Although guitar strumming patterns can be very diverse for many purposes, even the fastest flat picker cannot match the complexity and richness of fingerpicking guitar. At some point in your playing career it makes sense to expand your abilities and learn how to play fingerstyle guitar.
This guide outlines 6 essential steps to a solid basic fingerpicking technique, which is invaluable if you want to progress to more complicated arrangements and picking patterns. The obvious difference between playing guitar with a plectrum (pick) compared to using our fingers is that, no matter how fast the plectrum moves, it can never pluck more than one string at a time.
It’s comforting to realize that even the most intricate fingerpicking arrangement, in any style of music, consists of three basic movements. The thumb can pluck a string, a finger can pluck a string or the thumb and a finger can pluck two strings at the same time (called a ‘pinch’). Incredibly, that is it! Once you learn these basic movements, with practice and time, it’s easily possible to learn some great sounding pieces and your guitar playing will come alive.
Let’s take a look at the 6 steps – a short video below the text for each step demonstrates the technique. Before we start, you need to decide if you want to play with bare fingers, use your nails or wear finger picks. All methods have their place and particular sound. Bare fingers give a warm sound, but many people prefer at least a plastic thumb pick and often one or more plastic or steel finger picks. I recommend that you experiment and your choice will be the one that feels good for you.
#1 – Hand Position & Thumb Strike for Fingerstyle Guitar
Once again, the all-important guideline for the way in which you hold your picking hand is personal choice and preference. The only general rules are that the hand is positioned close to the guitar bridge, and that it’s stable. There are two ways to give your hand position stability – by resting your pinky (or more fingers) on the sound board, or the heel of your hand just behind the saddle.
The video below demonstrates these two positions, and either choice will reap benefits later on in your playing career. In this step, we’re going to simply strike a bass note downwards with our thumb, using a G chord. Although the thumb is mostly used for the bass strings, this is not a hard and fast rule.
#2 – Striking With A Finger
Although many guitarists use more than one finger when playing fingerstyle, in the beginning it’s best to use just the forefinger. Some of the greatest fingerstyle guitarists always used just one finger, but most tend to use two. Next, we are going to pluck the high E string with an upward stroke of the forefinger, still using the basic G chord.
#3 – The Fingerpicking “Pinch”
We can either strike one string after the other, or we can pluck two strings together at exactly the same time, which is called a ‘pinch’. When playing an actual song or instrumental, the two strings that we choose to strike can be any two of the six. This depends on the picking pattern we want to create and also the chord we are fretting at that time. For this step we are still using the G chord.
#4 – Simple Fingerpicking Pattern Using Thumb & Finger Strokes
Practice this very slowly. Once it begins to flow smoothly, try changing the chord from G to C and see how it sounds. When you have this down, experiment with using different bass strings for each chord and see how it sounds. Be easy on yourself and take it slow. The thumb and fingers are not in the habit of separating their movements, so those muscles have to be trained. Most of all, have fun!
Step 5 – A Simple Pattern Using Alternate Thumb And Forefinger Strokes
In this demonstration the thumb is going to move to the 4th string after the finger strike. The basic pattern is ‘bass-string, treble-string, bass-string, treble-string’. You’ll see why this is a great exercise in the next and final step, when it all comes together! This pattern of fingerpicking where the thumb alternates between two or more bass strings is the basis of 90% of all songs using fingerstyle technique. Take your time and learn this very thoroughly – with the correct basics under your belt, you can learn anything at all by moving your fingers slowly and building up speed gradually.
Step 6 – Combining Individual Thumb And Finger Strokes With The Pinch
With fingerstyle guitar, the variety of strokes and their relationship is what makes it so appealing. There’s no strict rules here, but you will quickly get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. Even the simplest picking pattern can be a very beautiful thing once you fully grasp the basic ideas and listen carefully to the sound you produce. In this final step you are going to play a lovely melodic picking pattern in G and C. Play it very, very slowly and within a very short time you’ll be amazed at your progress.
Once you have learned these basic movements, progress to playing complete songs is much easier. The process to learning more and more complicated material can also be accelerated by learning to read and use guitar tablature. Listening to a song that you want to learn and trying to play along is also a great way to learn. Figuring out the chord progression and exactly where the fingers of both hands should go really reinforces a song’s structure in your mind and also in the muscle-memory of your fingers.
Finally, here is a powerful tip that is not often talked about with guitar students. The power of visualization is a very important factor in deciding how fast you progress. Each night before sleeping focus on seeing yourself playing as you want to. Not only see your fingers moving fluently across the strings, but feel them and hear the wonderful sound you are trying to create. Make the sensations bigger and brighter with lots of movement, like a close up video of yourself. Do this for 10 minutes each night before sleeping and I guarantee it will work wonders.