An Introduction to Fingerstyle Guitar

What do 'Led Zeppelin IV,' 'Dark Side of the Moon,' Fleetwood Mac’s 'Rumors' and The White Stripes’ 'White Blood Cells' all have in common? Healthy doses of fingerstyle guitar!
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What do Led Zeppelin IV, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors and The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells all have in common? Okay, so you don’t need to be Captain Obvious to figure out that they’re all iconic and influential rock albums. The shared bond that may not be so apparent is the fact they can all lay claim to having songs - or substantial sections of songs - that are played using a fingerstyle guitar approach. 

So if you think putting down the pick to partake in some firsthand fingertip-to-string contact is solely the domain of coffeehouse folkies, country crooners and classically trained artisans, think again. If you aspire to be a well-rounded player and want to tap your guitar’s full creative and orchestrative potential, you’ll need to get your fingerstyle chops together.


Let’s start by learning the symbols for our picking hand fingers. They are derived from Spanish and go like this:

p (pulgar) = thumb
i (indice) = index
m (medio) = middle
a (anular) = ring

(It’s rare to see a picking-hand designation for the pinky, but if you do, it’s [c] for “chico” or “chiquito.”)

Fingerstyle technique as approached from a classical vantage point can be a strict and demanding discipline to learn, but when seen from a pop/rock/folk perspective it becomes just a matter of adhering to a few simple guidelines.

As a general rule of thumb, your thumb (p) is responsible for sounding the three lowest strings, while your index (i), middle (m), and ring (a) are in charge of the third, second and first strings respectively.

Now imagine your thumb and fingers are traveling in lanes of opposing highway traffic. Have your hand angled so that your thumb is traveling southeast and your fingers are heading northwest to avoid any head-on collisions.

Keep your hand reasonably flat and situated a few inches above the strings, somewhere near the edge of the sound-hole. After striking the strings with your fingertips, curl them in towards your palm as if you’re drawing the sound out of the guitar.

Lastly, keep your hand, wrist, and forearm locked in place - your fingers will be doing all the work here.


Let’s start with a simple Em chord arpeggio pattern as shown in Ex. 1a. Notice how your thumb will be alternating bass notes between the sixth, fifth and fourth strings in each succeeding measure. Practice this and Ex. 1b - a four-beat pattern with identical alternating bass notes - with a metronome or a drum loop until they are permanently encoded into your hand’s muscle memory.

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Country music legend Merle Travis is credited with popularizing the picking technique that bears his name. Truth be told, Travis Picking is not necessarily a specific pattern but more of a generalized approach that involves alternating bass notes sounded by the thumb against a syncopated banjo-like rolling pattern, usually played by the index and middle fingers. Travis and other masters of the style such as Chet Atkins and Thom Bresh developed their skills to a mind-blowing degree of sophistication and their music is worth investigating.

Let’s get a taste of some basic Travis picking by copping the alternating eighth-note bass pattern on an A major chord repeatedly sounding the fifth then fourth strings in succession as shown below in Ex. 5a. Interspersed between this steady stream of pulgar power, we’ll add treble notes grabbed by the middle finger on the second string and index finger on the third string, and applied to the same static A major chord in Ex. 5b.

Get it rolling fast enough, then test-drive it on Ex.6, a progression stylistically reminiscent of Paul Simon’s approach on “The Boxer” or Nancy Wilson’s accompaniment to Heart’s “Dreamboat Annie.” For more of a country-western or bluegrass feel, try palm muting the thumbed bass notes.

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For the last stop on our fingerstyle joyride we’ll take Ex.3a’s pinch and incorporate it into a Travis picking pattern. Ex. 7 - a popular spin on this technique - has the pinch sounded as an eighth-note on the first and third beats, while the Travis roll pattern is played in sixteenth-notes similar to our previous examples. Listening to Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” will help you catch the vibe. 

When counting out the rhythm, make sure you hold the pinch through the “e” of the “one-e-and-a” of beats one and three to get the pattern to feel right, then let Ex. 8 roll right off your fingertips!