Guitar Fingerstyle Picking – Learning the Basics

Guitar fingerstyle picking is a playing method used in TON of songs of a variety of musical genres. Essentially, instead of using your standard pick (or plectrum) to pluck the strings, you use your fingertips / thumb, fingernails, or finger picks / thumb pick. Fingerstyle picking employs a very different technique than using a traditional pick. With guitar fingerstyle picking, you also frequently use your thumb to pick the bass notes (low E, A, and D) while your fingers are commonly responsible for picking the remaining treble notes (G, B, and high E).

This differentiation allows guitar player’s to play much more complex arrangements that would otherwise require multiple members of a band to play. Take for instance Tommy Emmanuel, a world-renown guitarist that specializes in fingerstyle picking. As he explains in the video below, with the use of guitar fingerstyle picking he is able to sound like a 4-piece band consisting of rhythm guitar, drums, bass, and melody (i.e. vocals).

 

This article will go through the advantages and disadvantages of fingerstyle picking as well as the basics of how to get started. I’ve also included a few important exercises / fingerstyle picking patterns that should be practiced in order to get more familiar with the concept, as well as a quick quiz at the end to test your knowledge!

Pros & Cons to Fingerstyle Picking

There are a few advantages / disadvantages to fingerstyle guitar picking. Depending on what type of music you want to play, fingerstyle picking may not even be required for you to learn. However, learning how to fingerstyle pick will greatly expand your guitar playing vocabulary. Outlined below are a few pros and cons to learning this technique of guitar picking.

Pros

  • Allows you to play two non-adjacent strings simultaneously
  • Easier to play artificial harmonics
  • Allows you to play multiple melodies and rhythm sections simultaneously (as demonstrated in the video above)
  • Creates a softer / warmer sound
  • You aren’t required to carry around a pick
  • Easy to play arpeggios
  • Greater expressiveness in timbre

Cons

  • Can be damaging to fingernails (and fingers in general) depending upon the guitar and type of strings used.
  • Fingerpicking usually produces less volume than when using a pick.
  • Harder to strum chords / rhythms
  • As a beginner, using guitar fingerstyle picking may cause strings to buzz or unwanted muting

Fingerstyle Picking Finger Placements

As previously mentioned, in fingerstyle picking your thumb is used to play the bass notes while your fingers are used to play the treble notes. There is no definitive rule that says you should use a specific finger when plucking a certain string, however, generally when first learning how to use fingerstyle picking it is recommended to use the following fingers to play each string.

String Finger
Low E String Thumb
A String Thumb
D String Thumb
G String 1st Finger (Index)
B String 2nd Finger (Middle)
High E String 3rd Finger (Ring)

Some guitar fingerstyle picking players also use their fourth finger as an “anchor” of sorts. They do so by resting the fourth finger near the soundhole of the guitar. This helps keep the fingers in the right place, however, is not possible nor comfortable for everyone. Some people’s little finger may not be long enough to comfortably use it as an anchor and therefore the fourth finger, in this case, can simply float.

To Use a Pick or Not to Use a Pick?

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, fingerpicking doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t use a pick. Fingerpicking can be achieved in 1 of 3 ways:

  1. Using the flesh of your fingers or your fingernails
  2. Using finger & thumb picks
  3. Using a hybrid method of fingers and a regular guitar pick

As with many things when it comes to playing guitar, choosing whether or not to use a pick is based on personal preference. The main difference between using a pick vs not is that a pick typically produces more volume and can be faster to pluck strings (depending on your level of experience). However, you can also utilize thumb & finger picks to solve this issue. finger and thumb picksMoreover, something I tend to do quite a bit is called hybrid picking. With this method, you essentially place a normal guitar pick between your thumb and index finger and use it to play the bass notes of the guitar (Low E, A, D) same as you would if you were using your thumb. I really like using this method because it gives me a bit more volume as well as flexibility. I can be fingerpicking a portion of a song and then when it comes to the strumming section, I can quickly reposition the pick and start strumming with much more control and volume.

Guitar Fingerstyle Picking Exercises / Patterns

If you’re just starting out with fingerpicking, start by doing a few exercises with common chords you know such as G, D, or E. Make the shape of these chords with your fretting hand and then one-by-one fingerpick each string with the appropriate fingers as mentioned in the section above. Start from the top of the chord (bass notes) and then work your way down plucking each string at a time. So for example, with a G chord, you would do the following (I have marked the bottom of the tab with when you should be using your thumb or 1st, 2nd, or 3rd finger to pluck the note).

e-----------------------3---3-------------------------------------|
B-------------------0-----------0---------------------------------|
G---------------0-------------------0-----------------------------|
D-----------0---------------------------0-------------------------|
A-------2-----------------------------------2---------------------|
E---3-------------------------------------------3-----------------|
   (T) (T) (T) (1) (2) (3) (3) (2) (1) (T) (T) (T)

Once you’ve reached the bottom of the chord, start working your way back up. This is just a quick little exercise to get more familiar with the actual process of using your strumming hand to pick each string of a chord one-by-one. Again, if you’re a beginner, do this exercise for about 5 minutes each time you want to practice guitar fingerstyle picking before you start working on real patterns. Once complete, you can move on to mastering the following fingerpicking patterns.

Below, I’ve included what I believe to be a few great fingerstyle picking songs that are recommended for both guitarists who are just starting to learning how to fingerpick as well as guitarists who have been doing it for a while. I’ve included a few components within each song. Mainly, I’ve selected the key fingerpicking pattern of each song and included the tabs of said pattern. Beneath that, I’ve also added 2 audio files, 1 which plays the tab at 50% speed and the other which plays the tab at regular speed.

The patterns of each song that I included are only a small portion of the song, however, provide a pronounced factor of recognition when played with guitar fingerstyle picking. Furthermore, for those who not only want to learn the pattern that I’ve provided, I’ve also included a link to the download page of the guitar pro tab as well as a link to each song’s Songsterr tab (a web-based guitar tab player). Choose whichever method is easier for you!

1. Dust In The Wind – Kansas

dust in the wind intro tabs

Download the full Guitar Pro tab

Play the guitar tab in Songsterr

2. Blackbird – The Beatles

blackbird intro tabs

Download the full Guitar Pro tab

Play the guitar tab in Songsterr

3. Why Georgia – John Mayer

why georgia intro tabs

Download the full Guitar Pro tab

Play the guitar tab in Songsterr

4. More Than Words – Extreme

more than words intro tab

Download the full Guitar Pro tab

Play the guitar tab in Songsterr

5. Stop This Train – John Mayer

stop this train intro tabs

Download the full Guitar Pro tab

Play the guitar tab in Songsterr

Fingerstyle Picking Quiz

To finish things off, I’ve included a short quiz below that quickly tests your knowledge on what was discussed in this article. Be sure to take the test and if you’d like, share it will your friends once you get your results. Additionally, if you have any questions on any part of the material in the article, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below or send me an email.

Which Strings Should Your Thumb Play When Fingerstyle Picking?

It Is Easier to Produce More Volume When Fingerstyle Picking Compared to Using a Guitar Pick

Do I Need to Grow My Fingernails in Order to Play Fingerpicking Songs?

Additional Resources

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