While musicians often opt for flatpicking guitar styles, which is the kind of guitar playing requiring a pick, many artists have tossed their respective picks aside and played fingerstyle songs for eclectic takes. Fingerstyle guitar playing can sound quite different than when it’s played with a pick.
From Jeff Buckley’s soft arpeggios in ‘Hallelujah’ to James Taylor’s signature hammer-ons and pull-offs in ‘Fire and Rain,’ here is an inspiring mix of the best fingerpicking songs.
Blackbird – The Beatles
Paul McCartney wrote ‘Blackbird’ while studying transcendental meditation. The acoustic guitar-based fingerpicking song came to be one of many moving popular pieces associated with the civil rights movement. The lyrics focus on love as only the sound of a bird can be heard alongside McCartney’s voice, guitar, and foot tapping to keep time.
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Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right – Bob Dylan
An intimate ballad written while folk singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was going through a rough spot in a relationship, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ focuses on trying to find the words to make oneself feel better. Dylan wrote the mellow track after his girlfriend left for a long period to study abroad in Italy.
Related: Here are the best songs that make you think about thinking.
Shape of My Heart – Sting
After guitarist Dominic Miller played a melodic guitar riff for Sting, it put him in an introspective frame of mind. Soon, he found himself walking in the woods, writing the lyrics to a song that put him in a rare position of co-writing. Gentle on instrumentation, ‘Shape of My Heart’ features a gambler of philosophy betting on his perceived laws of the universe.
We’re Going to Be Friends – The White Stripes
Reminiscing about innocent schoolyard days, Jack White never released ‘We’re Going to Be Friends’ as a single with his duo The White Stripes. Despite this, the song scored a placement on the indie film Napolean Dynamite, which became a surprise success. Its inclusion in the film has made it one of the group’s most downloaded songs.
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Fast Car – Tracy Chapman
A breakout hit for songwriter Tracey Chapman, her soulful voice paired with layers of sweeping guitar riffs and rhythms creates a yearning feeling for listeners of ‘Fast Car.’ Chapman’s lyrics remain hopeful despite the protagonist’s position. The main character wishes to break free from hard living, and her boyfriend’s fast car symbolizes the freedom she dreams about.
Related: Race over to our list of songs about vehicles.
Tears in Heaven – Eric Clapton
Blues musician Eric Clapton wrote this song after his young son tragically died. He took a break from music to grieve, but after some time, his fellow musician-friends encouraged him to channel his grief into his art. The deeply personal track honoring his late son appears in the ’92 film Rush.
Related: This song features on our playlist of music about tragedies.
Good Riddance – Green Day
A rare ballad for the mainstream punk band Green Day, Billy Joe Armstrong’s honest lyrics accompanying simple acoustic rhythm guitar give a slight, grief-laden air to ‘Good Riddance.’ The moral of the song is life is unpredictable, and you can’t foresee the future, so have a good time while you can.
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Nothing Else Matters – Metallica and San Francisco Symphony
A strings section accompanies this Metallica fan-favorite. The classic power ballad featuring moving guitar work, from melodies to solos, is about constantly traveling and living life on the road while being terribly homesick.
The Boxer – Simon & Garfunkel
Folk duo Simon & Garfunkel tackles the toll criticism takes on a performer with ‘The Boxer.’ Their much-used 8-track recorder had to be replaced with a beefed-up 16-track recorder due to the nature of the song. It was recorded in a few places, including St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University. The tile work and dome architecture provided a swell of beautiful acoustics. Overall, the duo spent more than 100 hours recording the single.
Related: You can hear this song on our list of music about underdogs.
Road Trippin’ – Red Hot Chili Peppers
Frontman Anthony Kiedis was inspired to write ‘Road Trippin” after taking a leisurely drive up the pacific coast highway. The bonding moment represented a transition for him with the band. He often felt left out in their earlier days, and he covers this in their popular tune, ‘Under the Bridge.’ For this track, they went for a slightly orchestral feel by utilizing the sounds of an organ.
Related: Our list of music about traveling will make you want to hit the road.
Landslide – Fleetwood Mac
Stevie Nicks’ haunting vocals empower the memorable lyrics to Fleetwood Mac’s early single ‘Landslide.’ Now a staple in their repertoire, Nicks wrote the tune before she joined Fleetwood Mac in the early ’70s when her parents encouraged her to give her music career six more months before quitting. With the weight of her decision on her mind, she wrote this song with Lindsey Buckingham with just a piano and guitar on hand in less than a half hour.
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Black Water – The Doobie Brothers
Label execs didn’t think the swampy ‘Black Water’ was hit material in the making. Despite this, The Doobie Brothers still included it on their What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits album in ’74. With lyrics focused on the band’s fascination with the Mississippi River, it charted at number one just a year later.
Related: Swim over to our list of songs about a river.
Everybody Hurts – R.E.M.
With a focus on Michael Stipes’ vocals, R.E.M. went minimalistic with the recording of ‘Everybody Hurts,’ an emotional, hopeful tune with an anti-suicide message. The band’s former drummer, Bill Berry, wrote it before exiting due to their demanding workload. Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones produced a strings section accompanying Stipes’ vocals. This song is often played by beginner guitar players because of its simple fingerpicking pattern that’s easy to pick up.
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Let It Go – James Bay
“Tryna push this problem up the hill when it’s just too heavy to hold.” Included on his debut album Chaos and the Calm, English songwriter James Bay’s ‘Let It Go’ chronicles life’s ups and downs and how people need to shrug off problems instead of trying to fix what can’t be mended.
Related: Letting go is hard. Listen to these songs about ending a relationship.
Just Breathe – Pearl Jam
Frontman Eddie Vedder produced the soundtrack for the 2007 film Into the Wild. A single chord from one of the movie’s songs, ‘Tuolumne,’ was enough inspiration for Vedder to create the Pearl Jam tune ‘Just Breathe.’ The song’s lyrics focus on Vedder asking the listener to take a moment and be one with the world.
Related: Take a breather and enjoy the best breathing songs.
Fire and Rain – James Taylor
Guitarist James Taylor’s unique playing style is front-and-center with his popular track ‘Fire and Rain’ which finds him reflecting on the highs and lows throughout his career. Taylor’s use of hammer-ons, pull-offs, and open chords give this piece its earthy yet lofty feel. Other instrumentation, like the piano, was kept simple due to Taylor’s impressive guitar chops at the forefront of the recording.
Related: Check out our hot list of the best songs with the word fire.
Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley
A wave of emotions takes hold of the listener with ‘Hallelujah,’ a Leonard Cohen original resurrected by Jeff Buckley before his untimely passing. Buckley’s version features his tender, unfiltered voice backed by lone electric guitar arpeggios. Biblical symbolism is present throughout the lyrics as love, religion, and humanity’s darker side are explored.
Related: This is one of the best memorial songs to use at funerals.
Clocks – Coldplay
Frontman Chris Martin wrote ‘Clocks’ in just 15 minutes while jamming out solo in the band’s studio. Their producer loved it so much that they changed the release date of their album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, pushing it two months so the song could be included on the track listing. Its contents deal with being in an intense, tortured relationship while time ticks away.
Related: Are you keeping up with the time? Here are the best songs about clocks.
More Than Words – Extreme
Rock band Extreme took a break from their high-powered sound to record the acoustic ballad ‘More Than Words,’ released in 1990. Penned by bandmates Gary Cherone and Nuno Bettencourt, the unrequited love song finds them contemplating romantic relationships and wishing girlfriends wouldn’t use the term “I love you” in such a halfhearted way.
Related: Head over to our playlist of songs about the importance of words.
Going to California – Led Zeppelin
An easygoing groove written by the band in ’71, Jimmy Paige headed up the instrumentation effort for the west coast-themed ‘Going to California.’ Robert Plant’s lyrics center around the band wishing they could get back to the “flower power” days of their counter-culture movement when love was the answer to everything.
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Tenerife Sea – Ed Sheeran
UK-born pop singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran noticed his girlfriend’s eyes were the color of the ‘Tenerife Sea’ featured in a work of art he admired. No stranger to writing romantic tracks, he executed his proven love song formula once again. After a bad experience at an awards show, the song took more shape, and it came to be about being in a room full of people but having only the love of your life on your mind.
Related: Sail away to our list of songs with lyrics about the sea.
Dust in the Wind – Kansas
The wife of Kansas guitarist Kerry Livgren is why the band scored their hit ‘Dust in the Wind.’ The band’s label was searching for another chart-topper after their viral ‘Carry on Wayward Son.’ While Livgren was at home working on guitar scale exercises, his wife suggested he mess around with writing lyrics to the scales. This produced the gentle, grief-stricken ‘Dust in the Wind,’ a poignant, rare ballad for the band.
Related: You’ll want to hear the best songs with wind in the title.
Classical Gas – Mason Williams
Not just your average instrumental song, Mason Williams’ ‘Classical Gas’ is big and ambitious. A classical piece with a modern take, standard instruments such as piano and guitar are filled out by a dynamic orchestra. Williams wrote the song as “fuel” for fans of classical works.
Leaving on a Jet Plane – John Denver
Written while thinking about the mixed emotions one has while leaving loved ones to go on the road, John Denver wrote this song when he was 33 years old before embarking on a solo musical journey. Peter, Paul, and Mary’s rendition of the angsty track became a hit and charted all the way to number one in America.
Related: Take flight with our airplane songs playlist.
Love Yourself – Justin Bieber
Pop star Justin Bieber only needed his voice and guitar for ‘Love Yourself,’ a song that represented him returning to his roots when it was just himself and his instrument playing for a few people on the street. The lyrics explore an abusive relationship and one’s emancipation from toxic behavior. The hit went all the way to number one in both the UK and the US.
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Let Her Go – Passenger
This slow-building track has a lengthy intro before going straight into the chorus. As the singer details the wide-ranging emotions of a tough breakup, the instrumentation is slowly introduced to build intensity. Mike Rosenberg, who goes by the stage name Passenger, wrote this song after playing to a tough crowd at a college bar and leaving the stage feeling defeated. After the gig, the lyrics to the song came easily as he took a moment to work through his emotions.
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Mister Sandman – Chet Atkins
A dreamy early ’50s tune written by Pat Ballard, Chet Atkins covered ‘Mister Sandman’ in 1954. The overall instrumentation is gentle, driving home the dreamlike feel, while the female vocals give off a chorus effect and feel otherworldly. The modern eerie take many have of the song is fueled by its inclusion in the Halloween horror film franchise.
Is There Anybody Out There? – Pink Floyd
Introductory CB radio sound design paints a lonely picture as the haunting vocal line “is there anybody out there?” is dramatically phased in and out. Non-distinct, alien sounds are panned from left to right for the mostly instrumental track. Many Pink Floyd fans who relate to the tune feel it’s a perfect description, both musically and vocally, of depression.
Suzanne – Leonard Cohen
Though ‘Suzanne’ was written about Leonard Cohen’s friendship with dancer Suzanne Verdal, many speculated the two were romantically connected after its release. On a deeper level, the longing lyrics and water symbolism represent the tides that bind people together and just as easily push them apart.
Related: This song is on our list of the best folk songs of all time.
Bloom – The Paper Kites
“You fill my lungs with sweetness. You fill my head with you.” An indie rock song certified platinum after its release, ‘Bloom’ is a poetic confession of one’s adoration of a partner in love note form. The song appears on their independently released 2011 EP, Woodland.
Homeward Bound – Simon & Garfunkel
An unorthodox folksy love song written by Paul Simon after his return to England, his romantic interest Kathy Chitty inspired this rhythmic number as well as several other Simon & Garfunkel tunes. The lyrics explore a return to home and a wish to settle down with someone amid life’s obligations.
Related: Whether you’re headed home or really miss it, you’ll love these best songs about home and family.
Stop This Train – John Mayer
Singer-songwriter John Mayer trades in his electric guitar for a bright acoustic in this song. Featuring single-string slides incorporated into a rolling picking pattern, Mayer sings about the inevitable passing of time as a soft, train-like backbeat supports his reflective vocals.
No Surprises – Radiohead
“No alarms and no surprises.” A modern rock lullaby at heart, this Radiohead ballad contains dark lyrics that tackle frontman Thom Yorke’s disillusionment with society and its lack of ability to change. The band loves playing the languid tune after harder tracks like ‘Climbing Up the Walls’ at live shows to create an intense duality for the crowd.
Lewis & Clark – Tommy Emmanuel
Australian-born guitarist Tommy Emmanuel is known for his intricate, effortless fingerstyle playing ability and common use of percussive techniques on his six-string. Emmanuel’s music brings forth his zest for life in instrumental form. With ‘Lewis & Clark’ in particular, the entirety of the universe feels wrapped up inside one song as he explores the Darwinian essence of life.
Time in a Bottle – Jim Croce
The 1972 number one hit ‘Time in a Bottle’ was written after Jim Croce found out his wife was pregnant with their first child, A.J., who would go on to become a musician as well. Jim Croce tragically died in a plane crash shortly after this single was released. With lyrics focusing on trying to stall time by trapping it in a bottle, the wishful tune became Croce’s signature song after his untimely passing.
Naked as We Came – Iron & Wine
Appearing on the album Endless Summer Days, solo performer Iron & Wine unapologetically tackles life and death with his honest track ‘Naked as We Came.’ The songwriter uses an aging couple to illustrate the importance of finding true love and remaining together for life instead of accumulating things you can’t take with you when you go.
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I Won’t Give Up – Jason Mraz
Pop singer Jason Mraz pens another catchy love song with his slow-moving but rhythmic track ‘I Won’t Give Up.’ Professing his undying love and dedication to a partner, he uses tried-and-true mic’d-up acoustic guitar, drums, and soulful bass for this popular 2012 single.
Streets of London – Ralph McTell
Folk busker Ralph McTell spent many days singing on the streets while traveling throughout Europe. Through his music, he got to know people from all walks of life. His tender song ‘Streets of London’ highlights the stark differences between the struggling homeless population of England versus the problems of those with money.
Related: Our playlist of music about London will make you want to take a trip there!
Budapest – George Ezra
“My house in Budapest. My hidden treasure chest.” When George Ezra spent several months backpacking through Europe, he gathered plenty of inspiration for new music. One of the songs to come out of his trip was ‘Budapest,’ which joyfully encapsulates his vision of a perfect home nestled in the beautiful city. However, despite the success of the single, as it turns out, he never set foot in Budapest. He simply thought it would be a good setting for the tune.
Related: See this song on our list of songs with city names in the title.
Little Black Submarines – The Black Keys
In this song, the protagonist battles a broken heart while symbolically trying to find his way back to his girl. The tune is a perfect representation of the blues-rock duo’s signature style. For the recording, Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney played live in the studio, letting Auerbach’s guitar and Carney’s drums bleed into each other’s mics during single takes. This song appeared on their 2011 album, El Camino.
Blindsided – Bon Iver
“The end of a bloodline, the moon is a cold light.” Agony fills Bon Iver’s heavy track ‘Blindsided’ as the musician uses open-ended lyrics referencing the inability to cope with crippling news. Left to interpretation, listeners often relate the song to being blindsided by a breakup or by finding out a partner has cheated.
Related: It’s tough to let go of someone. Check out these love songs about breaking up.
Heartbeats – José González
“One night of magic rush. The start a simple touch.” Swedish singer-guitarist José González delivers a beautiful rendition of indie group The Knife’s soul-stirring tune ‘Heartbeats’ with only his guitar and voice. The deeply moving track artistically describes the wave of emotions two people experience while falling in love.
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Behind Blue Eyes – The Who
Anger, sadness, and confusion are just a few of the emotions Pete Townsend explored in this song. Partly autobiographical, the song began as a prayer he wrote one night in a backstage dressing room after having an aggressive encounter with a groupie. Despite the constant temptation, Townsend refused to lead the traditional life of a rockstar,, creating a lot of tension within him while away from home on tour.
Related: This song is on our list of songs with blue eyes in the lyrics.
Love Theme from The Godfather – Nino Rota
Pianist and composer Nino Rota wrote this instrumental piece for the hit ’72 film The Godfather. Ultimately, lyricist Larry Kusik put words to the music and transformed the song into the single ‘Speak Softly, Love.’ Musician Andy Williams released the most popular version of the track, which charted all the way to 34 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Safe & Sound – Taylor Swift and The Civil Wars
Prior to The Civil Wars’ breakup, they found a hit song in their 2011 collaboration with pop star Taylor Swift for the track ‘Safe & Sound.’ This moody, acoustic number described by Swift as a “lullaby” was written by both Swift and The Civil Wars for the film adaption of the popular novel The Hunger Games.
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