You might be surprised by the types of guitarists that use fingerstyle guitar techniques in their playing – James Hetfield (Metallica), Mark Tremonti (Creed, Alter Bridge), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), and even Eddie Van Halen!
So if John Denver or Chet Atkins is what first came to mind when you heard the word “fingerstyle”, it’s good to know that it isn’t just for gentle acoustic ballads (but if that’s what you want to play, it’s great for that too).
Fingerstyle guitar has made its way into a lot of different genres of music, and it can be used in a variety of different ways. So whether you’re looking to play metal or the blues, it has its utility.
Here are the basics of fingerstyle rhythm guitar.
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What Is Fingerstyle Guitar?
Basically, we’re talking about picking strings with our fingers instead of with a pick.
There are some things you can do with your fingers that would be hard to do with a pick, and vice-versa.
For example, picking two non-adjacent strings simultaneously. You can’t really do that with a pick, unless you leveraged hybrid picking (which means to use your pick and fingers at the same time).
Fingerstyle guitar can also free you up to play percussive style. We’re not really going to be getting into percussive style here, but if you watch players like Andy Mckee or Don Ross, you should get the idea. It’s where you tap percussive rhythmic patterns on your guitar while playing chords or melodies with another hand.
What Fingers Do I Use?
You’ve got four fingers and a thumb. If you had assumed that fingerstyle guitar is meant to be played with all of your fingers, it’s important to know that the pinky is generally left out. So proper technique would include the use of your thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers.
This is pretty standard whether you’re playing folk or classical, though some players like Doyle Dykes have also mastered the use of their pinky. That’s something you can also aspire to, but for this lesson, let’s keep things simple, shall we?
In most books and tabs, you’ll find fingers notated using their Spanish names. This might be review if you’ve been following along with our other lessons, but just in case, here’s how that works:
- Thumb becomes Pulgar, which is notated as “p”.
- Index becomes Indice, which is notated as “i”.
- Middle become Medio, which is notated as “m”.
- Ring becomes Anular, which is notated as “a”.
The basic rule is that your thumb will be responsible for picking the “bass” strings (i.e. D, A, and E). Meanwhile, your index finger will be responsible for the G string, your middle finger for B, and your ring finger for the high E.
This is the “basic” rule because sometimes it’s simply inefficient or impractical to be too rigid with this picking model. But for all examples that follow, this should give you a solid starting point.
Getting Started With Fingerstyle Guitar
I’m going to assume at least a basic understanding of open chords. If you can’t play open chords yet, come back to this lesson when you’re starting to feel more comfortable with them.
As you probably know, not all chords use all six strings. When you’re just getting started with fingerstyle, your temptation might be to apply the same pattern to everything you play. But you will have to adapt your playing depending on the chord.
In order to demonstrate this idea further, I’ve put together an exercise that shows you how this works.
This example uses the C, G, and Dm chords. With C, the root note is on the fifth string. With G, it’s on the sixth string. With Dm, it’s on the fourth string. So what this means is that you will have to pick a different string with your thumb every time there’s a chord change.
Have a look:
Most of the time, you would not be picking the fourth string with your index finger, or the second string with your middle finger. But this is the most efficient way to play the above example.
More Examples To Try
Let’s try a couple more examples, and then we’ll wrap up this lesson.
Now we’re going to take a stricter approach to the p-i-m-a method. In the example that follows, your index, middle, and ring fingers will not be deviating from their assigned strings (third, second, and first). This exercise uses a different set of chords than the last: D, G, and A. Again, these are all standard open chords, so you should be familiar with these.
Give this a try:
I haven’t notated which finger plays what note in the above example, but you should be able to figure it out pretty easily (just remember to use your thumb for the bass strings).
To finish things off, we’re going to try a different picking pattern. As with strumming, there are plenty of different finger picking patterns, and some players even change things up from one chord to the next. For the intents and purposes of this lesson, we’ll keep things simple, but just know that there are still plenty of other patterns and other ways to play through a progression as a finger-picker.
This example is in the key of G, and uses four chords: G, Em, C, and D. Take a look:
We just covered the essence of fingerstyle rhythm guitar. As you can probably imagine, lead guitar is a different matter entirely, but yes, you can play lead guitar with your fingers too!
As well, there are different styles for different genres. Classical, folk, blues, and other styles tend to have techniques and approaches unique to their genre. This makes fingerstyle guitar an extensive topic.
To me, it’s all about having a starting point. If you have no frame of reference for how finger picking is done, you’ll be scratching your head looking at certain tabs. But if you learn the above, you’ll be ready to take on a lot of new songs, and that makes it all worthwhile.