Matteo Mancuso’s electric guitar playing style is, by and large, defined by two traits: an otherworldly level of technicality and a pristine fingerpicking tone that oozes clarity and precision.
There is, of course, more to the young Sicilian’s playing – don’t even get us started on his elite phrasing – but it’s that borderline-incomprehensible level of effortlessness and flawless fingerstyle tone that first attracted plaudits from the likes of Steve Vai, Joe Bonamassa and Al Di Meola.
Now, in the new issue of Total Guitar, Mancuso revealed the secret to his pick-less tone, and discussed how he manages to consistently achieve his impeccable fingerstyle sound.
It’s not news that Mancuso utilizes both the fingernails and fingertips of his picking hand when cycling through his instrumental lines. Indeed, when we spoke to him last year about his headline-grabbing technique, he said as much: “My sound is a mix of nails and flesh, so I have nails like classical players but I keep them very short.”
However, it turns out there is more to it than simply a well-manicured (and well-drilled) picking hand: Mancuso also uses fake nails.
When quizzed whether he uses real or fake fingernails, Mancuso admitted, “It’s a mix of both and, actually, I mostly use gel nails. I used acrylics some months ago, but I like the sound of the gel better because it’s a little bit softer and you get a different attack.
“Plus, it looks more like a real nail! My thumb is the only one that stays natural because I don’t really use it a lot, compared with the other three.”
As for the specific tonal advantages of a dual fingernail and fingertip approach, Mancuso went on, “You get a darker tone and the attack is slightly different. With your three fingers, basically everything is an upstroke and the only downstroke is with the thumb. So sometimes, if you want to achieve a different sound, you may want to use a different finger.
“The thumb sounds more powerful on the low strings, so I prefer to use my thumb on the lower strings and use my three fingers for the others. An important thing is nails. I use my nails and they’re not too long.
“If you played only with the flesh, the sound would be too muddy and dark. With my nails, I can achieve a more defined attack.”
So, how can fans go about weaning themselves off the pick and start developing a Mancuso-style fingerpicking tone? Well, before nipping to your nearest Claire’s and buying a pack of acrylics, you need to first work on hybrid picking.
“I’d suggest that the first step should be hybrid picking,” Mancuso advised. “It’s not fingerstyle and it’s not just picking, it’s a mix of both techniques. A perfect example of that would be Tom Quayle, who’s a British player that uses a pick, but at the same time also uses two fingers for some of his lines.
“A lot of modern players use this technique and I think it can be a good starting point. Then, if you want, you can get rid of the pick and start using your thumb and index.”
Mancuso has very kindly been divulging his top trade secrets in recent months. Not only has he discussed how to use fake nails to channel a more distinct attack tone, he also revealed his top tips for playing better lead lines.
Any advice from Mancuso concerning fingerstyle playing and tone is worth listening to. After all, it was only last week that he demonstrated just what his style is capable of when he joined Steve Vai onstage for a ridiculously virtuosic improvised jam.
Other examples of Mancuso’s generational style aren’t hard to find. He paid tribute to Eddie Van Halen with an EVH-inspired cover of You Really Got Me, nailed Steve Vai's legendary Crossroads showcase Eugene's Trick Bag and nearly broke the internet with a mind-melting debut single.
To read the full interview with Matteo Mancuso, head over to Magazines Direct to pick up the latest issue of Total Guitar.
The new issue also features an interview Ace Frehley, in which the former Kiss guitarist addressed accusations of being “a sloppy guitar player”.