It’s easy to feel intimidated at the thought of playing “fingerstyle” guitar. For some reason, it makes the average guitarist think of classical guitarists and a repertoire of pieces for the most advanced players.
Somehow, the term “fingerpicking” sounds more inviting. It evokes thoughts of classic folk-style players like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell or, at most, eclectic finger stylists like Chet Atkins.
Whatever you want to call it, fingerpicking technique should be in every serious guitar player’s arsenal of techniques.
In this lesson, we’ll examine the fingerpicking techniques commonly found in pop, rock, folk, country, and other genres. Most of these examples—all of which are arranged for a steel-string acoustic but are certainly playable on other axes as well—are structured around a C-G-Am-F progression, in order to demonstrate the different techniques and approaches at work.
In proper fingerpicking technique, the thumb (p) usually picks strings 4-6 (the wound strings), while the remaining fingers (i = index, m = middle, and a = ring) pick the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st strings, respectively. (The pinkie [c] is rarely used in traditional fingerpicking; it is, however, called upon in flamenco-based approaches, which we’ll look at later.)
For a warm tone that really projects, most fingerpickers use a combination of fingernails and fingertips. To properly groom your nails, use a high-quality file to shape them into ovals, with each nail extending one to two millimeters past the fingertip. Once your nails are filed, you might even apply clear nail polish to both sides for added strength; this will help protect them from being shredded when you’re picking on steel strings.
For acoustic ballads and mellow pop-rock offerings, guitarists often cop piano-style accompaniment patterns, both in open (FIGURE 1A) and closed positions (FIGURE 1B). On piano, these figures are played with sustained bass notes in the left hand and chords in the right hand. Transferred to guitar, the pick-hand thumb articulates both the bass roots on strings 5-6 and broken triads on strings 2-4. Each triad’s top notes are simultaneously picked with the index and middle fingers, alternating with thumb-picked 4th-string notes. You can hear this technique in Aerosmith’s “Dream On” and No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak.”
Here is some pick-hand positioning advice: In FIGURE 1A, set your pick-hand’s wrist at a slight angle toward the strings, placing the outside edge of your thumb along the 5th string. With your fingers arched in a crescent shape, do the same with your index, middle and ring fingers on strings 3-1, respectively, contacting the strings at a slight angle where flesh and nail meet. Now pick. After your thumb sounds the 5th string, articulate the higher strings with a “trigger-squeezing” motion, bending each digit from the first knuckle only.
After picking, all of your fingers should end up in a free-floating position, so that the strings are allowed to ring. In the interest of efficiency, keep your pick hand’s fingertips as close to the strings as possible, with the hand relaxed at all times. And if your fingers get caught on the strings when picking, file your nails down a little.
Pick-hand fingers can also be used one at a time to create sustained arpeggios. In FIGURE 2, the pick hand arpeggiates eighth notes in a p-m-p-i pattern reminiscent of Lindsey Buckingham’s work in Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” Again, notice how the pick hand’s thumb, assigned to strings 4 and 5, alternates with the other fingers.
Inspired by Elliott Smith’s “White Lady,” FIGURE 3 depicts an ascending arpeggio pattern in which the thumb, index and middle fingers roll through each chord. Resist the urge to tense your right hand while your fingers roll quickly through the strings.
At the heart of acoustic-driven cuts like John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band,” and Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” lies a fingerpicking technique known as Travis picking. Named after country-guitar virtuoso Merle Travis, this style involves picking chord-tone bass notes with your thumb (or a thumbpick) and higher-string notes with your index, middle and ring fingers (FIGURES 4A–B).
FIGURES 5–6 depict advanced Travis-picking moves, with hammer-ons and pull-offs on the higher strings. Although you palm mute the bass notes in traditional Travis picking, it isn’t necessary to do so for styles like acoustic-rock and folk.
In folk-style strumming, the outside of the nails of your index, middle and ring fingers are used simultaneously to strum across the strings in a downward motion. Inspired by McCartney’s moves in the Beatles’ “Mother Nature’s Son,” FIGURE 7 contains some folk-style strumming in conjunction with thumb-picked bass notes. At slower tempos, the thumb will often pick a chord’s bass note before brushing downward across its other tones. You can hear this technique in Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender.”
A fingerpicking primer wouldn’t be complete without some flamenco guitar basics. In rasgueado (Spanish, for “strummed”) technique, your pinkie, ring, middle and index fingers (in that order) “explode” in rapid succession from a closed fist, with the fingernails raking downwardly across the strings. In flamenco playing, the index, middle and ring fingers are also used in downward strums, often in alternation with upstrokes from the thumb. FIGURE 8 combines all of these moves in one ultra-percussive frenzy.
The most interesting fingerpicking figures use an infectious hybrid of various techniques mentioned above. For example, FIGURE 9, modeled after Elliott Smith’s “Angeles,” mixes folk-style strums with rapid Travis-picked arpeggios. To play this combination, slightly alter your pick hand’s position so that its heel rests on the bridge, just behind the 6th string. This will stabilize your hand, which in turn will make it possible to reposition your fingers quickly without touching the strings for reference (an action that will stop the strings from ringing).
Another of Smith’s favorite techniques was the folk-style double strum. He used the index, middle and ring fingers in both downward and upward motions, as in FIGURE 10, which recalls “Southern Belle.” When double strumming, strive for evenness of attack and volume. Practice slowly at first, to hear the difference in sound produced by each strum, and then experiment with varying degrees of nail contact until you can get both direction’s strums to sound alike.
Add hammer-on and pull-off embellishments to your open chords (FIGURE 11) and you’ll have a sound similar to James Taylor’s in “Sweet Baby James” and “Fire and Rain.”
And if you want to soup up your fingerpicking figures with some percussive effects, check out FIGURE 12, inspired by Nuno Bettencourt’s plucking work in Extreme’s “More Than Words.” Here, the thumb, index, middle and ring fingers aggressively attack the strings on beats 2 and 4, emulating the snare drum’s role on the backbeat. Don’t replant too hard, though, or your backbeats will overpower your chords. Just remember how important the relative volumes of guitar, bass and drums are to a rhythm section’s balance.
Replanting can also be used to choke off chords immediately after they’ve been plucked, to create groovy pulsations (FIGURE 13). Here, feel free to break with traditional pick-hand technique and let your hand bounce away from the strings after each pluck.
Finally, if you’re brave enough to tackle jazz wizard Tuck Andress’ extreme fingerstyle techniques, take a stab at FIGURE 14, a passage decorated with double-stop triplet flurries on beats 3 and 4. On albums like A Gift of Love, Andress accompanies his wife, Patti, with these types of moves. Try playing this example with your pick-hand’s index and middle fingers. Keep these digits almost totally straight while fluttering them back and forth across strings 2-3, using only the fleshy part of your fingertips (no nails) to strike the strings. Andress also uses this technique to tremolo-pick chords.