Beginners often struggle with fingerpicking...
No, fingerpicking shouldn't be the FIRST thing you learn as a guitarist, but beginners are often put off, thinking fingerstyle is too hard - they see a ton of advanced fingerpicking lessons on the internet and think 'no way Jose!'
In this article I've created a true dummies guide to playing fingerstyle for beginners. Check it out...
What is Fingerstyle Guitar (or 'Fingerpicking')?
Fingerstyle guitar and fingerpicking are basically the same thing.
It’s a way of playing your guitar with fingertips, fingernails, or “finger picks” (picks attached to your fingers).
Fingerpicking is a well established standard technique for classical or nylon string guitar, but it’s seen as more of a specialized thing on steel string guitars. It’s less usual on electric guitars, with notable exceptions such as Mark Knopfler!
Nor does your guitar need to be a high quality, expensive one. There are a lot of superb affordable guitars that will sound awesome when fingerpicked. Especially with a fresh set of strings on them.
What makes fingerstyle guitar sound so amazing is the use of chords and melody at the same time, which gives the listener the feeling that he or she is hearing two guitars or even a whole band rather than than just one instrument.
Bass, harmony, melody, and percussion can all be played simultaneously when playing fingerstyle guitar.
Check out Igor Presnyakov doing just that, back when he wasn’t so famous:
Looks incredibly complicated right? Yeah, he’s pretty good, but by the end of this article I hope you’ll be inspired to have a go at some fingerstyle guitar yourself, using the techniques I’m going to describe.
We’ll take a look at some of things that might be getting in your way when you fingerpick, some of the most common fingerpicking styles and some exercises to get you up to speed.
Then you’ll be ready for some guitar tabs, some video lessons and songs you can try out your new skills on. Sound like a plan? Great! Scroll down to get started...
How To Fingerpick - The Basics
Right Hand Technique
The right hand does most of the work when it comes to fingerstyle guitar, so it's important you get the technique right from the get go.
You want to use your thumb and your first three fingers for the majority of your fingerpicking. Your pinky (small finger) is sometimes used, but let's keep it simple.
As a general rule of thumb (sorry for the pun), your fingers play the following strings when it comes to fingerstyle guitar:
- Thumb - Mainly plays the 6th, 5th or 4th string, usually alternating between them
- First Finger - plays the 3rd String
- Second Finger - plays the 2nd string
- Third Finger - plays the 1st string
The position of your hand and wrist is important to get right from the beginning too.
- Your wrist should be slightly arched
- You hand and your fingers should be also arched, in a claw-like position
- Your fingers should be to the right of your thumb
- Often players rest their pinky (little finger) just below the strings to act as a support.
Here's a good exercise to help you get to grips with it:
You've probably heard the term 'Travis Picking' used when it comes to fingerstyle guitar. Travis Picking involves playing a steady bass pattern, alternating between strings with the thumb and filling out some syncopated rhythms with your other fingers.
Think about 'Dear Prudence' on The Beatles' White Album, or Bob Dylan's classic 'Don't Think Twice It's Alright'. Both these songs incorporate the Travis picking style.
Two of our beginner patterns are actually Travis Picking, so let's take a look.
3 Fingerpicking Patterns To Get You Started
Picking Pattern #1
Let's look at a basic pattern that simple involves plucking down the strings, and alternates between the C and G chords.
Here's how you play it:
- Play the 5th string with your thumb
- Play the 3rd, 2nd and 1st string with your first, second and third fingers
- And alternate between the C and G chords
Here is the fingerstyle guitar tab:
Thanks to AcousticGuitarPlaying for this example
Picking Pattern #2
The picking pattern is also known as a 'Travis Picking' pattern, as it involves alternating the bass notes with the thumb. It take a bit more to learn, but is pretty simple and sounds awesome.
Here's how you play it:
- With your thumb, practice plucking between the 5th and the 4th string. Use a metronome set to 90bpm to get the rhythm right.
- Now in-between the bass notes played by your thumb, pluck the 2nd string with your middle finger.
- Finally, pluck the 3rd string with your index finger
Here's a fingerstyle guitar tab for this pattern:
And here's how it should sound:
Once you're comfortable playing this over the C chord, try adding a G chord and playing a couple of bars of each chord. It will take a while to get used to, and you'll have to shift your bass notes (played by your thumb) up to the 6th and 5th string.
Picking Pattern #3
Our third pattern is another travis picking pattern, but don't be put off. It's really quite straight forward once you practice it a bit:
First of all, this is what is should sound like:
Here's how you play it:
- Finger a C chord
- Alternate the bass notes (with the thumb) between the 5th and the 4th string
- Use the first finger to pluck the 3rd string
- use the 2nd and 3rd fingers to pluck the 1st and 2nd strings at the same time
Other Fingerpicking Patterns Worth Checking Out
Country Blues Fingerpicking Patterns
In our three examples, we don't use the pinky (small finger). Well, blues fingerpicking uses the pinky alot, so here's an example of a country blues fingerpicking pattern that is really fun. Check it out:
Classical guitar always uses fingerstyle guitar techniques. Here's a great little intro to the techniques used:
Which Fingerpicking Songs Should I Learn?
So which fingerstyle guitar songs are the best to learn? Well, there are thousands of great ones. My favourites is Blackbird by The Beatles.
Hope you enjoyed this article, and you're inspired to give fingerpicking a shot. Regardless of your preferred style of playing, learning guitar using the fingerstyle method we've covered above it going to add a lot to your overall playing.
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.