I've not started learning the shamisen yet, but I'm interested. My issue is that I have messed up fingernails, and cannot grow many out at ALL. Do you actually need them to play? Can you use something on your fingers as a substitute?
Thank you for any help.
For the right hand, you use a plectrum so no need for fingernails.
The left however is different. I'm a beginner too but from what I've read / seen, it is recommended to use your nails to hold down the strings for best tone in certain situations. I've even seen figures depicting a “v” notch in the center of the fingernails to facilitate this. But from what I can tell, it's only the index, middle and ring fingers that are commonly used for left hand technique.
Personally, I don't bother with that just yet and am just focused on position accuracy, timing and volume control for now.
To build off of what Rob has said, traditionally you only do need a somewhat prominent fingernail on your left index finger, and only then just enough to be able to press down on the thinnest string (san no ito) with it. The other two strings are wound silk or nylon, and the way the strings are wound up would make it impossible to really use the fingernail anyway (sliding would sound like running your fingernail up a zipper, not pretty :p) so you don't use the fingernail there anyway. Plus, you still use the middle and third finger on that string as well without using the fingernail for certain phrases anyway, though that's mainly for kamashi and hajiki (“4300” type phrases, the name of which will make sense once you look at Tsugaru tablature and plucking with the finger for ornamentation).
What happens is that when you use the pad or tip of your finger without a nail, the tone on the thin string is a bit duller, whereas with one it makes sharper and clearer.
Eventually you do build up a “v” on that fingernail, which we call the 糸道 (itomichi) meaning “string path.” What that'll do is make it easier to get that sharper tone because the string will slide right into the itomichi and be held there more easily than if it weren't there at all. But again, this only applies to the thinnest string.
HOWEVER - you can definitely still play and enjoy the shamisen if you can't grow out a fingernail quite enough to do that. Tone is well and good but enjoyment comes first! Chances are unless you're competing or performing for fans of the genre people won't even notice the slight difference, and really that's all it is. Yes, it will sound a little bit different than recommended on phrases going up san no ito, but I don't think it'll hinder your or anyone else's enjoyment of the instrument. You only need a tiny bit of a fingernail on the left index finger to just press the string down enough for the difference, so if possible I'd say do that, but if not it's not a huge deal.
Right now my fingernail there is short from clipping it, so I just angle the finger a little bit more and I get the same tone.
For the last part, I'm not really aware of anything you could put on that finger to help, sorry. I don't really think that would be necessary, though.
I hope this helps!
Thank you for the feedback. I will probably start sometime soon.. as it is, i'm looking for local people to work with, but might have to get my learning here.