How to Develop Thumb and Finger Independence

This technique will be perfect when you want the feel of a big, driving rhythm section, whether you’re providing accompaniment or performing solo.
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The examples in this lesson can be played using any number of techniques, including the use of a flatpick and fingers, but they are presented here from the perspective of a player using fingers only or fingers and a thumbpick in a solo-guitar style.

We will set out to play bass lines, harmony and melodies simultaneously: a guitar version of the stride piano style popularized by Fats Waller and Art Tatum in the 1930s. 

This is the territory that Merle Travis, Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed dominated from the 1950s to the 1970s. This guitar style is proudly carried on by Tommy Emmanuel, Doyle Dykes, Richard Smith and others. Fear not, this will be (a little) easier than it sounds.

Everything Is Going To Be Fine... Now Hand Over The Pick

Step 1 in this solo-guitar excursion involves using only your picking hand’s thumb to provide a grooving rhythm and bassline. Grab yourself a cowboy C chord and play Ex. 1a using only the thumb. Employ a little palm mute to make these bass notes percussive and the attack well defined. The fingers on your picking hand are not yet involved.

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Your thumb plays a quarter-note pattern on strings five, four, six and four again. Notice that the first bass note is the root of the chord. This is the role your thumb will play throughout this lesson. When a chord’s root is located on the sixth string, the thumb pattern will be strings six, four, five, four, as in Ex. 1b.

Repetition is your friend here as we are programming this motor skill into your subconscious. In time, your thumb will play this crucial musical function as an automatic action that will not require much attention.

Let’s give this thumb-driven bassline some chords to travel through. Ex. 2 provides a simple down-home sounding chord progression.

Play slowly and keep your mind engaged: This is the secret to learning new motor skills quickly.

Why Is This Called Fingerstyle Again?

By this time, your right-hand fingers are itching to play, so let’s get them involved. Ex. 3 assigns each of your first three fingers to the top three strings: Your index finger (i) is in charge of the G string, your middle finger (m) plays the B string and the ring finger (a) gets the high E. Now we have our bassline grooving along beneath some whole-note chords.

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On beat one of each measure, the thumb plays the root while the fingers play the chord simultaneously. The rest of the bass notes in the measure are played by the thumb alone. Keep the bass notes muted so they will be well defined and won’t overpower the chords, but allow the treble strings to ring at the same time.

Assert Your Independence

Once this feels comfortable, it’s time to further separate the chords and bass notes. We’ll accomplish this by syncopating the chords. Ex. 4 adds a second chord stab between the bass notes on the and of beat two. 

If you haven’t done this before, the coordination aspect of playing this should keep you pretty occupied. Ideally, your thumb chugs along with its “boom-chick” rhythm unsupervised, allowing your conscious mind to focus on the dotted-quarter/eighth-note rhythmic figure.

Pro Tip: Play slowly, pay attention to detail, and don’t let your fingers run away with the tempo.

At this point, it’s time to allow your fingers some independence of their own. We’ll break each of our chords up into the arpeggio figure found in Ex. 5. Each bass note is accompanied by a chord tone except for beat four, which lands alone.

This all looks pretty easy on paper, right? Keep the time steady, the tempo slow and palm-mute the bass notes so they won’t overshadow the treble notes. Muting the bass notes keeps the accompaniment part in the background and accentuates the difference between the melody and the other parts.

It’s time to get some syncopation into the arpeggio now. The two-measure rhythmic figure in Ex. 6 keeps the fingers busy with their respective string assignments and places the last note in between two of our bass notes.

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When we drop this rhythm onto our chord progression in Ex. 7, things begin to sound somewhat elaborate.

For True Seekers Only

What if we take our Fig. 3 rhythm and move some beats around? Let’s keep the bass steady as she goes while shifting the melody part back by a half beat as seen in Ex. 8. Ex. 9 displaces the melody forward in time by a half beat.

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If you’ve come this far - no easy feat - you possess the basic skill set to take on a tune in this style. Let’s use the soulful theme in Ex. 10 as the basis for a funky blues. 

Deploy your newfound solo-guitar superpowers by laying in the thumb and chord changes found in Ex. 11. Like many classic blues tunes, this features a melodic theme that repeats verbatim even when the underlying harmony changes.

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Make this feel good by leaning into beats two and four to provide a solid backbeat. If you suddenly want to move side-to-side like Ray Charles then you know you’re starting to get it. Also dig the chromatically descending turnaround during the final two measures, which is reminiscent of Merle Travis and Doc Watson. Sweet, simple and to the point.

Have fun with this fingerstyle technique. It’s the perfect tool to use when you want the feel of a big, driving rhythm section, whether you’re providing accompaniment or performing solo.