell don’t buy them. It’s illegal to sell or buy turtle shell. 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.
Turtle Shell / Tortoiseshell
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 for English speakers. Turtle shell nails are factually part of that world. On the other hand you should not use turtle shell nails. Turtle Shell or Tortoiseshell has been illegal in the US since 1975 and in China since 1981 which are the years they joined the CITES convention. If law isn’t enough, turtle shell harvesting has destroyed sea turtle populations. Sea turtles cannot be raised like fish. Sustainable harvesting has proven impossible. Further, since sea turtles live as long as humans (80 years) harvesting naturally deceased turtles does not address current demands. Thankfully, nail makers are constantly coming up with new materials that offer a range of advantages. Do the world a favor and buy a different material.
So. With all that said let’s get on to the facts of turtle shell nails.
Turtle Shell - 玳瑁 (dàimào), translates badly as “cockroach”, or slightly better as “natural jewels”. These are the shells of any one of 7 sea turtles. DO NOT BUY THESE. Turtle shell became a trend in China 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. Turtle shell have been used for many luxury items.
Buying Turtle Shell nails is selfish. Other materials sound great, are cheaper, and are easier to find. If you buy turtle shell for how they look or their status then you are engaging in the worst form of vanity. No one can see them! You put them on the inside of your hands! You cover them in tape!
Now I must warn you, below is a 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. No one will have them then.
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 player with them! But please, don’t buy turtle shell.