Finger Picking Styles – The Essential Guide

Finger picking styles are different all around the world – let’s dive into some of the most effective ways to play in this free guide!

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In this free lesson you will learn…

  • How to approach the essentials of finger picking
  • How to separate your thumb & fingers to play arpeggios
  • How to play arpeggios without a pick
  • How to lead a melody with your thumb
  • How to decorate a bassline with chord embellishments

Finger Picking Styles Open Up New Worlds For The Guitar!

It’s time to explore the guitar a little differently today by taking a look at some different finger picking styles.

Fingerstyle guitar is less a “style” of guitar than a separate set of techniques used to express notes and chords on the guitar with a little different tone.

  • Fundamentally, all it means is that you aren’t using a flatpick.
  • If you’ve been playing guitar for a minute, you know that your fretting hand fingers have names, and with fingerstyle guitar, your picking hand fingers also have names and numbers.

Finger-picking-guide

Sometimes the fingers are referred to with letters, p for thumb (in Spanish, “pulgar”), i (“indice”) for index, m (“medio”) for middle, a (“anular”) for ring, and c (“chiquito”) for pinky.

Whether you are interested in fingerstyle blues, bossa nova, Touareg music, or folk, some common principles apply.

Here are the basics to get you prepared to find your favorite finger picking styles.

  • It’s important to remember that finger picking styles are avenues for creativity, so although they sometimes seem to align with specific schools of thought, everyone has always borrowed from everyone.
  • With that, your mastery of fingerstyle guitar can include as much or as little of these different styles as you like!

finger-picking-styles

Every Finger Has A Job

One idea that is common to all finger picking styles is that each finger on your picking hand has a job.

What that job is can vary by style, but not much.

The following is fundamental information, and will help you out no matter which fingerstyle tendency you decide to pursue!

How-To-fingerpick-on-guitar

The Thumb: Rhythm Section

The thumb has two extremely important jobs in fingerstyle guitar, and this is true across most finger picking styles:

  1. The thumb is the bass player, picking the root note or bass note of whichever chord or harmony is happening at the time; and
  2. The thumb is the metronome, picking on the downbeat of each measure and usually keeping a steady beat.

If we wanted to play “Skip to My Lou” on the guitar in the key of C, this is what the thumb would be doing in most finger picking styles.

This is all you really need to play this tune. It doesn’t sound like “Skip To My Lou” because the thumb is providing rhythm and harmonic support for the melody instead of playing the melody itself, but if you sang along, you’d have yourself a fingerstyle arrangement of “Skip To My Lou.”

Which leads us perfectly to our next point:

The Fingers: Rhythmic Embellishment

In all finger picking styles, the thumb is mandatory.

What your fingers do depends on your goal.

Generally speaking, the fingers could have one of two jobs at any given time:

  1. The fingers could be providing rhythmic embellishment, filling in the spaces between the thumb and playing other parts of the chord; or
  2. The fingers could be playing the melody.

Providing embellishment for this song is as simple as the tab below:

Your thumb is doing exactly the same thing, but now your first finger is in charge of picking the G string.

If you are just beginning to play the guitar and would like more support in learning fingerstyle basics before moving on, check out this excellent beginner primer on fingerstyle guitar lessons.

If you’re comfortable with the above drill, let’s try adding a finger.

Download our lead guitar cheat-sheet to make things easier

It can be disorientating for guitarists to understand which scales work with which keys.

With this in mind, we created a cheat-sheet; a key and scale-finder that you can use again and again.

The Fingers: Melody

The other thing your fingers could be doing while your thumb holds down the rhythm section is playing the melody.

For this tune, your first finger will still be assigned to the G string, your second finger to the B string, and your ring finger to the E string.

Fundamental Finger Picking Styles

Basic fingerstyle as we usually think of it includes a couple of foundational finger picking styles that almost everyone incorporates into their playing.

Arpeggios

Arpeggios are a staple of finger picking styles from folk to flamenco, and they are worth knowing so that you can incorporate them into your playing.

The concept of an arpeggio is simple enough – it just means that you are playing a chord one note at a time. To play arpeggios through Skip to My Lou, try this.

For this drill, your thumb is still doing exactly the same thing. Your fingers are assigned to the upper three strings – your first finger is on the G string, second finger on the B string, and third finger on the E string.

Finger Picking Styles: Travis Picking

Travis picking is the fundamental concept of almost all finger picking styles, whether the purpose is to accompany a singer or to play a melody with accompaniment on a single guitar. Everyone from Chet Atkins to James Taylor has based their individual fingerpicking style on Travis picking.

The idea is that the thumb bounces between two strings, and the fingers play in between the beats, for a syncopated or ragtime feel.

Try this version of Travis picking over “Skip To My Lou”:

In Travis picking, your thumb is bouncing between the A and D strings, and then between the E and D strings.

Your first finger is assigned to the G string, and you can use your second finger on the high E string.

Pro-Tip: This style of picking involves a lot of thumb movement, so practice playing one chord and moving your thumb between the bottom root note and the string above it.

If you’re playing a G, rotate your thumb between the E and A strings. For C, use the A and D strings.

how-to-finger-pick-on-guitar

Finger Picking Styles: Carter Scratch

The Carter Scratch, named after Maybelle Carter of American folk music pioneers The Carter Family, is another foundation for different finger picking styles.

The Carter Scratch is a sort of upside-down version of Travis picking, where your thumb is playing the melody and your first finger is strumming the chord above with your fingernail.

  • To play “Skip To My Lou” with the Carter Scratch, you’ll approximate the melody with your thumb on the E, A, and D strings and strum the chord with your first finger.
  • It’s easier than it looks, but go slowly at first to get the “boom chucka” rhythm going.

Pro-Tip: Take the above examples of finger picking styles and use them in as many songs as you can. This will build your technical skills and also help you to make good arranging decisions.

styles-of-finger-picking

Classical Guitar & Classically-Inspired Finger Picking Styles

Some finger picking styles have as much to do with the type of guitar you are using.

Nylon-stringed acoustic guitars are frequently used for certain styles, so if you’ve got a nylon stringed guitar at home, you will find plenty of music written just for that.

Classical Guitar

There are schools and schools devoted to nothing but classical guitar, and here is a quick guide to your available resources to get started on one of the many classical finger picking styles out there.

To begin, we have a great lesson introducing you to some basics: Learn Classical Guitar in 7 Easy Steps.

Like a lot of finger picking styles, classical guitar is characterized by using the guitar orchestrally – the thumb is in charge of the bass notes and the foundational rhythm, and the fingers play the melody and any other ornamentation.

Finger-Picking-Styles

You can begin playing in a classical guitar fashion by simply playing chords as fingerpicked arpeggios.

  • Listen for how the notes flow from chord to chord, and try to master the art of switching chords while maintaining a steady picking hand.
  • Classical music flows beautifully, and you want your picking hand to reflect that.

beginner-finger-picking

The Classical Guitar Shed has a wonderful series of YouTube videos to get you started on classical guitar. Check out this primer:

Thisisclassicalguitar is a website devoted to classical guitar instruction by a member of the faculty of Victoria Conservatory of Music in Canada. There are plenty of lessons for you here.

Flamenco Guitar

For a great primer on flamenco guitar, start out with our Flamenco Guitar Lessons.

If you really want to dive into the flamenco style, make sure to focus on learning rasgueados (referred to in the article above as the “Spanish Flick”).

This beautiful technique creates a rolling sound across your chords that makes for a fun and aggressive finger picking styles.

Cordoba Guitars, manufacturer of classical guitars, has a very useful YouTube series of flamenco lessons:

You can also find a beginning book on flamenco guitar by prolific player and teacher Gerhard Graf-Martinez right here.

If you would like a dedicated website for flamenco guitar finger picking styles and techniques, check out the Spanish Guitar School.

finger-picking-guide

Finger Picking Styles: Brazilian & Bossa Nova

Some of the most gorgeous finger picking styles come from the Bossa Nova school. Bossa Nova, Brazilian New Wave, rose from João Gilberto and is a part of pop and jazz music worldwide. Read about Gilberto here.

  • The Bossa Nova style is laid back and groovy, and it’s a great style for practicing your finger picking technique.
  • As a rule, we can play any chord with the root and the two highest notes of the chord to get that bounce that we so often hear in Bossa Nova music.

Here’s Rick Beato (whose YouTube channel can keep you busy for a full year if you’re not careful) with an excellent beginning bossa nova guitar lesson:

For a delightful book on bossa nova with some play-along tracks by bossa nova paragon Antonio Carlos Jobim, check this out.

Learn the 12 EASIEST beginner chords with our famous FREE guide

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Finger Picking Styles: British Folk Revival

Alan Lomax, American collector of folk songs in the mid-20th century, spawned a British musical movement that followed with artists like John Renbourn, Martin Carthy, and Bert Jansch.

The finger picking styles of those British masters produced progressive folk music, continuing to amaze and influence everyone from Paul Simon to Neil Young.

Here’s an instructional DVD from Martin Carthy himself!

Finger-Picking-Styles

Fingerstyle Blues

There are as many finger picking styles in the blues as there are blues guitarists. Everyone from Big Bill Broonzy to Joe Bonamassa uses fingerstyle guitar as an essential part of musical expression in the blues.

This style of playing is extremely rhythmic, and focuses on driving the groove as much as possible. If you want a more rhythmic sound, practice slapping your fingers against the strings after every chord.

best-way-to-finger-pick

For a beginner’s look at blues music, check out this lesson on Blues guitar from your friends at the National Guitar Academy.

The Blues Guitar Institute has a fun lesson with a beginning fingerstyle blues song that you can pick up and play quickly.

Legendary author Joseph Alexander has a blues guitar book that you can use to learn to play rhythm as well as solo.

Finger-Picking-Styles

Pro-Tip: Finger picking styles are all playable with your bare fingers, your fingernails, or fingerpicks.

  • Each one will produce a different tone on your guitar.
  • Try them all and see which appeals to you, or use a combination to become familiar with the range of sounds on your guitar!

Perfect-Chords

Rock Finger Picking Styles

Fingerstyle guitar is mainly seen as the domain of the acoustic guitar, but there are plenty of guitarists who play electric guitar fingerstyle, and they have all developed their own unique finger picking styles.

Pro-Tip: Any song can be played fingerstyle if you understand the approach. Take some of your favourite songs and start playing them without a flatpick to distinguish the style and switch it up!

Lindsey Buckingham is a deep well of finger picking styles.

Here he is playing “World Turning” below:

Mark Knopfler plays fingerstyle on acoustic, electric, and resonator guitars. Watch him cook up a great live version of “Sultans of Swing” here.

wish-you-were-here-chords

Get Some Lessons To Explore Your New Finger Picking Styles

As is frequently suggested, there’s just no substitute for getting live, in-person lessons with a teacher who takes a personal interest in your advancement on the guitar.

A good guitar teacher may not be an expert in all of the finger picking styles you wish to explore, but they can help you with technique and understanding enough to guide you to mastery (or at least pretty close to it).

  • Remember, if you are using your bare fingers, your guitar will be quieter than it is when you are strumming with a flatpick.
  • Always take care not to overplay and stress out your finger and hand joints.
  • Have fun running practicing your new finger picking styles!

Recommended Resources

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