fingerpicking · learning

An Introduction to Fingerpicking

Fingerpicking is nice way to add a different flavor to your playing. This article explores some steps to getting the basics down. We’ll look at three fingerpicking patterns, one for chords with a root note on the 5th string (like C), one for chords with a root note on the 6th string (like G) and one for chords with a root note on the 4th string.

You can use various combinations of fingers on your picking hand to pluck notes. Here, we’re going to focus on using the thumb, index and middle finger to get a basic fingerpicking pattern going. As you go, keep in mind that the rule is to start slowly. It takes a while to get the movements wired into your fingers but you’ll be surprised at what you can eventually do.

Learning the Pattern
First, place your thumb over the 5th string. Then place your index finger over the 3rd string. Then place your middle finger over the 2nd string. With this process we are “assigning” each of these fingers to a particular string.

Now, without fretting a chord, pluck each of these strings using the following fingers, to a count of four. So…

“one” = T (Thumb)
“two” = I (Index)
“three” = M (Middle)
“four”  = I (Index)

Repeat that pattern several times to get a feel for the basic movement. Try to keep your plucking rhythmically even.

Playing a Chord
Next, fret an open C chord with your fretting hand. Again pick the fingerpicking pattern. You should have a nice piano-esque sound.

Now try this pattern with a standard Ami chord.  The notes should ring out clearly. If you have any buzzing or muffled notes you’re probably not pressing down hard enough with one or more of your fretting fingers. Or, one of your fretting fingers is “hanging” over a string underneath it and muffling it. For example, the flesh of your finger fretting the note on the third string might hanging low and muting the note on the second string.

Playing Chords Together
Now try going from C to Ami, playing eight fingerpicked notes for each chord. This will result in two counts of four—or two bars—for each chord. You may have some difficulty at the point of chord switching. If so, check out this article for tips on smoothing out those transitions.

Let’s make things a bit more challenging. So far we’ve been plucking a note on every beat. Let’s slow down our beat… way down, and trying playing four notes per beat. So for every instance you count a number you’ll play four notes using the thumb, middle, index, middle pattern. This sort of thing is often counted as…

“ONE, two three, four, TWO, two, three, four, THREE, two, three, four, FOUR, two, three, four,

Groups of Three
Let’s try a different pattern. The first pattern we tried was in groups of four; now we’ll try a group of three. Here’s how the fingers match up with beats.

“one” = T
“two” = M
“three” = I

Try this with a chord of your choosing, playing the sets of three notes over and over.

You can use these three note patterns to get an interesting triplet feel. For example, let’s say you have a song in 4/4 time (as most pop songs are.) You can use this pattern to play three notes for each beat. The count would be…

“ONE, two, three, TWO, two three, THREE, two, three, FOUR, two, three.”

You are playing a note on each number counted.

Pattern for chords with a root on the 6th string
Let’s go back to our four note pattern but we will now move the thumb to a different string. The thumb will be on the 6th string, while the other fingers will stay where they are. Try that pattern on a standard G open chord, Emi open chord, E open chord and F#mi barre chord (If you are familiar with it.) Again the notes should ring nice and clear. (This will be tough on any barre chords.)

After you develop some comfort with the thumb on the 6th string, try the “groups of three” pattern as well. Then try going from a G chord with the thumb on the 6th string to a C chord with the thumb on the 5th string. And, of course, play around with your own ideas here.

Pattern for chords with a root on the 4th string
Let’s now move our thumb so that it’s playing the 4th string while the other two fingers stay where they are. This is a pattern we might use for a open D chord. Try it out.

It’s not bad, but I tend to like a little space between the notes my thumb is plucking and the higher notes. So let’s reassign our index and middle fingers as follows. The index will now pluck the 2nd string and the middle will pluck the first string. Try that D chord again. I think you’ll find it has a little more pizzazz.

Of course, you can use whatever pattern you want for any chord and you may find some pleasant surprises. You can also make up your own patterns as well. What we’ve covered here should get you started.

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