Fingerpicking is a wonderful part of guitar playing and it is one of my favourite things to do on a guitar – especially on a nice acoustic guitar. The trouble is many guitarists do not really know how to fingerpick properly.
They make all sorts of little errors, the types that make all the difference. In this post, you will learn 6 tips on how to fingerpick to a higher standard.
The following 6 tips aren’t your standard tips that you’ll hear other people talking about, but they are very important and combined, will make a big difference to the sound and quality of your guitar playing.
How To Fingerpick
These tips range from fixing subtle sloppy errors all the way to making your playing comparable to a professional fingerpicking guitarist.
Try to implement each one into your playing where appropriate and your playing will sound slicker and more professional for it.
1. Keep your nails at a consistent length.
A constant annoyance for guitar teachers (myself included) is when fingerstyle students come to lessons each week and their fingernails are all different lengths and at different lengths to the previous week.
Hopefully, by now, you have realised there are so many subtleties on the guitar. Just a millimetre here or there can be the difference between something sounding smooth and beautiful and something sounding like a car crash.
If you want to learn how to fingerpick correctly, you must tend to your fingernails as they make a big difference in the tone and timbre of your playing – both with your fretting hand and your picking hand.
Obviously, your fretting hand fingernails should be nice and short all year round. This allows you to play notes and chords cleanly. That is pretty common knowledge.
What is not common knowledge, however, is that your picking hand fingernails need to be a consistent length and smoothly cut.
Some guitarists like longer nails than others. Me, I like just enough nail to line up with the edge of my finger. Any more length then the picking sound starts to get scratchy.
However, you set your nails up to play fingerstyle, keep them consistent. I recommend keeping a good quality set of nail clippers next to where you keep your guitar or in your guitar bag and cut them down to your ideal length every few days.
You will get a more constant and stronger tone for it.
2. Highlight those bass notes
In fingerstyle guitar, we often play without a band and therefore we are expected to play the bass notes. This does not mean we are expected to play some funked up bass guitar lines like Flea from RHCP.
It simply means we need to accent (play louder) the root notes of the chords we are playing. So often, a guitarist will play some fingerstyle stuff, but they do not pluck those bass strings hard enough with the thumb.
This means the higher pitched strings tend to drown the bass strings out which makes the piece sound weedy and thin.
The bass notes are very important in fingerstyle guitar. Often the bass notes are ringing throughout while the treble strings (strings 1,2,3) are being picked multiple times.
Because the bass notes are often ringing out for longer they need to be hit that little bit harder to give the piece its power.
On the guitar, the bass notes are usually root notes, (which is the note the chord is named after, e.g. the root note for the A minor chord is the note of A). Root notes are very important and need to be highlighted so the listener can hear the full flavour of the chord.
If you play with a bass guitarist, (they will often play the root note as well as other extra notes) but most fingerstyle guitarists play solo, so beware of this.
Get used to giving those bass notes and especially the root notes a bit more oomph. Your music will sound more professional and more powerful for it.
3. Prioritise the melody notes
There are two main schools of fingerstyle guitar. One is the traditional singer-songwriter school, which is where a singer will play guitar and fingerpick notes from within the chord. Your traditional guitarists such as James Taylor and Paul Simon do this a lot.
There is also the solo fingerstyle way of playing the guitar. This is where someone like Tommy Emmanuel will take a song (often from a singer songwriter, but not always) and play both the chords that the guitar is playing and the melody that the singer is singing. It can be very difficult but sounds mighty impressive.
The trouble is when playing these chord melody type pieces, guitarists are often more bothered about the chords, but it is a better idea to prioritise the melody and then work the chords or even just the bass notes of the chords underneath the melody.
Most people recognise a melody better than a chord progression so remember if you are trying to play both the chord and the melody, you must ensure that the melody is played in perfect time and tone. Really aim to make the melody ‘sing’.
Once you have the melody out there, you can then aim to add a note from the chord alongside it. Start with the root notes and then add more chord tones to the melody and not the other way round.
This is a difficult skill and one I will be writing a future post on.
4. Do not lose the groove
It’s really easy when fingerpicking to get lost in all the fancy melody notes and interesting harmony lines that can be created. So much so that the guitarist can forget all about the all-important groove.
When someone is strumming, the groove is usually a big priority, but when fingerpicking, there are lots of things going on which can make it easy to lose a solid groove.
All the hammer one’s, pull-offs and complex chords will not save you if you lose your groove. Therefore, keep practising your fingerpicking either to a beat, foot tap or metronome.
I personally love to use a variety of drum beats. I put my favourite beats into a media player (I use Tomahawk for this), hit shuffle and have a jam.
I do this when I am feeling like jamming and find it a great way to have some fun and can create some fingerpicking stuff that has a strong groove. Then, if I play the same piece later on without a drum beat, I still have the solid groove that the beat helped create. Students of mine love this too. It feels like playing with a real band.
For my beats, I usually create my own if I need something specific or I simply use Jim Dooley’s beats.
You may find fingerpicking to a beat difficult at first, but stick with it as your fingerpicking (and general guitar skills) will benefit from it.
5. Work on the picking hand’s muscle memory
Lots of guitar teachers and guitarists talk about muscle memory, but they only talk about it in regards to their fretting hand. It is very rare that someone will talk about muscle memory in relation to the picking hand.
This is very surprising as in my experience, the picking hand needs a lot of work to be able to build up enough muscle memory to constantly be able to pick the right strings at the right time, every time.
A really easy way to build up the muscle memory in the picking hand is to take any picking pattern and sit there and play it over and over again super slowly while holding one chord with the fretting hand.
Change chords every now and then if you like, but the main thing is to focus much more on the picking hand than on playing different chords.
Just make sure the chord is nice and clear. A simple chord such as Em or Asus2 will work wonders.
Keep focusing on breathing deeply and relaxing the picking hand, build up a groove and the muscle memory will come.
You can use a metronome, foot tap or drum beat to ensure your tempo is slow and rock solid. Building muscle memory is NOT about speed, but about playing the same thing over and over in a relaxed and repetitive way. Try doing it for up to five minutes.
You can really zone out and when your breathing is nice and steady, you will feel like you’re in an almost meditative state and at one with your guitar – (he says in his best zen-like voice).
6. Don’t be afraid of rubato
Rubato is a classical expression for speeding up and slowing down. In pop music, this is seen as a cardinal sin.
If a pop, rock or fingerpicking song speeds up or slows down too much over the course of three and a half minutes, it can sound very amateurish, especially when in a full band situation.
The thing is, a touch of rubato can give your music an extra layer of emotion that nothing else can do. The key is to make it relevant and purposeful. Do not think, I will just play it at any old tempo because it sounds more powerful, it will not.
You must ensure that whenever you want to play at a steady tempo, you can. This is one of the reasons why we use clicks, drum beats and metronomes to help us practice.
Use rubato at the appropriate time, however, and your audience will be delighted. Usually, you will want to add rubato when coming to the end of a section or piece or in the middle of the peak section.
For example, you may want to speed up a touch for when a piece gets louder and more powerful and you may want to slow down during the diminuendo where the volume drops. Make it tasteful and intentional and you won’t go wrong.
To conclude, even if you use just one or two of these tips on how to fingerpick, your guitar playing will improve, but work on all of them and combine them all for maximum effect.
Fingerpicking is a subtle art, so a 5% improvement here and there will go a long way.
Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts on these tips and share your own tips on how to fingerpick to a higher standard.