Fingerpicking. Part 1

This is the first in a series of articles that will help you play fingerstyle guitar. In this lesson, we're going to look at the very basics in order to get started with this playing style.

Ultimate Guitar
This is the first in a series of articles that will help you play fingerstyle guitar. In this lesson, we're going to look at the very basics in order to get started with this playing style.


Before we dive into anything too complex, we need to start with the correct technique for your picking hand, and how to use each finger correctly. The first thing we're going to look at is playing a note using your thumb. To do this, simply lay your thumb on top of the string that you wish to play, and lay it so that it is fairly parallel to the string. To sound the note, play a downstroke by pushing down with your thumb to create tension in the string and releasing to make the string vibrate. The next step to look at is playing a note with a finger (the technique for each finger is the same). Fingers are going to be playing upstrokes, so to do this your finger must start underneath the string that you wish to play. Because of the way that your hand naturally falls, your fingers will be at a more perpendicular angle to the strings compared to your thumb. To sound the note - lift your finger up to create tension in the string, and release to make the string vibrate. To avoid bad habits, it is important to practice these different motions correctly the first time round. Make sure you use your finger and thumb muscles to play the strings and not your wrist or arm muscles. It requires a lot less effort to use your fingers, enabling you to remain relaxed whist playing, and allows for quicker and more accurate picking. Practice playing some notes with each of your fingers and thumb, using the techniques described.

Finger Placement

Now we're going to look at some picking patterns. A picking pattern is just a repeated order in which your fingers play the strings. In order to begin playing any picking pattern, it is essential to know which fingers you are going to use to play which strings. As a general guideline:
  • Your thumb will play the lowest string in the sequence (usually strings 4, 5 or 6)
  • Your index finger will play the second lowest string
  • Your middle finer will play the third lowest string
  • Your ring finger will play the fourth lowest string Your little finger on your picking hand is often neglected in fingerstyle guitar. The majority of the time it is not needed, but in some circumstances using your little finger is essential. For now we are going to leave it out. These points cover many picking patterns, but there are also those that contain 5 or 6 strings within the pattern, so when this occurs, at least one finger is going to have to play more than one string. This will be covered more in depth in a later lesson, as we are just going to look at 4 string patterns for now.

    In Practice

    The following pattern uses an open E minor chord:
    Many fingerstyle instructional materials will assign a letter to each finger and tell you which finger to use for each note (the "PIMA" system) but using the guidelines listed above we should be able to decipher for ourselves which fingers to use for each note:
  • Your lowest string is the 6th use your thumb
  • Your 2nd lowest string is the 3rd use your index finger
  • Your 3rd lowest string is the 2nd use your middle finger
  • Your 4th lowest string is the 1st use your ring finger Try to work out which fingers to use for this pattern:
    Hopefully you used your thumb for the 6th string, your index for the 4th, and your middle for the 3rd string. Practice both of these patterns (ensuring your technique is correct) until they become impulsive. Now we can look at applying the same pattern to a different chord.

    Changing Chords

    The previous two exercises have used an open E minor chord. The patterns can easily be shifted to a different chord, but depending on where the bass note (the lowest note) within that chord lies, the pattern is going to differ slightly. As a general rule, your thumb is to shift to the string that the bass note of the chord lays, and the rest of your fingers can stay on their assigned strings. So for an open D chord, your thumb shifts to the open D on the 4th string. For an open C chord, the lowest note is on the 3rd fret of the 5th string, so your thumb plays the 5th string etc. Here's an example of how the first pattern would be applied to a C chord. It helps to hold down the chord as you normally would, that way should you accidentally pick the wrong string it's not going to sound out of key.
    Have a go applying both patterns to all the open chords, and barre chords too when you feel comfortable. Once you're comfortable with quickly shifting your thumb to the bass note, you should be able to fingerpick your way through any chord sequence you already know! This can be really helpful to break out of the monotony of strumming every song. In the next lesson we will look at some more advanced techniques that can be applied to fingerstyle guitar. About The Author: Sam Dawson is a singer/songwriter who specializes in fingerstyle and percussive guitar. For more lessons and to hear his music, go to
  • 14 comments sorted by best / new / date

      Thanks. I'm curious, though... I like to use the tip of my thumb rather than the side (which you'd be using if your thumb was more parallel to the strings). What's the problem with my technique? Also, I use all four fingers for strings 1-4. It opens up more options, such as picking multiple strings and/or whole chords at once.
      Kalo Hanaka
      I bet there's nothing wrong with your technique. Could be something that he thought would be nice to use as a simple starting point. Too many options could confuse when starting out.
      It's not a common practice in classical guitar technique to use the pinky finger but rather to anchor it on the guitar so your hand does not move from position. Of course this isn't set in stone and a lot of Spanish/Latin style guitar uses all fingers for picking. Your technique is perfect for hybrid picking though, using a pick and your back 3 fingers to pick out lines and chords
      The pinky, in classical technique, is never anchored to the body of the guitar. Generally the thumb determines the position of the right hand, which changes, both parallel and perpendicular, quite frequently. Attitude of the right hand is determined by chordal or scale position, which is, in turn, affected by the use of free or rest stroke. Planting should be done by the fingers only on the strings an instant before sounding.
      For anyone not sure if this is a valuable technique, may I just recommend giving it a chance. When I play guitar I use a pick and do chords and what. But, learning a bit of finger-picking on the side helped me look at things differently. Give it a try, happy playing.
      I for one am a strict user of my right hands little finger. 1&2nd - Thumb, then the other 4 strings are played by each co-responding finger with the pinkie on the 6th. It eases the stress of playing many variations. Of course its not set in stone, and I shift my fingers to match the chords and notes.
      So... I mainly only use my thumb and my index fingers to play. I rarely ever use the rest of my fingers. Is this a problem?
      It's not if you don't need them. All I'd say is that you probably should start looking for songs which need you to use more fingers (try to learn a classical guitar song, for example).
      I was playing for 10 years before I took classical lessons and the teacher tried as he may to retrain my pinky to not be used as an anchor. Some habits are hard to break so I still use it as an anchor most of the time. I would suggest for new players of classic finger style to not use the Pinky as I do.