Fingerstyle Basics

Fingerstyle is a technique often overlooked by many guitar players. The thought of playing guitar without a pick can be a daunting prospect to the first-time fingerpicker. This column will help to eliminate those beginning fears and get you playing some picking patterns in no time.


Before we dive into anything too complex, we need to start with the correct technique for your picking hand, and how to use each finger correctly.

The first thing we're going to look at is playing a note using your thumb. To do this, simply lay your thumb on top of the string that you wish to play, and lay it so that it is fairly parallel to the string. To sound the note, play a downstroke by pushing down with your thumb to create tension in the string and releasing to make the string vibrate.

The next step to look at is playing a note with a finger (the technique for each finger is the same). Fingers are going to be playing upstrokes, so to do this your finger must start underneath the string that you wish to play. Because of the way that your hand naturally falls, your fingers will be at a more perpendicular angle to the strings compared to your thumb. To sound the note - lift your finger up to create tension in the string, and release to make the string vibrate.

To avoid bad habits, it is important to practice these different motions correctly the first time round. Make sure you use your finger and thumb muscles to play the strings and not your wrist or arm muscles. It requires a lot less effort to use your fingers, enabling you to remain relaxed whist playing, and allows for quicker and more accurate picking.

Practice playing some notes with each of your fingers and thumb, using the techniques described.

Finger Placement

Now we're going to look at some picking patterns. A picking pattern is just a repeated order in which your fingers play the strings.

In order to begin playing any picking pattern, it is essential to know which fingers you are going to use to play which strings. As a general guideline:

* Your thumb will play the lowest string in the sequence (usually strings 4, 5 or 6)
* Your index finger will play the second lowest string
* Your middle finer will play the third lowest string
* Your ring finger will play the fourth lowest string
* Your little finger on your picking hand is often neglected in fingerstyle guitar. The majority of the time it is not needed, but in some circumstances using your little finger is essential. For now we are going to leave it out.

These points cover many picking patterns, but there are also those that contain 5 or 6 strings within the pattern, so when this occurs, at least one finger is going to have to play more than one string. This will be covered more in depth in a later lesson, as we are just going to look at 4 string patterns for now.

In Practice

The following pattern uses an open E minor chord:


Many fingerstyle instructional materials will assign a letter to each finger and
tell you which finger to use for each note (the "PIMA" system) but using the
guidelines listed above we should be able to decipher for ourselves which fingers to
use for each note:

* Your lowest string is the 6th - use your thumb
* Your 2nd lowest string is the 3rd - use your index finger
* Your 3rd lowest string is the 2nd - use your middle finger
* Your 4th lowest string is the 1st - use your ring finger

Try to work out which fingers to use for this pattern:


Hopefully you used your thumb for the 6th string, your index for the 4th, and your middle for the 3rd string. Practice both of these patterns (ensuring your technique is correct) until they become impulsive. Now we can look at applying the same pattern to a different chord.

Changing Chords

The previous two exercises have used an open E minor chord. The patterns can easily be shifted to a different chord, but depending on where the bass note (the lowest note) within that chord lies, the pattern is going to differ slightly. As a general rule, your thumb is to shift to the string that the bass note of the chord lays, and the rest of your fingers can stay on their assigned strings. So for an open D chord, your thumb shifts to the open D on the 4th string. For an open C chord, the lowest note is on the 3rd fret of the 5th string, so your thumb plays the 5th string etc.

Here's an example of how the first pattern would be applied to a C chord. It helps to hold down the chord as you normally would, that way should you accidentally pick the wrong string it's not going to sound out of key.


Have a go applying both patterns to all the open chords, and barre chords too when
you feel comfortable.

Once you're comfortable with quickly shifting your thumb to the bass note, you
should be able to fingerpick your way through any chord sequence you already know!
This can be really helpful to break out of the monotony of strumming every song.

Sam Dawson is a singer/songwriter who specializes in fingerstyle and percussive guitar.

His web site features more lessons and clips of his original music.

Sam Dawson

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