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How to Learn Fingerstyle Guitar

How to Learn Fingerstyle Guitar

When it comes to learning fingerstyle guitar, nothing rivals the ancient art of fingerpicking. It sounds great on acoustic and electric alike and teaches discipline to those looking to add intricacy to their playing.

From Joni Mitchell to Townes Van Zandt, there are a ton of great fingerpicking masters to check out. And whether you’re looking to join their ranks or just have fun learning something new, these exercises will help you greatly.

The basics of fingerpicking

Learning to fingerpick takes getting your picking fingers accustomed to the strings they will be striking, which is always awkward. Some teachers say to use four fingers (not the pinky); others say use all five – ultimately, it’s your choice.

For the purposes of these exercises, however, you will (assumedly) be working with four fingers and tabs. Feel free to use the pinky or look up sheet music if you can read it, though!

Exercise 1 – Right Hand Fingerstyle Technique, without Left hand

For this first exercise, get your fingers familiar with the strings by designating general areas for each finger. The thumb should keep the rhythm and stay within the three bass strings (EAD). Meanwhile, the three fingers will focus mainly on the three top strings (GBE).

So, start by using your thumb to pick the E, A, and D strings, one at a time. You don’t have to hold down any frets for this part, just let your thumb do all the work.

Then, start working with the three primary fingers – the index, middle, and ring fingers. Pluck the top three strings simultaneously, repeatedly, to get a feel for it.

Check out the below tab for a better idea.

E – – – – 0 – – – – – – – – –

A – – – – – – – 0 – – – – – –

D – — – – – – – – – – 0 – – –

G – – – – – – – – – – – – – – 0  

B – – – – – – – – – – – — – -0 

e – — – – – – – – – – – – – – 0

Exercise 2 – Fingerpick a basic chord shape

Right Hand Arpeggios

For this exercise, you will be working with a single chord. Any chord works, but this exercise will use an A minor (Am). If you don’t know it, take some time to learn it!

First, strum the Am the way you would normally– with or without a pick, it does not matter. Pay special attention to how the chord feels so you have something to compare it to for the next step.

Now, fingerpick the Am shape.

  • Thumb an open note on the A string
  • Then, using your remaining three fingers:
    • Use your index for the D string (fret 2),
    • Use your middle for the G string (fret 2)
    • Use your ring to alternate between the B (fret 1) and e (open) strings

Your thumb should keep the beat while your other fingers make the chord come to life. Do this one note at a time and repeat, alternating your pattern whenever you’re ready.

Additionally, try using all your picking fingers to pluck the strings at once. Then add this technique to your alternation method.

And as you’re picking, make sure you keep your fingers as close to their designated strings as possible. This will help with your speed and will make the picking sound more natural.

See the below figure.

   A minor

E – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

A – – 0 – – – – – – – – – – – –

D – — – – – 2- – – – – – — –

G – – – – – – – – – 2 – – – – –

B – – – – – – – – – – -1- – – –

e – — – – – – – – – – – – – – 0

Exercise 3 – adding hammer-ons and pull-offs

Now that you know how to fingerpick a basic chord, add some hammer-ons and pull-offs to your playing. The great fingerpickers utilize this technique because it adds another level, the equivalent of guitar riffs, to the picking.

For this final exercise, continue using the Am chord – but to start, you’ll only pluck one string: the B string. Remember you’re doing all this with just the ring finger!

  • First, pluck the B string open
  • Then quickly hammer-on the B string, first fret
  • Finally, pull-off for an open note

Next, fingerpick the Am and throw in the hammer-on/pull-off!

See figure below

   A minor with hammer-on/pull-off (#1)

E – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

A – – 0 – – – – – – – – – – – –

D – — — 2- – – – – – — –

G – – – – – – 2 – – – – –

B – – – – – – – – -0^1^0- –

e – — – – – – – – – – – – – 0

Now, let’s add another string to this exercise – this time, the e string. Hammer-on and pull-off the third fret of the e string. You can use either your ring finger or pinky finger for this.

Now combine both techniques. Alternate between hammering-on/pulling-off the B string (first fret) and the e (third fret) while your other fingers do their thing.

See figure below

   A minor with hammer-on/pull-off (#2)

E – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

A – – 0 – – – – – – – – – – – –

D – — — 2- – – – – – – – – –

G – – – – – – 2 – – – – – – – –

B – – – – – – – – -1- – – – – –

e – — – – – – – – – – -0^3^0

And if you’re feeling brave, try hammering-on and pulling-off both strings at once!

A brave new fingerpicker is born!

Now that you have some basics down, you are on your way to becoming a master fingerstyle guitar. The great thing about this style of playing is you can spend hours messing around. You’re welcome for the infinite joy!

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