I like to start new students out using a flatpick. It’s the simplest way to strike a string because the pick comes to a point, giving us one spot to aim for each time. For many people, that’s all they will ever need. Developing control and specific picking techniques comes with time, but the basic approach remains the same.
However, learning to pluck or “pick” with the fingers opens up all kinds of possibilities a flatpick won’t allow. There’s virtually nothing you can do with a flatpick that you can’t accomplish with your fingers. So for the player that wants to have more options, learning to fingerpick is a great way discover new sounds and textures.
The challenge is that there are as many ways to play fingerstyle as there are guitarists playing it. Watch ten accomplished players and you might easily see ten different things. In fact, some of the greatest and most influential players in music had idiosyncratic approaches no one would teach. Those oddities are part of the sound those players produced, and sometimes there’s a lot to be learned by looking at them. But for a beginner, it’s best to take a broad view and use the techniques that work best for the majority of players. As with every other aspect of guitar playing, it starts with the hand itself.
Hold your picking hand out in front of you with the arm held perpendicular to the floor and your thumb on top. Let the arm, wrist, and hand relax. You’ll probably find that the hand at rest looks something like this:
If your fingers are extended, see what happens if you “ask” them to relax. Extending the fingers does require engaging the muscles, so if they aren’t slightly curled you might not be completely relaxed.
Now bring your fingers to the strings, resting the index, middle, and ring fingers on the three treble strings and the thumb on the fifth string. Think of this as resting position.
One thing you’ll notice in observing other players is that this position is a starting point and not an absolute. Everyone’s hands are proportioned a little differently, and that’s going to change the amount of curl in the fingers and the shape of the wrist. The main thing is to try not to bend the wrist too dramatically in any one direction. Maintain enough curl so that you can move the fingertips in towards the palm to pluck. The finger should pass through the string more than pull it away.
Now try the following simple exercises:
- Strike each string only once. Notice that the thumb strikes two strings, first the 5th and then the 4th, by pushing lightly towards the floor. The fingers pull in gently, moving primarily from the middle joint. Be sure to release each finger after striking the string so they return to a neutral position. Experiment with using the ring, middle, or index finger to play the high E string. A classical guitarist would likely use the ring finger, but index or middle are common options in other styles.
- Pluck four notes together as a chord, using thumb-index-middle-ring to strike strings 5-3-2-1 as you hold a C chord. Let the three fingers move together as a unit, pulling inward as the thumb moves down. If you feel like you don’t have room to move, extend the thumb a little so it points up the neck. The thumb and fingers move on opposing planes, so each needs to have room to move freely.
- This is a very common “pick” involving an alternating bass pattern. The thumb moves back and forth between the 5th and 4th strings, while the index and middle fingers fill in between: thumb – index – thumb – middle. This alternating thumb bass is the simplest form of what many guitarists call “Travis picking” after the great Merle Travis (another of the great idiosyncratic virtuosos, who could do more with one finger than most players can with three! Check out his playing style here).
These three examples should be enough to give you a start. Remember that there are as many different approaches as there are players, so feel free to experiment. Start with a relaxed hand at rest as a “default” position, and then make adjustments as you experiment to see what feels most natural to you.
To illustrate how different two great players can be, watch this video of Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed. Of course, this is fingerstyle playing at its absolute best…but you’ll notice a big difference in the way these two virtuosos approach picking.
For more on this subject, check out my previous post from 2015: pick vs. fingers.