Playing with your fingers instead of a flatpick opens up an entirely new set of sounds, no matter what style you play. Whether you pluck, strike, strum, snap, or slap the strings, your sonic possibilities increase exponentially – and there’s virtually nothing you can do with a pick that you can’t do with your fingers. Some of the best acoustic and electric players use the bare fingers to play every style from rock, country, blues, folk, classical, and jazz. It’s a tool and technique that every player should have at least a basic familiarity with.
I should say at the outset that there are as many different approaches to fingerstyle as there are people who play it. Classical guitarists do use a somewhat standardized, what we might call “orthodox” technique, and there’s a great deal of logic and common sense behind it. We’ll get into some of the details of that approach in a moment. But it’s also important to realize that with five fingers to work with, a whole range of sounds that are appropriate to a range of styles, and the simple variables of anatomy, there’s far too many options to be concerned with what’s right or wrong. More importantly, we need to think about what works.
I do believe that the classical technique is a good reference point to start with…it’s been analyzed and thought out from both ergonomic and musical perspectives for two hundred years. The basic idea is to maximize sound and freedom of movement while minimizing effort. This starts with looking at the anatomy of the hand itself.
Hold your plucking hand out in front of you with the fingers relaxed and the thumb resting on top of the curled fingers. This should feel like a natural, relaxed position. Your wrist is likely to be straight but not rigid, and the fingers should be able to freely move in and out simply by curling or extending from the knuckles. The thumb, on the other hand, moves up and down. This opposition between thumb and fingers – vertical plane against horizontal plane – is the basic foundation for our picking technique. Fingers move in and out, thumb moves up and down.
Here’s a simple exercise you can use to get started:
1. Bring your hand to the strings, allowing the index, middle, and ring fingers to rest lightly on the third, second, and first strings respectively. We’ll call these the treble strings. Note how the thumb can rest comfortably on any of the three remaining bass strings without any movement of the rest of the hand: the thumb simple moves up or down from string to string. This is our basic starting position; while we’re not obligated to stay here it’s a simple and efficient way to begin.
2. Hold a simple E minor chord in the fretting hand, and strike each bass string with the thumb while the fingers stay planted on the three trebles. Note that you don’t have to move much: light pressure with the thumb is all we need. Think of it as pushing toward the floor. Repeat a few times slowly, and pay attention to how far the thumb needs to move to get to the next string.
3. Pluck individually with the fingers: index on the third string, middle on the second, ring on the first. Do this very slowly and deliberately, moving the fingertips IN towards the face of the guitar. You may find that your impulse is to to pluck out and up. This method works fine and you’ll see it a lot, but it does often limit the volume you can produce. Moving the fingers in towards the guitar instead of away from it produces more sound and will give you more dynamic range.
4. Try plucking multiple notes simultaneously as you continue to hold the E minor chord:
– Thumb on string 2, index on string 1. Proceed across the strings, plucking each adjacent pair with thumb and index.
– Index and middle together on strings 2 and 1, then 3 and 2.
– Thumb on string 3, index and middle on strings 2 and 1.
– Thumb on string 4, index and middle on strings 3 and 2.
– Thumb on string 4, index, middle, and ring on strings 3, 2, and 1.
Continue experimenting with different combinations of strings and fingers.
Also experiment with the placement of your hand relative to the soundhole and with the amount of curve in your wrist. Resting the hand on the bridge or fingers on the soundboard is ok, as long as it doesn’t make you press down and compress the hand. You also want to make sure that resting the hand doesn’t force you to overextend the fingers to reach the strings. This is probably the area with the most variables…you will see a wide range of hand positions when you watch different players. The goal is to keep the hand as relaxed as possible and allow for a comfortable range of motion.
When you’re ready to move on to more of a challenge, click this link to download TAB and music for “Renaissance Faire”, a fun and tuneful exercise in plucking three-note chords. Here’s a close-up video of the right-hand part, which is also linked to a full video lesson on this piece. Have fun!