There are many different ways to play the guitar. The instrument is so adaptable, in fact, that it would be nearly impossible to learn every style, every genre, or every technique.
But finger picking is a technique that’s definitely worth learning, even if you’re a dedicated metal guitarist that could care less about “slow music”, or you’ve already decided that a top guitar pick is much easier to use than your fingers.
When you’re just starting to learn how to play guitar, everything is new, and it isn’t unusual for things to feel a little weird. After all, you’re training your fingers to do things they’ve never even done before!
But I assure you that learning to finger pick – regardless of what style you play or what kind of guitarist you intend to become – is an ultimately rewarding experience.
Here are acoustic guitar finger picking tips for newbies. You can see more guitar lessons here.
Understand The Role Of Each Finger
These are the fingers you will be using to finger pick: your thumb, your index finger, your middle finger, and your ring finger. You might be a little relieved to discover that you don’t need to use your pinky (though some guitarists do).
Most guitar books notate these fingers as p-i-m-a. Your thumb is “p”, your index is “i”, your middle finger is “m”, and your ring finger is “a”.
But this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, right? Why is your thumb notated by a “p”? Why is your ring finger an “a”?
As it turns out, these abbreviations come from the Spanish names for each of your fingers: pulgar, indice, medio, anular.
This takes a little getting used to – particularly when you’re trying to read the notations in a book – but the less you fight it, the easier time we’re going to have with this.
In general, your thumb is used to play the “bass strings” on your guitar, the low E, the A, and the D strings. Your index finger would be used to play the G string, your middle finger would used on the B string, and finally, your ring finger would be for the high E string.
Just recognize that this is not set in stone, and you may break this mold from time to time.
Learn To Play Fingerstyle Arpeggios
There are a number of different finger picking techniques you can learn, but the main one beginners should be focused on is playing arpeggios, which is basically a broken up chord.
A simple example would be a p-i-m-a pattern in which you first pick a note with your thumb, then your index, then your middle, then your ring.
Imagine playing a C chord. So your p-i-m-a pattern could begin at the fifth string with your thumb. Then, with your index, middle, and ring fingers, you would simply pluck the third, second, and first strings in succession.
As I mentioned earlier, this can feel a little awkward at first, but typically the method that provides the least amount of resistance is the correct one. Many beginners find this to be counter-intuitive, because they expect things to be difficult.
Case in point: I have seen students attempt to pick all strings in a downward direction. You’re just fighting against your nature if you do that! Your thumb is the only finger you should be using to pick downwards. All other fingers should be picking in an upwards direction.
So, when you’re in a resting position, your thumb would be resting above whatever string it’s about to pluck, while your index, middle and ring fingers would be resting below the strings they’re about to pluck.
Work On Your Hand Position
Beginners often don’t have perfect form to begin with. Again, this shouldn’t come as a surprise since everything has a way of feeling a little awkward when you’re first getting started.
First and foremost, it’s important for your picking hand to be relaxed. If there’s any tension in your fingers, your hand, or your wrist, then you’re doing something wrong.
Your fingers should be slightly bent, as if you were cupping (but not gripping) a baseball or tennis ball. If you were actually holding a ball, it should still be able to roll around a bit, but not easily fall out of your hand.
Your wrist should be pointed in a slight downward direction – not to an extreme degree where you can see lines (wrinkles) on your wrist.
Your hand can be positioned just about anywhere between the bridge and where the neck starts. However, a good place to aim for is the edge of the sound hole – closer to the bridge side. It’s okay if your thumb juts out to the middle of the sound hole.
Use these tips as guidelines more than anything else. If the hand position described feels awkward, it could be that you need more practice, but it could also be that you’re adding more resistance to your hand than you are even aware of. Your hand may feel tired at times, but you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable. It’s harder to play well if you’re feeling discomfort.
Everything takes time. You can’t expect to master a technique in a single sitting.
But as a beginner, you have a relatively shallow learning curve. This means that the degree to which you can improve is massive in proportion to the amount of practice you put in.
Keep working on that p-i-m-a pattern. You don’t necessarily need to be holding a chord with your fretting hand while working on this. Simply repeat the pattern over and over.
You could even move your thumb from the fourth string onto a lower one each time you complete the entire pattern. In other words, the p-i-m-a pattern could be applied to any of these string combinations: 4-3-2-1, 5-3-2-1, or 6-3-2-1.
“Fingerstyle” guitarists can benefit from learning to play with a pick, and likewise “pick players” can learn a lot from figuring out how to play with their fingers.
All a guitarist ever requires is the specific tools they need to adequately express themselves. But they always have the opportunity to increase their palette by learning new techniques, scales, chords, and so on.
If you can finger pick in addition to playing with a guitar pick, you’ll be ready for a variety of situations, and the more adaptive you are, the more opportunities will open up for you.