History Of American Fingerstyle Guitar and Great Musicians Who Made It Happen

How fingerstyle guitar changed through the 20th century.

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History Of American Fingerstyle Guitar and Great Musicians Who Made It Happen

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Few instruments have been experimented so much with as the guitar. Only six strings and three incomplete octaves, but tons of potential. One of the most technical guitar styles is, of course, fingerstyle, a style that was created long ago and has been improved ever since.

The term "fingerstyle" is something of a misnomer since it is present in several different genres and styles of music. In this article, we'll touch upon a subject of fingerpicking in the United States, which over the last century has grown into a separate playing style with its peculiarities.

Fingerstyle is a way of playing guitar where instead of plucking strings with a pick, a musician plucks them with their fingertips, nails, or fingerpicks. Fingerstyle helps the guitar to reach its full potential as the percussion and melody can be played simultaneously. To achieve this, various advanced guitar techniques such as tapping, slap, harmonics, pizzicato, etc. are used.

Percussion techniques such as “dead notes,” and guitar body plucking as well as softly sliding strings to produce high-pitched sounds also help to spice up the guitar sound.

Technically, fingerstyle is like playing a classical guitar with nylon strings, but it has a different origin. Long story short, fingerstyle is the American way of guitar fingering technique evolution.

Classical guitar is an academic style, therefore, the sound quality is crucial here, and not all the guitar techniques are applicable here. E.g. you can’t play with an outer side of your nails (alternate picking), play with fingerpicks, mute strings with a side of your palm or play tapping. However, such techniques are widely used in fingerstyle.

It All Started With The Blues…

In the 19th century, professional guitarists couldn’t get enough of piano music. Without a doubt, the piano is a more complicated instrument with more possibilities, but two major flaws: its size and weight. Guitar, on the other hand, is an instrument that you can always carry with you.

The term fingerpicking is often associated with the development of fingerstyle in the US. It was born at the end of the 19th century, from the attempts of Southern Afro-American guitarists to imitate piano ragtimes that were popular back then. The left-hand thumb served as a pianist’s left hand while other fingers played as pianist's right hand. First examples of such style were recorded by Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie and Mississippi John Hurt.

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Some blues musicians like Blind Willie Johnson and Tampa Red implemented the slide technique. Soon, the arpeggio technique was popularized by country and western style musicians such as Sam McGee, Ike Everly, Merle Travis and “Thumbs” Carlile. Later, this style was further improved by Chet Atkins.

New Guitar Construction

In the beginning of the 20th century, new music genres such as jazz and country surfaced in the US. In this connection, it became necessary to make the guitar sound more distinct so that it would stand out among the other instruments. For a single performer, a classical guitar remained an ideal option, but in the band, something greater was required. The stage required a loud sound. And so the western guitar was invented.

The man who came up with how to make the guitar louder was called Christopher Frederick Martin. He thought on this problem as far back as 1883. He came up with an idea to use metal strings for the guitar, but the standard wooden neck of the classical guitar simply could not withstand their tension. Martin started with the guitar springs and re-arranged them crosswise. This move strengthened the fretboard greatly as it became more rigid. But the most important achievement, which overcame the strong tension of the metal strings, was an anchor bolt, with which the neck was attached to the enlarged body. Christopher was the first who invented this kind of guitar and founded the now world-famous company Martin.

Travis Picking: Combining Guitar and Banjo

This story began on November 29, 1917, when a boy named Merle Travis was born in the small mining town of Rosewood, in the west of Kentucky.

From a young age, Merle listened to songs of the miners to the accompaniment of a badly tuned banjo. He devoted himself to music, playing the half-ruined instrument secretly from his father. A fairly simple banjo playing technique was easily handled by the boy, so a few years later came the creative crisis, caused by the "limitations" of the instrument. Banjo couldn't help him improve the playing technique anymore; the whole melody was reduced to a chord plucking, which resulted in the winding country style songs. A turning point in the young Travis's career happened when he first heard Arnold Shultz playing. Being a music teacher and professional blues guitarist, Schultz taught the musicians fingerstyle technique, and that's when Travis realized what he was missing.

In a constant search for his trademark style, Travis mastered the guitar and played it more and more. Not having a musical education and poorly understanding a guitar terminology, Travis did not know that he was the first to mix arpeggios of the classical guitar with the country plucking. Merle’s special technique later would be called Travis picking. It would be used by numerous guitarists, while its main feature lies in adding solo parts to the bass accompaniment.

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In his technique, Travis used three fingers of his right hand. The index and the middle performed the basic melody, while the thumb maintained the bass rhythm. The difficulty lies in the fast alternation between blues solos and rhythmic country chords.

To make the instrument sound cleaner at a relatively high speed, Travis upgraded the arpeggio technique - the left hand did not switch to full-scale solo but continued to use chords, while the right hand periodically changed the picking method to a plucking technique with a bass rhythm.

Evolution of Fingerpicking Technique

Fingerpicking is the next stage in the development of Marl Travis technique (called Travis picking).

Today it's difficult to say who is the founder of this style, but one of the most famous musicians who played fingerpicking technique is certainly Chet Atkins.

Chet grew up on the music of Travis (Merle Travis), and from an early age began to master the guitar and fingerstyle. Having graduated from a school in 1941, Atkins was already a professional musician.

The world of big show business opened for Atkins with the arrival of Dixie Swingers, but unlike most young musicians who quickly deteriorated under the influence of fame, Chet continued to improve his technique of playing.

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Chet mastered "Travis picking,” but the technical progress did not stand still and demanded new sounds. A semi-acoustic guitar and amplifiers gave Atkins an opportunity to make a lot of additions to the fingerstyle technique, which were complex or even not feasible on acoustics.

The most notable additions in the new style were harmonics and tapping. Of course, Atkins was not their inventor, but before him, they were mostly the prerogative of classical guitarists. Moreover, the melodic-harmonic intervals were simply lost in the rhythm of “Travis picking,” but the sound of the semi-acoustic guitar passing through the two-row pickups allowed Chet to fit it harmoniously into the melody.

Fingerstyle in Blues and Country

The next era in the fingerstyle came along with the development of American Primitive Guitar style when fingerstyle began to move from blues to other genres, the country, in particular. The founder of the style is the American guitarist John Fahey (John Fahey). The name of the style was borrowed from the field of painting. By analogy with paintings of the primitivists, the style is distinguished by the minimalism and "amateurism."

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It is based on the blues and country. A distinctive feature of this style is open tuning (open D, open G, drop D and open C), which allows playing cyclic ostinato figures on open strings. Occasional blues solos provide more distinctive expression. John Fahey used mediators, fixed on the three fingers of his right hand or a slide.

Guitar as the Piano

Yet another important point in the history of fingerstyle was the emergence of "ragtime guitar." The name comes from the fashionable in the early 20th century American genre of ragtime, the predecessor of jazz. As we have already mentioned, fingerstyle originated from attempts to adapt the piano ragtime for the guitar.

One of the first representatives of this style was Blind Blake, whose records were popular in the late 20's and early 30's of the last century.

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As follows from the name of the style, it formed on the basis of ragtime and adapted to one guitar. The right-hand playing technique is a synthesis of the picking with a pick and middle and ring fingers simultaneously.

The genre got a new life in the 1960s when many guitarists returned to the basics. Some of the most popular guitarists of this style were Dave Van Ronk and David Laibman.

New Age of Fingerstyle

The founder of "new age" style guitar was called William Ackerman. This style is characterized by a general "positive" mood of music with the restrained monotony, harmonic minimalism, and abundance of arpeggios.

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Capo is often used, making the pitch higher. Right-hand plays much in the same way as in the "classical" style while four playing fingers have fingerpicks on them.

Fingerstyle in Britain

Soon, fingerstyle spread across the ocean and surfaced in Britain, where it transformed into its new genre called "folk baroque" This style originated in the UK in the early 60s of the 20th century and was based on the skiffle music which was popular in Britain back then. It combined elements of American music (folk, blues, jazz, and ragtime) with English traditional music.

The first performers in this style Davy Graham and Martin Carthy used the guitar as a folk instrument for the performance of English modal music. Subsequently, the style was developed in the works of such artists like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn.

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A guitar tune of D-A-D-G-A-D, close to English folk music, was mostly used in that style. In the 1970s, musicians such as Nick Drake and, in particular, John Martyn with the album "Solid Air" (1972) largely determined the sound of the acoustic guitar in Britain.

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Picks Instead of Fingers

Fingerpicks are a kind of picks for stringed instruments. But unlike usual picks, which are clamped with fingers, fingerpicks are put on them. Depending on the musician's preferences, they can be on all five fingers of the right hand.

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Finger picks for the thumb are the most common ones. They let you achieve a bright sound and a clear rhythm on the bass strings, which is very important in fingerstyle. There are different models and sizes for such picks. Most of them are made of plastic, although there are also metallic ones. The biggest advantage of such fingerpicks is that they can be pressed with an index finger and used in the same way as the most common pick. Fingerpicks for other fingers are also used, but they are less popular as this technique requires more time to study.

Guitar as the Drum

One of the most important aspects of the fingerstyle technique is percussion technique. It consists of periodic tapping on the guitar body or the bridge. This technique can spice up any solo performance as well as the bass rhythmic pattern. The left-hand does not just fret the string but also strikes the place, extracting the sound. The right-hand plays, both "traditional" way, and percussion while.

Percussion beats were also used by flamenco guitarists as an auxiliary technique, and in fingerstyle, this technique appeared with the emergence of electro-acoustic guitars in the early 1970s, One of the founders of the style is Michael Hedges, who started using percussion blows in the early 80s. In addition to the usual six-string guitar, he used a guitar-harp hybrid - Acoustic Harp Guitar.

Percussion technique is used by guitarists such as Tommy Emmanuel, Preston Reed, Kaki King, Justin King, Erik Mongrain, Phil Keaggy, Thomas Leeb, Eric Roche, Doyle Dykes, Michael Gulezian, Don Ross, Andy McKee, Antoine Dufour and Newton Faulkner.

Icons of Fingerstyle


Merle Robert Travis was an American country singer and guitarist who came up with a unique finger-style technique which later would be called Travis picking. The peculiarity of this kind of picking was in "preset right-hand pattern[s]" while fingerpicking, with the left hand fingering standard chords.

He is also credited with devising the first solid body electric guitar, coming up with a model, which, when perfected by Leo Fender, would become a key element in early rock 'n' roll.

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William Thomas "Tommy" Emmanuel is an Australian world-famous fingerstyle guitarist. Emmanuel often curls his left-hand thumb around the neck of the guitar onto the fretboard to play some notes, rather than using only his fingers to play—contrary to how classical guitarists play, but not unusual for jazz and country guitarists. He frequently plays common three-finger chord shapes with just two fingers. He commonly uses a thumb pick, a flat pick (plectrum), his fingers or a combination of these in his playing, a style known as hybrid picking.

Amongst his trademark rapid virtuosic licks and cascading harmonic progressions, he often uses a technique that imitates an electric guitar's tremolo system on acoustic guitar—by pressing the palm of his right hand against the fretboard of the guitar near the neck joint, while maintaining forward pressure with his left hand on the top of the headstock, the guitar neck slightly bends away from the body and consequently affects the pitch of the strings to achieve the desired sound.

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Chester Burton "Chet" Atkins was an American musician, and one of the founders of the Nashville sound, which expanded country music's appeal to adult pop music fans. When he was young, he used to listen to Travis Merle a lot on the radio. But as he couldn’t see Travis playing, Chet didn’t know that Travis played the guitar with his thumb and just one finger. So, he started fooling around with three fingers and a thumb, which turned out to be a pseudo-classical style that he stuck with. This signature thumb and finger guitar-picking style Atkins created not only influenced future musicians, but led Atkins to design guitar models, collaborating with the Gretsch Guitar Company, and later with Gibson.

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Joe Pass was an American jazz guitarist of Sicilian descent solo guitarist. New York Magazine said of him, "Joe Pass looks like somebody's uncle and plays guitar like nobody's business. He's called 'the world's greatest' and often compared to Paganini for his virtuosity. There is a certain purity to his sound that makes him stand out easily from other first-rate jazz guitarists." His solo style was marked by an advanced linear technique, sophisticated harmonic sense, counterpoint between improvised lead lines, bass figures and chords, spontaneous modulations, and transitions from fast tempos to rubato passages. He would regularly add what he called "color tones" to his compositions, to give what he believed was a more sophisticated and "funkier" sound. He would often use melodic counterpoint during improvisation, move lines and chords chromatically or play melodies by solely shifting chords, and descending augmented arpeggios at the end of phrases.

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Born in Sacramento, California, in 1953, Hedges helped bring to the acoustic guitar in a very modern context with his use of hammer-ons, pull-offs, harmonic slaps, alternate tunings, and the incorporation of percussive elements which would latterly influence many generations of guitar players. Furthermore, Hedges pulled bass lines, lead lines, moving chords and percussion parts simultaneously out of just one guitar (live these were dubbed his “man-band” performances), using a custom-made double neck guitar. As a guitar player, Hedges was a master. Nevertheless, the music he composed was lush, visceral, and deceptively playful (he humorously inserted the lick from the classic Iron Butterfly track ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ into an otherwise straightforward song).

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Andy McKee is an American fingerstyle guitar player who often employs in his performances unique alternate tunings, percussive knocks, two-handed tapping, over-the-fretboard playing, partial capos and natural and artificial harmonics. One video in particular, for a propulsive yet ethereal tune called “Drifting,” became one of YouTube’s first viral sensations - likely because it was both melodically appealing and visually stunning - and racked up millions of views on the then-new site.

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Anthony Dufour is a French-Canadian acoustic guitarist. His style can be easily recognized by the abundance of percussion, slap and natural harmonics. Some of his special tricks include: tying his scarf/bandana around the end of his guitar’s neck to mute the strings above the nut. Using a Dunlop thumb pick which he files down so that the tip of the pick is shorter and at a more comfortable angle for his playing style. His two rings serve no specific purpose; those are his wedding and engagement rings.

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Donald James Ross or Don Ross is a guitarist who plays in style a style that he describes as "heavy wood." Ross's advanced technique and his sure feeling for rhythm combine with uncommon ideas to make his style instantly recognizable. He often uses percussive techniques and plays intricate down and upstroke patterns with his thumb. His use of acrylic nails allows him to get the sound of long fingernails without the hassle of broken nails.

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Sungha Jung is a South Korean fingerstyle musician who became a YouTube star. His YouTube channel currently has more than 4 million subscribers where he shares his fingerstyle arrangements for famous songs and acoustic covers of famous songs. It usually takes him 6 hours to record one song, but sometimes he spends more time to make them sound better.

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A new wave of fingerstyle popularity is gaining momentum today. A special role in this popularization was played by the Internet. There are a lot of different videos, concerts, lessons and tablatures on the net and the number of fingerstyle guitarists around the world is growing. A large number of fingerstyle tabs allow you to play anything on the guitar. Most likely, this style will not reach its peak soon, and we’re yet to see which direction the guitar music will head to.

50 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Best written, in-depth article I've seen on here in a long, long time. Are there any rock finger picking players that are well known?
    I guess Mark Knopfler is the biggest rock act when it comes to fingerstyle guitar.  You also have Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham - though he's not that much of a "star", his playing is also a good example on how to simplify traditional picking techniques in order to incorporate them in straight-up rock tunes. 
    C-C Beatroot
    Robbie Krieger from the Doors played flamenco guitar before the Doors started. He'd file his picking fingernails to points. Spanish Caravan and You're Lost, Little Girl are nice examples.  When I was learning to play guitar I wanted to be just like him, so I grew my fingernails long. But, I missed the part about filing them to points, so I just had these manky twisted long square nails for a few weeks. One day my frantic strumming stopped dead when a string sliced halfway into a nail so I cut them short again.
    I agree great article, I enjoyed the videos too.Good to see something on this site other than metal/hard rock related material. I like metal and shred as much as the next guy, but after a while it gets kinda stale. I've been into rockabilly music for years so i've always appreciated fingerstyle guitar work. Brian Setzer has some pretty crazy fingerpicking stuff and its pretty crazy watchin him go from pick to fingerpicking in the same song.
    Roger Mcguinn might not be too well known these days but he's a pretty good example.
    "...  fingerstyle, a style that was created at the beginning of the 20th century and has been improved ever since. Fingerstyle is a way of playing guitar where instead of plucking strings with a pick, a musician plucks them with their fingertips, nails, or fingerpicks. " So what about the Spanish? Classical guitar from the 16th century? Fado music in Potrugal? The lutes and lyres of the middle ages?
    In this article we touched upon a subject of fingerpicking in the United States, which has grown into a separate playing style over the last century. Therefore, it is appropriate to talk about this style apart from the history of classical guitar, which has centuries of history and can be the topic for another, much longer article.
    Fair enough, although it would seem appropriate to make that really clear in the introductory paragraph.
    Love to see Bert Jansch & John Renbourn getting some spotlight on UG. Pentangle also rocked! Also a huge fan of Townes van Zandt and his technique.
    Great article; I'd sure like to see more stuff like this on UG. Interesting stuff for a straight- up rock guy! BTW, I can listen to Bron-yr-aur pretty constantly, honorable mention.
    I fell in love with fingerstyle guitar after my teacher showed me how to play Steve Howe's Mood for a Day.  I hope to see some more women on the list of fingerstyle icons someday. This is a really cool article- I feel like acoustic fingerstyle sometimes gets overlooked in the guitar world so it was nice to see a spotlight on it here.
    Check out Kaki King, she is an amazing fingerstyle guitarist. It mentioned her in the article among a long list of others, she is right up there with a lot of these guys
    Tomer the King
    Great article, but I have a tiny correction: Tim Buckley is American, wasn't part of the British folk scene (He was at one time considered Elektra's answer to Bob Dylan) and wasn't that big on fingerpicking either. 
    How can you forget the jazz fingerstyle legend Joe Pass? smfh.. if there was no Joe Pass, Guthrie Govan wouldn't be the same player he is today..it's Guthrie's main influence.
    No mention of early 20th century parlor guitar styles? John Stropes will be disappointed. and really...Andy Mcgee, Don Ross, but not a peep about Leo Kottke. Shame that.
    Excellent article !  I'm a big Travis fan myself, and I couldn't help but notice a slight mistake you did, about his technique. While "Travis picking" as a common technique is often taught with the three fingers combination, Merle himself only used the thumb and index - which makes his virtuosity even more impressive.
    Don't forget Paul Simon. A lot of times his guitar work gets overshadowed by his songwriting and production.
    good article. would like to have seen Kaki King in the mix. Or, you know.. ANY women guitar players.
    I started learning classical guitar some months ago so this article sure comes handy. Very well written too.
    Elliott Smith really should have been mentioned in this article. His finger-picking style and overall skill at guitar is really inspiring. 
    Gotta say, learning all of Opeth's Damnation album completely taught me how to fingerpick, and that only got better as I learned more of their fingerpicked acoustic songs.  Face of Melinda will always be my favorite fingerpicked song by them!
    john Hulberts record "Opus iii" is worth checking out. His style and the sound of his acoustic had me in a trance for the duration of the album.
    " Moreover, the melodic-harmonic intervals were simply lost in the rhythm of “Travis picking,” but the sound of the semi-acoustic guitar passing through the two-row pickups allowed Chet to fit it harmoniously into the melody. " Didn't get this part, how did the sound of the semi-acoustic helped him "fit it harmoniosly into the melody"?
    Anyone interested in this article or finger style in general needs to check out the amazing Lenny Breau. Lenny was considered by many, including Chet Atkins and Randy Bachman, to be the greatest guitarist to ever live. He played almost every style though fingerpicking but his amazing ability was shadowed by odd personailty, drug use, and death, leaving fame in the Jazz community but being unheard of otherwise
    I've pretty sure the bandanna that Antione uses if purely for decoration, and I'm pretty sure he has said that in interviews before. Not sure where this author is getting a lot of his/her information from 
    Scarf is needed to extinguish the vibrations of the strings behind the upper nut. Some guitarists use this trick when recording a guitar.
    I'd like to throw Calum Graham's name out there as well. An amazing songwriter who plays fingerstyle
    During the Soviet era the Russian communists claimed the invention of all sorts of things that were already known to the West. This article is rather like that. However if you take the article as a history of American fingerpicking its great, its just that the rest of the world already knew you could use your fingers.
    Anyone who can recommend some good classical guitar music? I recently started listening to Chopin and got a hankerin' for some guitar to go with it.