I have made a 2-part video on how to made unhas ("fingerpicks" for the Portuguese guitarra). The 2 parts of the video are on YouTube, but you can also see them right here.

Making Unhas for Portuguese Guitar: PART 1

Making Unhas for Portuguese Guitar: PART 2

Portuguese Guitarra Lesson (continued)

2. As an aid to learning the guitarra, we can use cifra or tablature notation. Tablature uses a 6 line staff to represent the courses of the guitarra. The top line corresponds to the 1st course, the next to the 2nd course and so on to the bottom line which correponds to the 6th course.

By placing a number on a line it is possible to represent the number of the fret to be pressed down for a particular note. Zero (0) is for an open string (a string played without pressing a fret). One (1) represents the first fret. Two (2) represents the second fret and so on. This system is useful for learning the physical position of notes on the fingerboard. By itself it is inadequate because this system does not properly depict note value, rhythm, expression, and other important musical characteristics. However, by using tablature with standard notation we obtain a superior method for teaching and learning music on the guitarra.

Note in the example above that the string can be specified by using a number enclosed in a circle.


3. The left hand is used to press down the strings on the fretboard. As with other fretted instruments it is good form to press down the strings close to the fret. In most situations it is best to press with the tip of the finger. Traditionally, Lisbon players use the thumb to press down the 6th string. In recent years there has been some controversy about the use of the left hand thumb because it requires using the left hand and left arm in an awkward manner (such a view is shared by the great Spanish classical guitarists). In contrast, those who use the thumb assert that it allows the fingers to reach frets in the traditional manner and to achieve different fingering possibilities than playing without the thumb. Since I was originally trained as a classical guitarist, I resisted using the left hand thumb, however, at the suggestion of Luis Penedo I tried using it. For a time, I found it difficult to do. Eventually, I mastered this technique and I now find it useful for playing certain chords.

Traditionally, the left hand fingers are referred to by numbers: 1 = index, 2 = middle, 3 = ring finger, 4 = little finger. The left hand thumb has no standard notation. Paolo Soares uses zero (0) for the thumb, I think this makes sense.

4. The thumb and fingers on the right hand are indicated by the letters. p, i, m, a-- these letter come from the first letter of the words polegar (thumb), indicador (index), médio (middle), anular (ring).

While the ring finger is never used in the Lisbon style, the middle finger is occasionally used. While I have rarely observed much use of the middle finger Pedro Caldeira Cabral told me that the great Jaime Santos used his middle finger. Also, in his book (1999: 320), Cabral mentions an old technique called "dois dedos" which employs the index and middle fingers in alternating free strokes to play melodic passages.

Despite the very rare use of the middle finger, it is accurate to state that the right hand technique in the Lisbon style is founded upon the thumb and index finger. Among the basic Lisbon techniques are the "figueta" and the "dedilho". The figueta is a technique which uses the thumb and index finger in alternation, typically the thumb plays a rest stroke and the index plays a free stroke. The dedilho is a technique for playing melodic passages with the index finger. In this technique the index finger first hits the string and then after it crosses the string changes direction and hits the string with the back of the fingernail. Great speed can be obtained with this technique. (I should mention here that the "dedillo"--which is a Spanish spelling for the Portuguese word "dedilho"-- is mentioned as early as 1536 in Luis Milan's book El Maestro written for the Spanish vihuela. For more information, see Luis Gasser's book, Luis Milan on Sixteenth-Century Performance Practice. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996). When the up and down stroke of the index is played in rapid succesion to emphasize one note, it is called "trinado" which comes from the verb "trinar" which means to waiver. This embellishment technique is very characteristic of the Lisbon style.

While long ago many players played the guitarra with their bare fingernails today nearly all players use special fingerpicks called "unhas" made of some "plastic" material such as rigid vinyl, polypropylene, acrylic, or polycarbonate. While it is possible to buy ready made finger picks, professional players usually make their own. With a little practice you can make very good unhas. You need is a pair of scissors, a small sharp crafts knife, some sandpapers (220, 400 and 600 grit), and a sheet of 0.5 or 1.0 mm "plastic" material. Simply cut the necessary outline shape, then curve the "unha" by putting it into very hot water or over a flame and bending while hot. Then, cut away the inside of the "unha" to allow inserting your finger nail. Finally, finely shape the playing edge of the unha to your requirement with sand paper or finernail files. The best way to affix the unha is with a 6mm by 100mm piece of surgical tape.

Plastic "tortoise shell" unhas affixed with surgical tape

The most prized material for unhas is tortoise shell which is very difficult to get as it is illegal to transport it internationally without special permits. Occasionally it is possible to find pieces of it in antique shops where it shows up as part of old cigarette cases, makeup cases, Victorian ladies handbags, tea trays, and grooming accessories. If you are not lucky enough to find any real tortoise shell, you can experiment making unhas of imitation tortoise shell from acoustic guitar pickguards. Sometimes it is difficult to acquire a material which has the appropriate qualities of rigidity and durability to make unhas. When good materials are scarce some players have been known to make unhas of old credit cards. For general use, however, I think that rigid vinyl (which you can buy from a commercial dealer of sheet plastics) is a suitable material.

Index finger and thumb unhas of rigid white vinyl (top 2 unhas), tortoise shell plastic unhas (index and thumb) made of pick guard material with surgical tape attached (bottom 2 unhas)

Commercially made unhas sold in Portugal which attach with elastic pull chords.


Above is my hand made version of a Lisboa style unha for the index finger. Notice that the playing edge (toward the bottom left in this photo) is somewhat squared as opposed to rounded as in the several photos above. In general, the playing edge of unhas for Lisboa players (both thumb and index) comes to a more or less square point whereas the unhas of Coimbra players are rounded following the profile of the natural nail.

These are molded fingerpicks made in the United States--I like these. They come in medium (M) or large (L) for the index finger and extra large for the thumb. Contact me if you want some. They are not traditional but work quite well. Since they follow the contour of the fingernail they are are more similiar to the Coimbra type of unha.

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