How does Dolly Parton play guitar with such long fingernails?

Dolly Parton
(Image credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for ACM)

Dolly Parton set the guitar world alight earlier this month when she chose to play a $99 mini electric guitar at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. But it also revived the eternal question: how does she play guitar with those long fingernails? 

Personally, 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. But Parton manages to coax luscious tones out of her guitars while sporting long – but delicately preened – hand talons.

She's able to play with long nails as she always plays in open tunings and barres every chord, or frets exclusively low-string notes with the open strings. Now, this method limits any advanced chordal coloring, like 7ths or 9ths, but Parton doesn’t care.

You can see Parton's open tunings in action above, as she plays the title track from her 1973 album, My Tennessee Mountain Home, all while sporting her trademark long nails – you can even hear her picking hand talons clacking against the guitar's body.

In another video, 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. The pair go on to perform a great duet of Black Smoke's a Risin'.

And here’s a clip of Dolly on BBC's The Graham Norton Show 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 ingenuity.

Parton goes on to explain on the show that while her hands are manicured when she takes to the stage, she often tames them a little when she's writing.

“When I'm serious about my songwriting, I take these off and file 'em down,” she explains. “But I've learned to work them – these [right hand] work great as picks, there's no problem with this hand – but these [left hand] are the ones I have a problem with.

“I've learned to do open tuning, mostly, when I'm writing and stuff. But if I'm really serious about it, I just have to saw 'em down.”

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Laura B. Whitmore is a music industry marketing veteran, music journalist and editor, writing for Parade.com (opens in new tab), Guitar World, and others. She has interviewed hundreds of musicians and hosts the She Rocks Podcast. As the founder of the Women’s International Music Network (opens in new tab), she advocates for women in the music industry and produces the annual She Rocks Awards. She is the Senior Vice President of Marketing for Positive Grid, making the world safe for guitar exploration everywhere! A guitarist and singer/songwriter, Laura is currently co-writing an album of pop songs that empower and energize girls.