Figuring our Fingerstyle: Techniques for Beginners

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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 10 – Winter 2019 – Acoustic Artists

While strumming has its obvious advantages, such as establishing rhythm and building energy, the true voice of the instrument is pulled out through individually plucked strings. Since the birth of the guitar, the most common technique employs the bare fingers of the plucking hand and is known as fingerstyle guitar, or fingerpicking. This method can be used to create a softer, more intimate tone in the music. It is most commonly utilized in folk and classical guitar, but it can be utilized in just about any style.

The key to fingerstyle is the proper use of the plucking hand, so we must first assign each to a finger. The most common approach is as follows: E, A, and D are all played by the thumb, G by the index, B by the middle, and high E by the ring (Figure 1). The thumb serves the bass line, while the other fingers support the harmonies/melodies. The hand will need to be at about a 45-degree angle for fingers to fit comfortably between the strings.

Start with an open D chord. Beginning with the A-note, the third string, pluck each of the three high strings one-by-one with the fatty tip of the assigned finger (Figure 2). As the string is plucked, it should catch the tip of the fingernail. Pluck hard to project the sound, but be careful not to bump into other strings.

Next, let’s add the thumb. Unlike the other three fingers, the thumb is angled more to the side, but still within reach of the thumbnail. Pluck the same three high strings of the open D chord again, but this time add the open D string, played with the thumb (Figure 3). Once that feels comfortable, practice the same exercise on an open A chord. The thumb will move from the open D string to the open A string, and the other fingers will stay where they are (in some cases, the fingers on the three high strings may jump to the lower strings, but their position to one another will always remain the same).

Now let’s play the three high strings together and alternate with the thumb. Start by plucking with the thumb on the open D string on counts one and three, followed by plucking the three high strings on counts two and four. Play through this exercise four times, and then switch to an open A chord. Again, the thumb will move from the open D string to the open A string, and the other fingers will stay where they are (Figure 4). Practice transitioning between these chords so that the movement is fluid. To add a little more bass action, replace the open string with the one right below it on count three, such as the D string to the A string.


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