So once again, all your picks have mysteriously vanished into the twilight zone. You gaze down at your empty hand and wonder if you’ll ever strum again 😔

Wait! Did you know it’s possible to play guitar without that little piece of plastic?

“But isn’t fingerpicking just for acoustic ballads? I want to play FAST!”

Some of the speediest guitarists use fingerpicking – with the help of this article, and a little practice, you’ll soon be one of them!

Today we’ll give you:

  • An overview of basic fingerpicking terminology.
  • Some useful exercises for both hands.
  • Tips and techniques to develop fast and accurate fingerpicking.

But before we go any further, we need to do some…

Warm-up stretches

It’s always a good idea to start your practice session with some gentle hand stretches – especially if building speed is your goal.

  • As with any physical activity, you want to give your muscles and joints time to warm up before pushing them to perform at a higher level.
  • This is especially important for fingerpicking, as it’s much more demanding than simply holding a pick.

Check out our finger stretches guide for a great routine that you can do before each practice session.

Picking hand: Motor skills

This first exercise is a great warm-up and also perfect for building muscle memory.

  • No need to think about the fretting hand – this entire drill is on the open E string.
  • Play through with the thumb (T), ring (3), middle (2), and index (1) fingers – in that order.
  • Pluck the string three times with each finger.

Focus on achieving a consistent tone, volume, and tempo throughout. Pay extra attention to this when switching between fingers.

You can apply this exercise to each string on the guitar to give your picking hand a real workout!

What fingers go on which string?

While we’re still focused on our picking hand, let’s learn about finger placements.

  • The thumb covers the lowest three strings (E, A, D)
  • The index plucks the 3rd string (G)
  • The middle plucks the 2nd string (B)
  • The ring plucks the 1st string (e)

This is the classical form, but it’s not set in stone – feel free to experiment. Sometimes other finger placements will feel more natural depending on what you’re playing.

Long nails 💅

A common question beginners ask about fingerpicking is – should I grow my nails?

There isn’t a yes or no answer, it’s really up to you.

  • It’s quite common for dedicated fingerstyle guitarists to grow their nails.
  • It does make a difference in terms of feel and tone.

It’s not a requirement – many guitarists fingerpick well with short nails.

Fretting hand: Finger independence

One of the most crucial abilities for any guitarist is finger independence. This is particularly important if you’re playing unaccompanied, as you’ll often need to cover both the chords and the melody simultaneously.

Luckily, there's a simple and effective way to build on this skill.

  1. Start by lightly placing your fingers along the high E string like so:
  • Index finger on the 1st fret
  • Middle finger on the 2nd fret
  • Ring finger on the 3rd fret
  • Pinky on the 4th fret
  1. Now, press down on the frets one at a time, starting with the index finger.
  2. As you press down, make sure the other fingers remain just above the string (not touching) - don’t let them fly away!
  3. Move on to the middle finger and do the same again.
  4. Be sure no other fingers are touching the string – just hovering slightly above it.
  5. Continue ascending and descending until you feel comfortable.
  6. When you’re ready, move to the next string and repeat the process.

This is the exercise that just keeps giving! There are a ton of possible variations.

  • You don’t need to stick to 1234 - 4321.
  • Once it feels too easy, randomize the fret order for more of a challenge, e.g. 3142 - 2413
  • You can also move this exercise up the fretboard and across strings.

Bonus challenge

Try this one out if you really want to tame that rebellious pinky finger!

  1. Use one finger per fret (like the previous exercise) and work your way up from 1 to 4.
  2. Keep all your fingers pressed down on each fret.
  3. Now move over to the next string one finger at a time – starting with the index finger.

Sounds easy, but it’s surprisingly tricky at first. Focus on keeping all of your fingers fixed in place while moving only one at a time.

Practice to a tempo

This seems more like an obvious rule than an exercise, but we often overlook the most obvious (and important) factors when practicing.

Having a steady pulse keeps us engaged and present – it’s much harder to drift off track when there’s a click pushing you along.

The benefits go beyond just staying focused. Using a metronome

  • Improves overall accuracy
  • Helps build speed over time
  • Prepares you for playing with other musicians

Use our free metronome if you don’t have one to hand.

  • Whatever you practice, remember to start slowly and increase the tempo gradually.
  • Don’t try to go faster until you can hit each note smoothly.
  • Concentrate on keeping your technique relaxed it’s common to tense up when we feel rushed.

Hammer ons and pull offs

One way to play a string of notes more quickly, is by using hammer ons and pull offs.

The following exercise demonstrates how to add color to basic chords by hammering on or pulling off certain notes around the shape.

  1. For bars 1 and 2, hold the open Dmaj shape.
  2. Fingerpick each note until you get to the high E string.
  3. Then use your pinky finger to hammer on the 3rd fret, then pull off back to the 2nd fret.
  1. For bars 3 and 4, hold the open Cmaj shape.
  2. Fingerpick each note until you get to the high B string.
  3. Then use your pinky finger to hammer on the 3rd fret, then pull off back to the 1st fret.

Like the other exercises in this article, aim to create a uniform sound across all notes. Focus on making the hammer ons and pulls off sound clean and land on the beat.

Try to decorate other chord shapes in this way, and experiment with your own picking patterns.


There we go! That’s plenty to get you started on your fingerpicking journey.

  • After building some basic muscle memory you can move on to more complex picking patterns.
  • The same goes for the fretting hand – working on finger independence will make things like hammer ons and pull offs much easier.
  • If you practice all of these exercises to a tempo, you’ll be able to monitor your progress and build speed over time.

Want to learn fingerpicking from an absolute pro? Check out Fingerstyle Learning Pathway.

You’ll be guided through all the core principles with daily lessons and exercises, as well as personalized feedback from pro guitarists on the Pickup team!

If you’ve never checked out Pickup Music before, you can explore the site with a 14-day free trial too! 🎁

Author: Richard Spooner