5 ways to improve your fingerstyle guitar technique

Richie Kotzen
(Image credit: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

A good, solid fingerstyle technique is important for so many reasons. It can change the way you approach playing the guitar as whole, offer a new tonal palette and be incredibly useful if you ever drop your plectrum mid performance. 

Many would associate fingerstyle with classical, flamenco or acoustic guitar, but it lends itself extremely well to the electric guitar; just ask Richie Kotzen or Mark Knopfler, to name just two great players who prefer to play sans plectrum. 

Fingerstyle is very popular in genres such as flamenco, bossa nova, country, blues, country and slide guitar, but is also preferred by some rock guitarists. It is also perfect for those occasions where you don’t have a guitar pick, which I’m sure most guitarists have been caught out with. 

There are many advantages to playing fingerstyle technique over using a plectrum. For example, it can make playing chord based arpeggios and lines using non-adjacent strings much easier.

Having your thumb and several fingers to play across the strings is more efficient and economical than using a plectrum exclusively, where you only have an up and down stroke at your disposal (of course, hybrid picking is an option, which I will cover in a later article).

Fingerpicking also lends itself to playing polyphonic lines with greater control, giving the player the ability to play independent runs with greater ease. Furthermore, some players like the connection of feeling the strings with their fingertips or nails to give a sense of being one with the guitar, rather than using a plectrum. 

As you will be aware, each of the digits on your picking hand have specific names, which you will see annotated on the tab for the exercises and study piece. These names are all derived from the Spanish language and are universally used. They are p (pulgar - thumb) i (indice - first finger) m (medio - second finger) and a (anular - third finger). The fourth finger is known as c (chico) but this isn’t used by many although Brett Garsed is a master with it (see page 34). 

The examples and study piece included focus on a wide range of scenarios where fingerpicking can be used to great effect. However, this list is by no means exhaustive and there are many more styles of music where the technique can be used. The examples start with a pop-folk style where a chord progression is combined with a melodic line.

This is followed by a pseudo-classical approach utilising four digits on the picking hand and then a neo-soul style using a similar technique.

The third example is based around a Minor II-V-I progression with an alternating bass line, which is then followed by the final example, which takes a look at a country approach to playing lead lines with a fingerstyle approach. This month’s study piece builds upon the first example, and explores the pop-folk idiom using this type of approach. 

I would highly recommend that if you are more inclined to use a plectrum when playing, put it down and explore playing with your fingers instead. Whether that’s playing chord progressions or improvising over a backing track, building upon your existing fingerstyle technique can be highly enjoyable and lead to new musical developments. 

Often, if players are faced with a new technique which limits their technical ability, it leads to more thoughtful note choices and more musical phrasing. If you don’t believe me, just ask Jeff Beck! 

Get the tone

Amp settings: Gain 3, Bass 4, Middle 5, Treble 6, Reverb 6

If you think of the many guitarists that use fingerpicking, and in so many styles, then obviously no single sound will cover them all. So why not start with the above settings, select your neck pickup (or two pickups together) for a nice clean tone with a touch of delay or reverb. You can then jump on an overdrive pedal to play the dirtier sounds in the examples.

Examples

Example 1. Chords with embellishments
Our first example follows a simple chord progression but adds small melodic embellishments at the end of each bar. Follow the suggested fingerings and make sure that the melodic lines stand out. 

Example 2. Thumb and three fingers
For this example you will need to use all three fingers on the picking hand as well as the thumb. The aim is to keep your phrasing and dynamics as even as possible, ensuring that each finger is consistent with the others in picking strength.

Example 3: Ascending three-fingers line
Once again we’re using all three fingers but this time the line is ascending. Again, aim for fluidity and an even tone throughout.

Example 4: Syncopated picking line
This lick features syncopation, as your three picking fingers play each chord while weaving in and out of an alternating bass line. A fingerstyle approach is perfect for this style of playing.

Example 5: Thumb and first finger country line
We finish our examples with a country inspired lead line using the thumb and first finger exclusively. For this style of playing I use the thumb to replicate the down stroke of the plectrum while the first finger replicates an upstroke. 

Study piece: Multiple approaches

This piece starts with a series of hammer-ons and pull-offs using the open position C Major scale. Feel free to experiment with your own fingerings but ensure that your phrasing and dynamics are even. 

The next section follows a simple chord progression which features the open third string as a constant theme before ending the four-bar sequence with a single-note lick. Again, consistency is key, making sure to keep the volume of each string as consistent as possible. The following section starting with the Cmaj7/F chord introduces the anular or third finger. 

I have included some suggested fingerings for the fretting hand to make the chord changes smooth. This section ends with an ascending chordal movement from Dm to G7 before a final triplet-based lick over a G7 chord. For this final lick, ensure that the notes on the first and second strings are prominent, using the open third string as an opportunity to climb up and down the neck for each chord change. 

The penultimate bar of this piece features a straightforward C Major scale but with some country inspired fingering. This is an interesting way of the playing the series of notes as it produces a lovely cascading effect. The final chord is a bit of a stretch; you will need to ensure that the open strings ring out with clarity while not being too overbearing (this is where concentrating on your dymanics can make all the difference). 

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Simon Barnard

Simon is a graduate of the UK's Academy of Contemporary Music and The Guitar Institute, and holds a Masters degree in music. He teaches, examines and plays everything from rock to jazz.