There’s this nagging question I can’t get out of my mind. How does Dolly Parton play guitar with those long fingernails? ‘Cause it’s been decades since I gave up any thought of having nails that went more than a millimeter past the ends of my fingertips.
Now, I’ve seen Dolly Parton play, and while she’s not what I would call a guitar hero (heroine?), she gets around OK. And honestly, most of the time I wasn’t looking at her fingers, and I’m sure 99.99 percent of the rest of the audience wasn’t either.
But once I did investigate, I realized the answer was quite simple. She always plays in open tuning and just barres every chord.
Now, this method would limit any chordal coloring, like 7ths or 9ths, but I guess she doesn’t care. I’ve known women who have immediately dismissed the thought of learning guitar, because it meant cutting their nails or having mis-matched hands (long nails on the right, short on the left). If she’s found a way to have the best of both worlds, more power to her!
Admittedly, I suck at barre chords (and was actually very excited when I saw Shawn Colvin play all first-position chords without a barre in sight for the entire show, but that’s another topic for another day). But really, Dolly’s barres involve only one finger with no ancillary fingerings, and maybe I actually could do that.
There’s suspiciously little footage of Dolly actually playing guitar on her YouTube channel, but you can catch a bit of it on this video at around 00:53:
I did, however, come across this amazing piece of footage in which Chet Atkins asks her how she plays with long nails! She jokes about how they are a pain to play with, but she just can’t part with them. And then they perform a great duet of “Black Smokes a-Risin’.” It all happens at 1:43:
And one more thing, just because it’s so, well, weird. Here’s a clip of Dolly on 60 Minutes talking about how she used her nails as percussion for the song “9 to 5” from the 1980 movie of the same name. No guitars involved, but just pure Dolly spunk. And when I watched the video on CBS’s website, it was sponsored by Viagra, making it even more surreal! Enjoy.
Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents 65amps, Acoustic Bass Amps, Agile Partners, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the lead singer for the rock band, Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.