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Top 10 Tips for Learning Fingerpicking Guitar

8 February 2024
Tips and Tricks

Let’s be honest, learning to fingerpick can be really tough. It can be confusing and you may not have a clue what you’re doing when you start. So let me share my Top 10 Tips for Learning Fingerpicking Guitar with you to get you set off on the right track from the very beginning.

These 10 Tips for Fingerpicking will answer a lot of the burning questions you have and will give you the confidence to move forward and really get your fingerpicking off the ground.

If you don’t follow these tips you may well find that your fingerpicking has big holes in it and there’s a good chance you’ll develop some bad habits. The good news is that you can avoid all of those bad habits just by following these tips. So let’s get started…


1. Learn the General Rule of Finger Selection

One thing that you want to learn right from the moment you begin your fingerpicking journey is the general rule of finger selection. You have to know what finger you should use to play each of the six strings.

So many people ignore this essential foundation and end up developing bad finger selection that becomes very hard to correct later on down the line. So PLEASE, learn the general rule of finger selection.

This rule states that in general you pick each string as follows:

Thumb plays the E, A and D strings.

Index plays the G string.

Middle plays the B string.

Ring plays the high e string.

Now, this is a general rule of thumb (pun intended!) and so you will frequently see it being broken but when you’re starting out with learning to fingerpick it sets you up really well to go on to develop great finger selection and ultimately better technique. Trust me, it will save you a lot of time trying to correct bad picking habits later on.


2. Fingerpicking Patterns Are Your Friend

One of the best things you can do when you’re just getting started with fingerpicking is to learn a whole bunch of patterns. Start with very basic ones and really pay attention to using good finger selection as you practice them.

Aim to learn 10 or so patterns initially and build up from there. Eventually, you’ll learn so many that you’ll forget the vast majority of them and your fingers will automatically just know what strings to play.

This is the ultimate goal but of course this takes time, patience and practice.


3. Picking Hand Positioning

For a good all-around and balanced sound in your playing, try and do the majority of your fingerpicking over the back half of the soundhole. Here you’re going to achieve a good tone that’s not too bright and not too warm.

It’s very easy to be unaware of your picking hand’s position but it does play an important part in your overall sound.

As you progress and get more advanced you can experiment by moving your picking hand positioning around to explore other possible tones but for the vast majority of your playing the back half of the soundhole is a good area to pick.


4. The Leader of the Pack

The thumb is arguably the most important digit when it comes to fingerpicking. Its main role is to outline the chords that you’re playing and a lot of the time works independently from your other fingers.

For this reason, it’s a great idea to really put a lot of time into developing it. There are so many exercises that you can do to develop your thumb, for example practicing alternating the bass notes in isolation and changing between chords. Ultimately you need to think of your thumb as its own entity and learn how to operate it with confidence.


5. Learn to Play Fingerpicking Songs

Yes! You want to learn songs from the very get-go. They all teach you something new. Of course, start with simple ones and build up from there, but you can and should start learning them as soon as possible. At Six String Fingerpicking we have hundreds of fingerpicking songs at all levels for you to learn at your own pace.


6. Use Your Pinky to Aid Your Fingerpicking

Although your pinky very rarely fingerpicks the strings, it does still have a very important role. Its main job is to stabilise your hand and this allows you to pick more accurately and with more stability.

You can plant your pinky onto the body of the guitar, just under the soundhole, and use it to stabilise your hand in place. Without doing this, you may find that your floating hand feels uncomfortable (unstable). So plant your pinky down and you’ll likely find this makes fingerpicking a bit easier.

Not all fingerpickers do this, but lots do. Either way is perfectly acceptable.


7. You Don’t Need Fingernails to Fingerpick!

As someone who has had the horrible habit of biting my nails since I was a child, I can tell you with 100% certainty that you do not need nails to fingerpick. The only difference is in the tone. If you play with nails you will produce a brighter tone than if you don’t have nails.

Over time, the skin on the end of your fingers will toughen up a bit (just like the skin on the end of your fretting hand fingers). This will help to brighten up the tone of your fingerpicking.

I actually let the nails on my picking hand fingers grow just a tiny bit, so I can dig them into the strings if I want to. This is what I’ve found works best for me, but for you it could well be very different.

My advice here is to experiment. If you don’t have nails don’t let it stop you fingerpicking but also try growing them out and seeing how you get on. Likewise, if you do have nails then try cutting them off and see how you go. Experiment and you’ll truly find what works best for you.


8. We Are What We Eat (or Hear)

Like the diets we consume, when it comes to learning a musical instrument we are what we hear. We will ultimately end up playing the types of music that we listen to and love the most. Therefore, if you want to get good at fingerpicking then you need to consume a healthy diet of fingerstyle music.

The more you listen, the more you’ll hear just how much there is to learn. All the different subgenres, what can truly be done and just how exciting it is. So fill your ears with music that is rich in fingerpicking.

Some great artists and songs to listen to and get you started are Simon and Garfunkel (The Boxer), Elizabeth Cotten (Freight Train), The Beatles (Blackbird), Kansas (Dust in the Wind), Bob Dylan (Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right), Merle Travis (Nine Pound Hammer), Chet Atkins (Mister Sandman), Doc Watson (Deep River Blues), Jerry Reed (The Claw) and Tommy Emmanuel (Lewis & Clark).


9. Don’t Try and Do It Alone

One of the best investments that you can make in your fingerpicking (and playing in general) is to get a good private tutor. Good ones truly are worth their weight in gold and will do wonders for your playing.

Online learning is one of the biggest step changes for budding guitarists in recent years, but from time-to-time you really do need to have someone inspect your playing in person. Chances are you’re getting into some bad habits that you’re totally unaware of. This happens to pretty much everyone, so you need someone to correct you when you unknowingly start to veer off course.

A good teacher should also leave you feeling inspired, help you set great goals to work towards and help you stay motivated when the inevitable plateau hits and you’re in the learning doldrums.

You don’t need to have private lessons every week but I would recommend once a month or at least every few months.


10. Make Sure Your Online Learning is Well-Structured

Having a great in-person teacher to keep you on track is hugely beneficial but chances are you’ll be doing most of your study at home and online.

It’s very easy to be overwhelmed with the sheer amount of learning material out there so it’s important to find some kind of structured learning that suits your individual needs.

YouTube is amazing and you should consume plenty of content there, but there is a mountain of noise and distraction which you need to be aware is stealing your focus from your fingerpicking.

So I highly recommend joining an online course where there isn’t anything to divert your attention. At Six String Fingerpicking we have a whole bunch of courses designed to help fingerpickers become the players they truly want to be, so why not sign up for one? If you’re just starting out then you’re going to love The Complete Guide to Fingerstyle Guitar: Beginner Level.

You can also try any of the courses completely for free first when you join our newsletter.

I haven’t included it as a tip because practice is very obviously imperative – you’ll get out what you put in. So set some goals and use them to develop your own practice schedule that will see you achieve those goals.

So there you have it, if you follow these Top 10 Tips for Learning Fingerpicking Guitar then the likelihood of you getting good, perhaps even really VERY good at fingerpicking is high.

So don’t wait! Pick up your guitar and get fingerpicking. You’ll probably find it to be the most rewarding style of guitar playing in the world and once you get off the ground with it you won’t be able to stop, trust me!

Good luck and happy fingerpicking!

Author: Chris Murrin

Chris Murrin is a British guitar teacher who has dedicated his adult life to helping students master the guitar. A few years ago, in 2018, he founded Six String Fingerpicking so that he could help experienced and budding guitarists the world over to realise their fingerpicking goals.

Complete Guide to Fingerstyle Guitar: Beginner

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