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.
ian barnett says
Thank you I found this article very re-assuring and most helpful.
Ace, glad it has helped, Ian. Keep on picking!
Jim B says
For me number 5 is the biggie. I’ve been playing for over 40 years, only used a flat pick for a LONG time, eventually learned basic (and alternate) thumb and index finger picking and hybrid picking. Now I’m trying to learn to pick with the thumb and first three fingers, and that muscle memory thing at this age is NOT easy! It’s good to get reinforcement that I just need to work on that over and over. Been many years since something did not come relatively easy to me on the guitar, just gotta keep at it. I remember many times back in the early days when some new technique seemed impossible, and I just kept working at it and eventually it became second nature.
Hey Jim, thanks for the comment. Yeah, muscle memory is huge on the guitar and as you point out when learning anything new a big part of it is the focused repetition and patience needed to build the muscle memory.
I was teaching sweep picking to a student who has played for many years and is very good but it took a lot of concentration for him to just get started as the technique is completely new to him. It just goes to show how awesome and challenging the guitar can be after many years. I hope you continue to get many more years of joy from it!
David Jermy says
Hi Dan, just read your 6 points advice to finger picking. Which was most useful.
I have been trying to do this fingerpicking for a while now. I have studied a lot of stuff by watching other notable artists. The thing I cannot get my head around is what order are the strings plucked say for example a G chord. I know many people will think this is a daft question. I’ve tried Chet Atkins thumb technique which I seem to be getting better with. It’s those others. 🙁 your advice would hugely appreciated.
Dan Thorpe says
Hi David, thanks for the comment and I`m glad you found the post useful. Don`t worry, there are no daft questions when it comes to learning the guitar! I`m not sure if I missed anything in the question but if I have read it correctly, it depends on the picking pattern being used.
You will nearly always start with the root note (for a G chord, it`s the low E string) and then play a pattern on the other strings. Typically, the pattern will be the same for every chord, only the first pluck (being the root note) changes for the chord (e.g. A string for a C chord, D string for a D chord).
Do let me know if I have misunderstood the question or you need a little more clarity on anything.
Tom Bacon says
One habit I have developed is to warm up using several simple progressions up the neck. Fretting fingers 1, 2, 3 and 4, playing single notes on each string of the first four frets, and then move up a fret and repeat. With my picking hand, I use my thumb on strings 6 through 4, and then index finger on strings 3 and 2, and middle finger on string 1. Second time around, I alternate index and middle fingers on strings 3 through 1. I do this for about 5 minutes. Then, I have five of my favorite licks. I play each one 5 times, slow enough so that they sound almost perfect. After playing all five licks my hands are nice and warm. It also gives me extra reps on my favorite licks. The drill, except for the licks, is good for beginners. Soon they will learn licks and can incorporate them.
which one should i learn first the chord progression or the fingerpicking. which one should act normally the fingerpicking or the chord changing.i am a begginer btw.
Dan Thorpe says
Both are important but usually, I say practise the fingerpicking pattern one chord, then when that is good, another, etc – then when you can play the pattern on each chord, play it on the chord progression. Dan
John Jerpe says
Is there a product that will help me anchor my hand easily so I don;t keep missing the strings? I’m finding it to be almost impossible for me to compress my little finger against the guitar body. I often dream of being nable to rest the heel of my right hand in some platform or surface above the strings.
Dan Thorpe says
Hi John, I do not recommend anchoring, to be honest. Missing strings is usually caused by a lack of spatial awareness and moving too far from the strings when plucking. Try playing a simple picking pattern while looking only at the picking hand, then repeat while looking only at the fretting hand.
You can practise while anchoring or not and if you do need to anchor, make sure you do so without tension in the picking hand. All the best. Dan
Late to the party I know but want to say that in my opinion all of these tips are very useful I’ll take them all on board. I’ve only been fingerpicking for several months now after years of flat picking and have gotten to a stage where I don’t feel I’m getting any better. I can see how the above tips will help me move on to another level and so I’m grateful for that. I had never heard of the term Rubato before but on reading I immediately recognised that when playing arpeggio to accompany the song Suspicious minds there is a section starting in Em which slows way down and is a great effect.
Brian Farrell says
Thank you your suggestions have really helped I’m taking fingerpicking lessons with a teacher one on one only 3 months in , i was a strummer before I love it but I’m getting it hard !! For example dust in the wind I’m doing great and then I lose the pattern and trying to sing with fingerstyle is different and more different than when strumming! My teacher said break it down in chunks and slow is key he said do it slow and do it right the speed will come I hope he is right 😀I’m 47 hope it’s not to late I try to get an hour and a half in a day cheers from Ireland 🇮🇪 you helped me immensely with your tips I must tell my teacher 😜thanks … Brian
David Brown says
I love finger picking and have really grown in the past two years. One technique to help with bass string focus is holding ring and pinky finger down on top and play 6th and 5th strings through chords. I use thumb and two fingers in Travis style but also in picking out melody. I really like the suggestion to prioritize melody notes. I have been playing them within chords but breaking out too. Think I might try playing melody first and transitioning. See where that goes as I play chords. I like the tight Blackmountain thumb picks. Tested to buy a Zager guitar.