How to Play Fingerstyle Guitar

Did someone use ‘fingering’ and ‘guitar’ in the same sentence? Yep, that’s right – fingerstyle guitar is a thing. In fact, it’s a beautiful thing for guitarists like Tommy Emmanual and Michael Hedges, and among many more, who have shown the magic of fingerstyle guitar playing through the combination of chords, rhythm, melodies, and percussive manner.

If you’re looking to master this old music technique that’s been around since the late 19th century, you’re in the right place. We will go over five quick and easy steps when teaching a beginner or ‘noob’ to play fingerstyle guitar.

Read on to learn more!

1. Own the Right Fingerstyle Guitar

The first step in learning fingerstyle is to choose or own the right guitar to apply it with. Also, knowing that ‘fingerstyle’ and ‘fingerpicking’ are not the same is imperative because, although both terms are used interchangeably, they each carry a slightly different idea.

Fingerstyle involves plucking the strings directly with your fingernails, fingertips, or the ‘picks’ attached to your fingers. Even more, fingerstyle covers various styles, including jazz and classical guitar (to name a few). So, there is not really one best guitar for fingerstyle because this technique encompasses many genres.

In contrast, fingerpicking is all about focusing your thumb on playing an alternating bass pattern while the other fingers play a melody on the treble strings. Sometimes there is a thumb pick involved, but at the very least, fingerpicking is a subcategory of fingerstyle. 

We recommend an acoustic guitar for fingerstyle beginners because mainly they are designed in a very deliberate manner to highlight the nuances and subtleties of the music style they are intended for. Thus, this allows the acoustic sounds to compliment the sound of fingerstyle guitar. However, it is still very possible to play fingerstyle with an electric guitar.

2. Take Control With Your Right Hand

The second step is to train your mind to remember to position your hands in a certain way, especially your right hand. 

Playing fingerstyle guitar requires more focus on your right hand. Before this, you likely were accustomed to using your right hand with a pick, strumming with it, or plucking the strings. 

Moreover, to know where each finger goes on which guitar strings, it is common in fingerstyle to assign your right-hand fingers with letters. In contrast, your left-hand fingers are associated more with numbers.

For developing your right-hand patterns, you could memorize the popular PIMA, which originated from Spanish fingerstyle techniques. Each letter stands for:

  • Pulgar (thumb) = 4th, 5th, 6th strings
  • Indice (index) = 3rd string
  • Medio (middle) = 2nd string
  • Anular (ring finger) = 1st string

For your left hand, you can identify each finger using T, 1, 2, 3. In other words:

  • Thumb = 4th, 5th, 6th strings
  • Index = 3rd string
  • Middle = 2nd string
  • Ring = 1st string 

Note: The pinky fingers (extremo in Spanish) are abbreviated e or c but do not pluck any strings.

Tip: Fingerstyle guitar will sound better and make it easier for you when you use the fleshy part of your finger, acrylic nails, fingerpicks, or long nails in general to strum.

3. Work on Properly Positioning Your Right Arm and Wrist

After building a strong relationship between your right hand’s fingers and its associated strings, it’s then all about the correct positioning of your entire right arm and wrist. 

With your right arm, relax it by your side and move it upwards toward the guitar without changing your right arm and wrist position. When the underside of your forearm is resting on the top surface of the guitar, your arm’s weight should be supported by it. 

Tip: To avoid developing painful wrists, never place the palm of your hand on the guitar’s body.

4. Start Strumming with the ‘Free Stroke’

Now you can begin stroking your guitar’s strings. In fingerstyle, guitarists stroke primarily with what is called ‘the free stroke.’ To make this free stroke, be aware first that each of your fingers consists of the tip, middle, and knuckle. 

So, using the middle joint, pull your fingers towards your palm. The thumb will shift downwards and outward, which nearly results in a circular movement as it moves back to the string. 

Additionally, for you to learn fingerstyle guitar quickly and effectively, you should remember one pattern at a time, not one song at a time. In other words, practice right-hand patterns by playing simple, open chords and picking. When you repeat, start slow and gradually build up until you can play the same pattern without any mistakes. 

Most of all, loosen your shoulders and back. Your relaxation will positively influence your brain’s memory to remember the repetition of your fingerstyle playing. 

5. Practice Even More With Simple Chords and a Metronome

By now, you’ve come to realize that the fingerstyle technique involves more of playing with your right hand. In doing so, we recommend playing patterns with only the open strings while using a metronome device. Plus, avoiding the use of your left hand for the moment.

A metronome is a solution to build your rhythmic skills (‘playing in the pocket’) because keeping your rhythm is one of the critical ways to successfully playing fingerstyle guitar. The device can also help you improve control and increase your accuracy of each finger and thumb. By allowing this, you will fully be able to focus on developing your right hand. A metronome can be found online for free or download for free as a metronome app.

Afterward, once right-hand patterns are mastered, you can then switch to your left hand. Be sure to try some top fingerstyle guitar songs once you get the hang of it!

Read next:

How to play slide guitar – a guide

How to intonate your guitar

How to play bass guitar for beginners

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