Say the word fingerstyle, and most guitarists instantly think acoustic. But in fact, many electric guitarists have applied fingerstyle technique to their playing, including performers ranging from Chet Atkins to Ry Cooder.
In this lesson, we’re going to explore some of the benefits that fingerstyle technique offers and see how three of the finest electric fingerstyle players grounded in blues — Freddie King, Mark Knopfler and Jeff Beck — have made the plectrum-less approach a key part of their unique style. We’ll explore various examples of each guitarist’s musical vocabulary and signature approach, using licks and riffs that you can employ in your own playing. Regarding the music notation, we’ll use the traditional classical format of indicating thumb as (p), first finger as (i), second as (m), third as (a) and fourth as (c). While we recommend the fingerings and picking options presented here, experiment with others to see what works best for you.
Whether you play acoustic or electric, fingerstyle technique affords you several technical advantages. Chord playing can be highly controlled when fingerpicked, and the ability to manage the attack of strings individually with your fingers and sound the notes of a chord simultaneously, as keyboardists often do, can add a new level of dynamics and expression to your riffs and solos. With good fingerpicking technique, phrasing across strings and even complex string-skipping patterns become much more efficient and thus easier to execute. Sweeping — a quick, one-note-per-string arpeggiation — can be easily performed with the thumb, and cool-sounding piano-and organ-like double-stops and chords are suddenly much easier to control, in terms of suppressing unwanted sounds on unused strings.
Freddie King had a raw and brilliantly intuitive playing style, for which he used a plastic thumb pick and a metal first-finger pick, allowing him to achieve quite an aggressive finger attack. Whether you like to attach picks to your fingers or not, there are loads of great moves to learn from this fiery blues master. Ex. 1 shows a classic King-style riff. Try using your thumb to strum the E13 chords and pick the 6th intervals with your thumb and first or second finger. Notice the nimble execution of staccato (short, clipped) articulations at the top of bar 3, as indicated by the small dots above the notes. Start out slowly, and play through the example with as relaxed a feel as possible.
Ex. 2 takes its harmonic framework from the last four bars of a 12-bar blues progression in the key of A. The idea involves a riff-y melodic motif that moves along with the V and IV chords, using a strong thumb-and-first-finger combination between the second and third strings. Try using your first two fingers (or the middle two) to pluck the double-stops in the last half of bar 3.
Next up is the instantly recognizable style of Dire Straits founder and highly accomplished fingerstyle guitarist Mark Knopfler. His smooth and dynamic soloing style is all about fingerpicking, allowing him to effortlessly incorporate melodic arpeggiations and chord embellishments. Knopfler began playing on acoustic guitar, learning all the folk-picking patterns, which he then transferred to his modern distorted blues-rock electric guitar playing, using his own variation on the “clawhammer” style.
The powerful double-stop riffing in Ex. 3 can be executed to great effect using the pick hand’s first two fingers on the B and high E strings, respectively, leaving the thumb to pick the notes on the G string. You can also use the thumb to pick some of the notes on the B string, if you feel so inclined. In any case, make sure your picking attack is punchy and that the notes in each double-stop are attacked at the same time.
Ex. 4 reveals a cool riffing technique that combines picking power chords as double-stops, using the index and middle fingers, along with picking single notes — including barely audible ghost notes — with your thumb. This technique can really help turn an ordinary riff into one that sounds extraordinary.
The B minor passage in Ex. 5 demonstrates how using legato and fingerpicking together can give you a smooth, yet highly dynamic sound. Combine either the first two fingers or the thumb and index finger for the consecutive articulated (non-legato) notes. For the smoothest possible attack on any note, using your thumb’s flesh will work best, and a little nail on the picking fingers can add definition to a note’s attack, when you want it. For bar 3, alternating between the thumb and first finger will work nicely.
Ex. 6 entails the use a capo on the fourth fret but, with a slight change of fingering, can easily be performed without a capo. The rule here is to use thumb-index-middle for the three-note groups played across three strings, and then combine thumb and index for the rest to create a smooth flow. Make sure you practice this figure slowly at first to ensure that your timing is solid.
Last up, let’s explore some of the fingerstyle moves of the legendary Jeff Beck, one of the world’s most technically and stylistically unique players. Beck’s signature sound is in no small part due to his fingerpicking technique. Having thrown away his plectrum years ago, the guitarist combines his highly evolved, multi-finger articulation approach with innovative whammy-bar use and an adventurously creative spirit that’s fundamental to his instantly recognizable guitar voice.
A good deal of the speed and accuracy necessary for Beck’s fingerstyle technique comes from a highly developed coordination between the thumb and first finger The added dimension with Beck is that he will often involve his Strat’s whammy bar at the same time. Ex. 7 incorporates all of these elements. Use thumb, index and middle for the three-note figure across three strings. The fragment finishes with a textbook example of Jeff’s aforementioned speedy thumb and index combination. Ex. 8 can actually be performed almost exclusively with the thumb. Both the introductory sweeping motion and the general dynamic intensity lends itself well to thumb usage. For great contrast to the smoothness of the thumb, pluck the last two notes of bar 2, as well as the following note, with your index finger, forcefully pulling the string outward so that it aggressively snaps back against the fretboard upon being released. Finish at bar 4 with a strong thumb sweep and slide.
Next up, Ex. 9 showcases the dynamic range you can attain with thumb picking. Combining muted “dead” notes and a D9 chord, we get louder and louder in each bar, using the thumb exclusively. Notice how the pitchless dead notes are created solely by fret-hand muting. Take your time getting that staccato technique to sound nice and short. Lastly, let’s keep our thumb in action by sweeping it across the strings for the first three notes in Ex. 10. For the double-stops, try using the index finger on the first string and the thumb for the lower strings. This “claw” formation also works great when picking the classic-sounding sixth intervals across the G and high E strings.
Remember, great tone lies at your fingertips. Dig into these examples until you have the techniques well in hand, and then get out there and nail it! We’ll be back again next month to explore more techniques and examples in the styles of Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks.