How To Finger Pick Guitar: Essential Guide To Step Up Your Fingerstyle Guitar Performance

How To Finger Pick Guitar? To all of heartily enthusiastic guitarists out there, yes, including those of you who have just picked up on a new guitar, fingerstyle may not come to you as a big surprise. Many guitar players fall in love with this technically demanding technique due to its richness in rhythms and melodies, hence fingerstyle guitar playing is very much appealing, both to the audiences and the players themselves.

However, to put it in frankly, it is definitely not easy and straightforward to be able to finger pick your guitar beautifully for the first few tries, especially those who make their first contact with this classic instrument. 

That being said, with enough deliberate practice and, hopefully, with a few pro tips that we are going to present you in a few moments will make you feel less intimidated and more encouraged to try and finger pick your guitar and impress your listeners.

In the following section, we are going to take you through some noticeable points when starting to finger pick the strings and then a thorough guide on how to practice your fingerpicking technique, so that you can create your own accompaniment on your solo.

Some Takeaways To Enhance Your Fingerpicking Technique

Maintaining an appropriate length of your fingernails

Unlike the piano which sets the frontier pretty clearly between keys that produce different and clear notes, a small alternate on the position in which you place your fingers, whether your plucking (right) hand or fretting (left) hand can result in a crispy and smooth sound or a disturbingly whaling noise. As minor as it seems, your fingernail length plays a significant role in controlling this situation.

Regarding your left hand with which you press the notes, you definitely want to keep your fingernails clean cut at all times. This will prevent you from constantly adjusting your finger pads according to uneven fingernail length, then accidentally pressing on another string and creating unwanted sounds.

What about your right plucking hand? This depends majorly on each individual, everyone feels comfortable with their own nails, but I personally suggest that you should keep your fingernail just long enough, ideally less than 5mm compared to edge cut, to make  firm contact with the strings. This way you will have more control over picking while not risking breaking your nails.

After you have decided on the length you feel comfortable with, stick to it. It is a good idea to bring with you a portable nail clipper set so that you can easily remain the desirable length. As you practice with the same setting, the sound will become more stable.

If you are not too keen on maintaining a consistent nail length of your thumb, a hand pick that is worn over the thumb could be an alternative. Keep in mind that each method will create a different attribute of tonality. For example, if you decide you accompany the melody with your bare thumb, it will be more likely to produce a thick and warm sound; whereas with a hand pick, the sound would sound thinner and lighter. So it entirely depends on your preference and intention while delivering your performance.

Spot those base notes on

What makes fingerstyle subtly different, yet significantly richer, from normal strumming is the added accompaniment brought about by the low bass notes. After all, this technique is much favored by soloists for a reason, since they themselves are enough to play nearly as a band.

Of course, there’s so much one hand can do, but good news is that you can make it better. So along with the beautiful melodies, what you need to accent a bit more is your thumb, which you use to pluck the bass string. Once the low notes are projected, they together with the higher notes, created by the treble strings (1st, 2nd and 3rd string) will strike a balanced and well-rounded melody. 

One more thing, since the bass notes often last a bit longer, you should strike it a bit harder to fully deliver its influence. Usually, the root of a chord is decided by what the bass note is (for example the A minor chord has A as the root note). So an accented bass note would bring listeners to the complete immersion into the chord.

Working out on the melody notes

This is a lesser known, due to its more demanding difficulty, technique of finger picking. For the most part, the guitarists will only finger pick the notes while following the chord progression and let the singer take over the melody part solely. 

Meanwhile, in this style of fingerpicking,the guitarist will simultaneously deliver the chords and the melody notes over the bass; in other words, the guitarist is also singing note-by-note, with the guitar. This is no doubt a very impressive, and intimidating also, kind of technique since it requires both supporting and melodious playing. Experienced players may suggest that you should work on the melody note first, and then add in the chords or, at least, the root of the chords, and then move on along the chords, if possible. 

Listeners, more often than not, will notice the melody first rather than the bass line, so with these two combined in perfect timing and tonality, you will be sure to impress even the pickiest listeners. Side note: Did you know that the material of the strings also affect the quality of the produced sound? If you care about this, have a look at our suggestions for the best strings for guitar.

Fluency is key

Playing a musical instrument is sometimes compared to speaking a language. You want your listener to find your speech appealing? Content and stability are the two key factors that decide the influence of your speech. The same goes for playing a musical instrument, in this case, the guitar.

You got all of the finger picking techniques on your hand, but are you able to maintain a steady and flowing tempo while struggling to combine all these techniques together? That’s a real challenge there. There is so much you have to keep in mind when playing fingerstyle that you can easily break the tempo of your performance. 

With that in mind, all you have to do is putting yourself on anything functions as a metronome, use your feet to tap if you like, as long as there is a tempo machine that helps you stay grooving as you try to fit in the finger styling technique. It doesn’t have to be a monotone tap-tap-tap, you can customize it into the drum beat, foot tap or anything. Play it on repeat regarding which pieces you are working on, and eventually you will develop an automated beat counting inside you.

Enhancing muscle memory on your right hand.

While it is true that your left hand (your fretting hand) needs to be familiar with the position with which you press the notes to create particular sounds, your plucking/picking hand also needs to be trained in the same fashion.

Probably more demanding than just remembering the position, developing muscle memory in the right hand means that you have to get yourself familiar with picking the right string with the right finger, using the right amount of force and at the right time. A pretty effective way to work on this is you can finger pick a pattern over and over again at low gear while remaining the same chord in the other hand. Once you feel comfortable with it, move to a different chord with the same fingerpicking pattern, you may want to start with simple chords like Em or Asus2.

One thing to keep in mind is that building muscle memory takes time and you cannot rush it. It’s about your muscles repeating the same pattern and you got used to it, so begin at a slow pace and move up the tempo with the metronome. Keep practicing until you can do the trick while lapsing out in a moment, then you know your muscle memory has been formed.

Experimenting with rubato

The term “rubato” refers to a style of playing in which the player alters the original tempo intentionally to express feelings towards a certain bar of music without distressing the whole piece. 

Once you have a full grasp of the piece you are going to play, why not try inserting some rubato as a way to layer up a customized facade that only you or any individual player is able to deliver. Displaying rubato at a proper time, usually towards the end of a piece or at the building up section, will create a special effect as if you are syncing your emotions with the listeners’.

How to Finger Pick: Step-by-step instruction

Standard hand position

Learning the fundamental positions of your fingers on the strings as well as your hand in a proper way would be a good head start, before you want to dig further into any fingerpicking techniques.

This table below gives you a quick summary of the plucking position of each finger of your right hand.

FingerSpanish rootAbbreviationString(s) plucked
Thumb (T)Pulgarp4, 5, 6
Index (1)Indicei3
Middle (2)Mediom2
Ring (3)Anulara1
PinkyExtremoe (or c)Not used

While there are no hard and fast rules about which fingers for which strings, it’s a good idea to follow a common pattern if you are at entry level to set a proper firm foundation. In the resting position, this is how you should place your plucking/picking hand (right hand)

Step 1: Assign the fingers to the according strings

  • Place your right thumb (p) on the 6th string (the thickest)
  • Place your right index finger (1st finger, i) on the 3rd string
  • Place your middle finger (2nd finger, m) on the 2nd string
  • Place your right ring finger (3rd finger, a) on the 1st string

As for the right pinky finger, it is not used to pluck the string but it has a different mission, to stabilize the right hand. Some guitarists will rest their pinky on the soundboard to anchor the right hand into a fixed position.

You should arch your wrist a little in order to separate the muscles in each finger. Remember that the wrist and arm should not wobble while you play, and it’s important that the movement from the fingers will produce a good and stable sound

Step 2: Form a claw in your right hand

Basically, you want to try and curve your fingers so that it forms an arch that is connected by 3 points. These 3 points are the exact 3 knuckles on each finger, including the thumb. 

In the resting position, you should place your fingers so that the tips form a relatively perpendicular angle with the strings.

Step 3: Stimulate the picking motions

  • Pull your 1st finger towards the palm (a round and inward movement) without actually plucking the string
  • Maintain the curve in your finger
  • The movement of the finger should come from the biggest knuckle (the farthest from the tip of the finger)
  • Repeat this movement around 10 times, then move on the 2nd and 3rd finger with the same motion
  • For the thumb, proceed an opposite motion to the other 3 fingers, but also inwards of the palm. Repeat the movement for the 6th, 5th and 4th string.

This step is aimed to familiarize your finger with the picking motion using the full force generated by the biggest knuckle. It will help you develop the right muscle memory before you actually experiment plucking the string, also with the right motion.

The First Pattern Of Finger Picking

Basic pattern

This is the easiest fingerstyle pattern that you should pick up after training your right hand in the steps above. The first pattern, to put it simply, is exactly the same as the training exercise we have just mentioned, only this time you will actually pick.pluck the string with the according finger and you must follow a particular tempo and time signature of 4/4.

Let us break down the details in these lines. This is called the guitar tablature, which visualizes the exact image of the six strings on your guitar, with the lowest line at the bottom being the E string and the highest line on the top being the E string. The T123 pattern shows which finger on the plucking (right) hand wil place on which string, particularly in this case:

  • The right thumb (T) will place on the 6th string
  • The right index finger (1) will place on the 3rd string
  • The right middle finger (2) will place on the 2nd string
  • The right ring finger (3) will place on the 1st string

Now in order to play in 4/4 time signature, you need to complete two rounds of plucking the strings exactly where they’re positioned as above.

Chord progression

Above is the basic drill will the bass note as G. In this next section, we will perform a chord progression, which basically means that you move up the bass note.

Notice that now there are two chords in two measures, and the chord progresses from G up to C, and while the notation is a bit different from the tablature above, we will break it down real quick for you.

In the example of the first fingerpicking pattern, we only pick the open strings, which means that your left hand (fretting hand) does not press into any strings at all. In this case, your left hand enters the game.

Step 1: The G chord
  • The right thumb pick the 6th string, which is pressed at the 3rd fret
  • The right index finger (1) pick the 3rd open string (no press from the the left hand)
  • The right middle finger (2) pick the 2nd open string (no press from the left hand)
  • The right ring finger (3) pick the 1st string, which is pressed at the 3rd fret
  • Repeat the pattern 2 times in a row
Step 2: The C chord
  • The right thumb picks the 5th string, which is pressed at the 3rd fret
  • The right index finger (1) picks the 3rd open string (no press from the left hand)
  • The right middle finger (2) picks the 2nd string, which is pressed at the 1st fret
  • The ring finger (3) picks the 1st open string (no press from the left hand)
  • Repeat the pattern 2 times in a row, then turn back to the beginning of the drill

The Second Pattern Of Finger Style

Basic pattern

The upcoming finger picking pattern is performed in ¾ time signature, with all open strings

  • The right thumb pick the 6th string
  • The right index finger (1) picks the 3rd string
  • The right middle finger (2) picks the 2nd string
  • The right ring finger (3) picks the 1st string

Chord progression 

Like the 4/4 pattern, we also jump between the G and C chord, but this time in ¾ time signature

Step 1: The G chord
  • The right thumb picks the 6th string, which is pressed at the 3rd fret
  • The right index finger (1) picks the 3rd open string
  • The right middle finger (2) picks the 2nd open string
  • The right ring finger (3) picks the 1st string, which is pressed at the 3rd fret
  • The right middle finger (2) picks the 2nd open string
  • The right index finger (1) picks the 3rd open string
Step 2: The C chord
  • The right thumb picks the 5th string, which is pressed at the 3rd fret
  • The right index finger (1) picks the 3rd open string
  • The right middle finger (2) picks the 2nd string, which is pressed at the 1st fret
  • The right ring finger (3) picks the 1st open string
  • The right middle finger (2) picks the 2nd string, which is pressed at the 1st fret
  • The right index finger (1) picks the 3rd open string

Other fun pieces to spice up your practice session

The “Rising Sun” pattern

Step 1: First measure
  • Right thumb (T, p) picks 5th string
  • Right thumb (T) picks 4th string, which is pressed at the 2nd fret
  • Right ring finger (3) picks 1st string
  • Right middle finger (2) picks 2nd string, which is pressed at the 1st fret
  • Right index finger (1) picks 3rd string, which is pressed at the 2nd fret
  • Right thumb picks 5th string, which is pressed at the 2nd fret
Step 2: Second measure
  • Right thumb (T) picks 5th string, which is pressed at the 3rd fret
  • Right thumb (T) picks the 4th string, which is pressed at the 2nd fret
  • Right ring finger (3) picks the 1st string
  • Right middle finger (2) picks the 2nd string, which is pressed at the 1st fret
  • Right index finger (1) picks the 3rd string
  • Right thumb (T) picks the 4th string
Step 3: Third measure
  • Right thumb (T) picks 4th string, which is pressed at the 2nd fret
  • Right index finger (1) picks 3rd string, which is pressed at the 1st fret
  • Right middle finger (2) picks 2nd string
  • Right ring finger (3) picks the 1st string simultaneously while right thumb (T) picks the 5th string, which is pressed at the 2nd fret
  • Right middle finger (2) picks 2nd string
  • Right index finger (1) picks 3rd string, which is pressed at the 1st fret
Step 4: Fourth measure
  • Right thumb (T) picks 6th string
  • Right index finger (1) picks 3rd string, which is pressed at the 1st fret
  • Right middle finger (2) picks 2nd string
  • Right ring finger (3) picks 1st string simultaneously while right thumb picks 5th string, which is pressed at the 2nd fret
  • Right middle finger (2) picks 2nd string
  • Right index finger (1) picks the 3rd string, which is pressed at the 1st fret.

The “Suzanne” pattern

In this practice drill, we introduce the “pinch” technique, which is basically when you pluck 2 strings at the same time with your thumb and one of the 3 other fingers, so that you hand shapes like a pinching movement.

Step 1: First measure
  • Right thumb picks 6th string, while right middle finger (2) picks 2nd string
  • Right thumb picks 4th string, which is pressed at the 2nd fret
  • Right index finger (1) picks 3rd string, which is pressed at the 1st fret
  • Right thumb picks 4th string, which is pressed at the 2nd fret
  • Right thumb picks 6th string
  • Right thumb picks 4th string, which is pressed at the 2nd fret
  • Right thumb picks 5th string, which is pressed at the 2nd fret; while right index finger (1) picks 3rd string, which is pressed at the 1st fret
  • Right thumb picks 4th string, which is pressed at the 2nd fret
Step 2: Second measure
  • Right thumb picks 5th string, which is pressed at the 2nd fret; while right index finger picks 3rd string, which is pressed at the 2nd fret
  • Right thumb picks 4th string, which is pressed at the 2nd fret
  • Right thumb picks 5th string, which is pressed at the 2nd fret; while right index finger (1) picks 3rd string, which is pressed at the 1st fret
  • Right thumb picks 4th string, which is pressed at the 2nd fret
  • Right thumb picks 6th string
  • Right thumb picks 4th string, which is pressed at the 2nd fret
  • Right index finger (1) picks 3rd string, which is pressed at the 1st fret
  • Right thumb picks 4th string, which is pressed at the 2nd fret
  • Repeat these two steps for the last 2 measures

Common Mistakes That Derail Your Finger Picking

This section is significantly important, especially as a beginner, you don’t want to get used to the error habit because it could be extremely frustrating to correct these later once you have become familiar with the way you used to practice. 

Therefore, try to pinpoint what you are doing wrong and remedy it quickly, so that you can develop a proper habit in the long run.

Unsystematic finger position

Although this may sound a bit contradictory to what I have said above that there are no hard and fast rules regarding which position is reserved for a particular finger, it is always better to follow a common pattern to give yourself a peace of mind when it comes to learning a new piece. Beginners, particularly those who are enthusiastic in self-teaching themselves, often downplay this seemingly insignificant error, saying that the rigid position is tiring and opt for an easy way, which is to pluck the strings with any fingers that they feel comfortable with.

Over the course of time, this results in very inefficient movement of the finger, and with it, unstable sound from the plucking. Forcing yourself into a fixed scheme may feel a bit awkward and uncomfortable for the first few tries, but be consistent and stick to the rule, you may find yourself becoming more familiar with the pattern as muscle memory is formed.

Wrong approach to hand picking position

This is another result of letting loose of yourself and going for something that is easy and comfortable. The angle with which your plucking hand approaches the strings has an enormous influence on the quality of the sound, because it decides whether your hand could stabilize firmly on the soundboard while playing. 

No matter how correct you assign each finger to each string, an inappropriate hand shape can damage your progress of playing the guitar. Ideally, you should form a slight curve in the wrist, and form a claw-shaped with the fingers curving along the 3 knuckle points. The tip of each plucking finger should form a relatively perpendicular to the assigned strings, and the force with which you use to pluck the string should come from the biggest knuckle of each finger.

This below is an example of ineffective fingerpicking position, which leads to an unsteady plucking hand. This may lead to a tiring and sore hand.

Ineffective motion of the plucking hand

As the name suggests itself, “fingerpicking” requires the core movement of the finger to create the sound, therefore any excess movement apart from the finger is considered unnecessary and even inefficient while playing.

A common mistake is that a lot of people often swing their wrist, hand or even arm while immobilizing their fingers to play the guitar. This creates so much more effort than trying to play the right way with only your fingers, but it feels natural to do so. Hence, you should practice to use only the fingers and not the rest of the arm.

Guitarists suggest that there are two ways to anchor your arm to support the steadiness of your plucking hand.

  • First, you can use the pinky finger as a supporting post that anchors the plucking hand to the soundboard, so that the movement you try to create from your fingers will not be delivered to the rest of the arm. There are some who oppose this type of support since it limits their movement of the rest of the fingers.
  • If that’s the case, another suggestion is that you can rest the wrist on the surface and use it as the anchor. This way you would have more freedom within your entire fingers while still preventing the motion swinging in your arm and wrist.

You can further improve your finger picking technique with this video below:

Closing lines

There you have it! Now you can try and apply these new techniques into your practice and add a richer tone of musicality into your guitar playing. Don’t worry if you find it too demanding and you’ve got too much on your plates at the first time, because you are supposed to feel that way. But the key is to be consistent and try not to rush the process, the more you drill into the piece, the more comfortable you feel, up to a point when it naturally comes out of your hand.

To cut it short, there are some elements that you need to keep in mind while starting on a new path of finger picking: practicing the system of fingering and hand position, highlighting the bass line, accenting the melody and sustaining a steady flow. 

Apart from the technique, if you are pondering over which piece of instrument you want to invest in, why not have a look at our top picks for the best guitar for fingerstyle here and decide for your own good.

Now it’s your turn to turn these tips into real life practice. What questions or suggestions do you have for us? We would love to hear your experience to enrich the world of music to all enthusiasts out there.

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