Developing good fingerpicking technique requires time, focus, patience, and practice, but don’t let that put you off. This juice is worth the squeeze.
Like most techniques, it’s best to break fingerpicking down into more manageable chunks first. Luckily for you, we’re going to provide you with some excellent chunks today!
We’ll cover the basic terminology and give you some example exercises to start practicing right away.
Set a goal and make a plan
Before you start with the exercises below, make a plan. We know sitting down and practicing your guitar can be a little boring at times, so a solid plan will help keep you on track.
- Repeating scales and patterns over and over again requires discipline.
- Discipline is easier to achieve and maintain if it’s part of something bigger.
- If it’s clear to you why you’re practicing and what you want to achieve, it’ll be much easier to stay on the course and do the job.
Make a schedule for yourself where a few times a week you sit down and do these fingerstyle exercises for 20-30 minutes.
Components of fingerstyle picking
The main things you need to develop a great fingerpicking technique:
- Finger dexterity
- Fretting- and picking-hand coordination
As you move on to advanced fingerstyle playing, you’ll also need to understand harmonization, chord positions, and melodic phrases but we’ll set that aside for now.
First things first. Stretching is essential for your fingers – on both hands!
- Do some finger stretches to loosen up and be more flexible.
- You’ll have more control over how you move your fingers once they’re warmed up.
- Stretching also helps avoid injury.
It’s also important that you’re relaxed. Your picking hand should be in a comfortable position where it’s not tense as your play along the fretboard.
Finger names for guitar
To make it easier to know which finger goes where we have some handy labels.
When you’re looking at fingerpicking patterns, it’ll sometime display which finger you should use to pluck the string or note.
T - Thumb
1 - Index finger
2 - Middle finger
3 - Ring finger
4 - Pinky finger.
If you’re a classical guitarist, this is how you’ll often read each finger for the picking hand:
T – p
1 – i
2 – m
3 – a
4 – c
For simplicity, we’ll just use finger numbers for the picking hand in this article.
We’ll start by only focusing on the picking hand. After a couple of exercises, we’ll introduce the fretting hand as well.
With this exercise, you’ll familiarize yourself with using your picking hand to pluck the strings.
What you’ll do is alternate the picking finger for each note. Start with only using your Thumb (T) and your index finger (1), like this:
T - 1 - T - 1 - T - 1
- As you repeat this phrase, really make sure you pluck each string with precision and accuracy to get a good tone.
- A good tone is round and soft, rather than harsh and piercing.
Pay attention to the angle of your hand and wrist – try to keep a comfortable and consistent position.
Next, you’ll add one more finger, so the plucking pattern will be this:
T - 1 - 2 - 1 - T - 1 - 2 - 1 - T
Lastly, we’ll do the same with the ring finger added.
T - 1 - 2 - 3 - 2 - 1 - T - 1 - 2 - 3 - 2 - 1 - T
- It’ll take a little time to build up natural coordination between the fingers.
- Focus on each finger and each note.
- Make sure each string is plucked with precision and sounds clean.
This next exercise will be the same pattern but across several strings. We want to build finger independence and control.
- Some fingers are stronger than others and may pluck the string harder.
- Try to avoid these unintentional changes in volume.
- Aim to make each pluck sound consistent.
Here is the second exercise. By playing this, you’re also playing the intro to Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters:
The picking hand should be set up on the strings like this:
- Thumb on low E
- Index finger on G
- Middle finger on B
- Ring finger on high e
We recommend you play along to a metronome. You can find our free online metronome here.
- Metronomes are the best tool for working on timing.
- Start with a slow tempo and gradually increase it as you get more comfortable.
- Rushing it will only lead to sloppy playing and bad habits.
As you see, the thumb is playing the bass note. More often than not, that will be job the of the thumb.
You’ll generally use the thumb on the Low E, A, and D strings. There are always exceptions, but this is a good… rule of thumb 😉
Now that you have a feel for what it’s like to use your fingers, let’s try it out on some chords.
The White Stripes’ We’re Going to Be Friends is another great song for beginner fingerpicking guitar players:
Keep in mind that the thumb covers both the low E and A strings in the example below.
- It’s not crucial that you alternate between two fingers when two notes are repeated on the same string, like in the intro below.
- If you want to play the open G string with your index finger both times, that’s ok, too.
- With time you’ll develop a feel for these things and it’ll become second nature.
Use a metronome to keep you on the beat but play as slowly as you need to.
Before we move on, for a much more in depths tutorial on fingerpicking style, take a look at our membership courses – specifically Fingerstyle Learning Pathway.
Rhythm and strumming
Both strumming and fingerpicking share one core principle of rhythm – accents.
As you strum chords in a rhythm you accent certain beats, you should approach fingerpicking the same way.
- Think about the rhythmic aspects of each note.
- Try to translate the fingerpicking rhythm to strumming.
- This will help you visualize the notes differently and where the accents naturally occur.
Here are a few bars of fingerpicking. As you’re going through it, really pay attention to where the accents are.
- If you’re having trouble finding a good rhythm, strum the chords instead. Once you find a rhythm, translate it into fingerpicking.
- As you see in the tablature, you’ll play two notes on two different strings at the same time.
- Before you play through the entire piece, practice only hitting those double notes.
If you sign up for our Fingerstyle Learning Pathway we’ll guide you through all exercises with video and audio playback. You can slow down all audio demonstrations with the tabs for your convenience.
This last exercise might be tricky for beginners, so make sure you’re comfortable with the previous exercises before moving on to this one.
Here we’ll incorporate a hammer on (h) into the riff.
This is the main riff to Fast Car by Tracy Chapman
Before you start to pick the strings, figure out the rhythm and accents of the riff.
- The chords are C, G, Em, and D.
- Listen to the song, strum the chords, and find the pulse and feel of the groove.
- Once you’ve got a feel for the rhythm, translate that into the picking pattern.
Chapman’s riff is quite fast. Like before, it’s important to you start slowly and play to a metronome.
Should I grow my nails for fingerpicking?
You’ve probably seen finger-style guitar players with long fingernails and wondered why they have them, and whether you need them too.
- Fingernails change the sound of the guitar and strings much like a pick does.
- When you’re not playing with fingernails, you’re using the soft part of the fingertips.
- This results in a rounder and smoother sound, compared to the sharper sound of nails.
Some guitarists prefer it, some don’t – there are picks you can buy that go on each finger if you want the sound without the hassle of growing them out.
Do I need to know music theory for fingerpicking?
Music theory will help you in all aspects of your playing – fingerpicking is no exception. When you start writing your own fingerpicking parts, it’s good to know which notes are available to you.
- This style often covers bass lines, harmony, and melody all at the same time!
- Being aware of the bass note of each chord really beneficial for this technique.
- Playing melodies through chord shapes is common too and requires understanding the relationship between chord and scale shapes.
At Pickup Music, we offer music theory courses as well as technique and genre-specific ones, and they complement each other perfectly.
Fingerpicking opens up a whole new world of options for you as a player, and not just for classical guitarists. Many electric players use fingerpicking and hybrid picking too (using a pick and fingers simultaneously).
We recommend that you go over these fingerstyle exercises a few times until you feel comfortable with them. After that, you can start experimenting and work on your own fingerpicking ideas.
If you want to dive deeper into the fingerpicking technique we suggest you sign up for our Fingerstyle Learning Pathway. In the course, you’ll get video demonstrations, tabs, resources, a schedule, a way to track your progress, quizzes, chord charts, etc.
New members of Pickup Music can sign up and get a 14-day free trial! You can explore pathways and courses before you make any final decisions.
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