Fingerpicking: Let Your Fingers Do the Talking

An introduction to fingerpicking for flatpickers who've resisted putting down the plectrum for years.
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The hands of a beginning guitarist are like a couple learning to dance, with one member of the team always straying ahead of the other.

Every guitarist knows that the fret hand gets the brunt of the workload at first. It’s not until a fair share of chords, scales and melodic patterns are learned that the picking partner gets its due attention.

Guitarists in the classical tradition get a good jump on using both hands equally, but if you’ve begun your musical promenade as a flatpicker, years may go by before you put the plectrum down and begin fingerpicking.

We’ll, let’s not let another dance go by. The clock is ticking, and your pick hand awaits.

FOLLOW THE FINGERPRINTS
Just as dance studios lay out footprints telling you where to step, fingerstyle music notation often adds clues to inform your fingers. Using abbreviations from their Spanish names, the thumb is identified as p (pulgar), the index as i (indice), the middle as m (medio) and the ring as a (anular). These letters will appear beneath the appropriate notes.

The notes played with the thumb are written with the stems pointing downward, whereas those played with the fingers have their stems pointed upward. The rhythms of each part are frequently written separately, as it often helps to consider each rhythm individually.

GREET YOUR PARTNER
To get comfortable with aligning the fingers and the strings, let’s start by working with FIGURE 1.

FIGURE 1

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Begin by assigning your index finger to the 3rd string, your middle finger to the 2nd, and your ring finger to the 1st. The thumb will play any of the three lower strings. For the first measure, align it with the 6th string.

With each finger touching the appropriate string, your hand should be in a relaxed, slightly curled shape. Avoid resting your forearm or pinkie on the face of the guitar, as this will mute the tone of an acoustic instrument and limit the range of your technique.

Now pluck all four strings simultaneously using a kind of squeezing motion between your thumb and fingers, and pull all digits toward the palm of your hand.

Now, repeat the first measure of FIGURE 1, making sure that all four strings are ringing evenly. Give special attention to your fingertips. Let them hover over the assigned strings between attacks, rather than resting them on the strings.

The second measure gives the fret hand a very simple shape to play—one finger on the 2nd string’s 2nd fret, which creates an A7 chord—while the pick-hand thumb find its way to the 5th string. Practice switching between the first two measures, focusing on the independence of the thumb, and then add measures 3 and 4.

A DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE

By establishing some independence between your thumb and three fingers, you can turn FIGURE 1 into a cool bossa nova, as in FIGURE 2. Here, both hands are dancing, and the resulting sound mimics two instruments: bass (played with the thumb) and guitar (played with the fingers).

FIGURE 2

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Next, let’s add some finger independence. In FIGURE 3, the middle and ring fingers together alternate with the index finger. The thumb keeps simple time with half notes. The pattern that emerges sounds much like a Baroque harpsichord as in Aerosmtih’s “Dream On” or No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak.”

FIGURE 3

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FIGURE 4 introduces even more prestidigitation, as it allows all three fingers and the thumb to move independently of each other. Like the last pattern, this one is great for soft ballads.

FIGURE 4

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Gaining independence among your pick-hand’s fingers is not just a matter of using the individual fingers as separate picking mechanisms; it’s also about moving the fingers from string to string. FIGURE 5 opens up a whole new world of picking possibilities by moving he picking fingers among different groups of strings. The result is a lovely, harp-like texture that would make a beautiful etude if extended to other six-string chords.

FIGURE 5

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DOING MERLE’S DANCE

Travis picking—named for country picker Merle Travis—is an exceedingly narrow door to a kingdom of riches. Guide your hands through this dance and you’ll be rewarded with patterns that not only emulate the most popular fingerpicking songs but also introduce you to the joys or ragtime and blues-based fingerstyling.

The most important aspect of Travis picking, and the first to conquer, is the stride-like bass. This part is played by the thumb and almost always consists of a pair of notes on two different strings.

Grab a G major chord in open position and begin with the pattern shown in FIGURE 6A. Take it slow—between 60 and 72 beats per minute is a good pace. This will seem easy after a couple of repetitions, but it’s imperative that you focus on the even pace of the thumb pattern as you prepare for the interlocking pattern to come.

The second step is to add the middle finger on the first of every four beats, as in FIGURE 6B.

FIGURE 6A–B

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This, too, is easy, but the slow, steady pace will prepare you for the third step, which is the one where most fingerpickers stumble.

FIGURE 6C shows the addition of the index finger between the second and third beats. Try to maintain an even, quarter note-driven thumb attack as you add this elusive eighth note to the pattern. Also, be sure that each finger is doing the right job. You don’t want to develop a freakish, it-only-works-on-this-chord pattern, where, for instance, the index finger hops over to play a bass note.

This pattern still sounds a little naked though, so the next step is to add the middle finger, again between the third and fourth beats, as shown in FIGURE 6D.

FIGURE 6C–D

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Once the pattern settles in correctly—which may take several frustrating efforts and zoned-out sessions of extended repetition—you’ll have some pretty good basic Travis picking going.

As you experiment with different chords, you should vary the thumb pattern, creating a moving bass line beneath the mosaic of higher notes. FIGURE 7 puts this into practice with the kind of chord progression that has gently propelled popular ballads for over half a century. Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” the Beatles’ “Blackbird” and Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind” are all dance-floor partners in this shuffle.

FIGURE 7

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SPLIT PERSONALITY
As promised, Travis picking offers a kingdom of possibilities for multiple independent guitar lines. Its steady bass can be the foundation for a variety of advanced styles, particularly when you free your fingers to play melodies rather than repetitive patterns. (In fact, a melodic line atop a swinging quarter-note bass pattern is more in the style of Merle Travis than the repetitive accompaniment patterns we’ve explored so far.)

FIGURE 8 is an old-timey waltz that could be either “A Bicycle Built for Two” or “The Sidewalks of New York.” Both begin with the same melody. Notice that, except for a little double-note pattern on the third beat of the third measure, the bass maintains a steady quarter-note rhythm throughout—an explicit imitation of a piano player’s left hand.

FIGURE 8

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Taking this guitar-as-piano approach further, FIGURE 9 puts some jazz-flavored chords atop a walking bass line.

FIGURE 9

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FIGURE 10 emulates the Piedmont style of acoustic blues and ragtime that guitarist Jorma Kaukonen favors.

FIGURE 10

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And be sure to keep your ears open for fingerpicking in all styles of music, from rock, metal, folk and blues to classical, flamenco, jazz and African music. It’s all right there at your fingertips.

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