As a guitarist more often drawn to using a plectrum, I am aware that it can sometimes feel like the bounds of playing a guitar in this way are limitless, especially when one considers the seemingly endless depths of sound design that can be plundered when procuring analogue and digital effects pedals old and new.
However, what if I were to tell you that right at the ends of your fingers are tools that can, with diligent practise, add several dimensions of depth to the chords that you are so familiar with as to be tired of them?
That’s right – granted you’ve still got all your fingers then you already have before you this very ability, to rethink the tonality and harmonic relations between each and every note in each and every chord at your disposal, as well as to treat the guitar more like a piano (or even a full band in the case of Tommy Emmanuel)!
Simply strumming chords can sometimes feel lacking in the physical power that the music otherwise might communicate, not to mention being often devoid of the tact we might expect of a professional musician. Fingerpicking, on the other hand, allows a guitarist to play as gently & sparingly, or as chaotically and intensely, as they or their chosen song desire, thoughtfully employing runs of notes to fill out the sound.
Whether in a full band, accompanying a singer, or even solo, fingerstyle guitar packs an emotive punch and a musical palette oozing with diversity, personality, and a choice for every occasion, present as it is throughout the annuls of Western music. Throughout history, we need only look to see its presence in all manner of styles and genres: Classical guitar, Spanish, Flamenco, Blues, Bluegrass; and the whole spectrum of popular music, from old to new folk, everything in between, even featuring in Avicii’s ‘Wake Me Up’.
It can often be easy to focus too much on strumming patterns and melody lines and solos, losing sight of the guitar’s raw ability to act as a rhythmic, harmonic & melodic instrument, all simultaneously! Learning even basic fingerpicking skills exercises both the mind’s ability to think in more than one place, as well as the too frequently neglected picking hand.
So, while today we will in some sense be neglecting the fretting hands harmonic and melodic explorations on a surface level, beneath all this we will be getting to the heart of what makes these musical elements tick, expanding our knowledge of these things outwards, to view them at a microscopic level from which to build upwards. The beauty with this area of guitar, as with many others, is that there is so much room for you, the player, to place something of yourself within it; to experiment ,once you have become accustomed with some basic patterns, to formulate your own way through the landscape of guitar, regardless of genre, style, tradition, or the preference of others, expanding the horizon of possibility in all aspects of the instruments.
What Exactly is a Fingerpicking Pattern?
We can think of it as simply another type of playing to perfect, another string to our bow so to speak, but a technique which transcends genre and style labels, ever present as it is through Western musical history and socio-geographical climes throughout the hemisphere. This technique places much more attention on the picking hand, that which would typically be more accustomed to neglect in favour of the fretting hand.
One can already see how this would have enormous benefits for versatility and musicianship, in being able to play as a band as opposed to just a guitarist, where the thumb of the picking hand typically assumes the role of the bass, and the fingers the chordal backing and melodic lead, all simultaneously. In some styles, such as that of Tommy Emmanuel, there is even a rhythmic element added, achieved through tapping or slapping certain parts of the guitar and strings with desired and corresponding parts of the hand, for varying effects from bass drum to snare and beyond, though we are getting a little ahead of ourselves!
Our common currency here is chords which, through the various and seemingly infinite number of fingerpicking patterns, are divided into their component parts, bass notes and arpeggios being the result of this metaphorical smelting. The inherent harmony of a song remains unchanged, and yet is paradoxically expanded through its deconstruction. The fact that the musician and listener are essentially being shown the most basic tools with which the song is made has little to no effect on that special magic that keeps a piece of music in motion and kept together at the seams.
Boiled down to these essential elements, fingerpicking patterns find a variety of different applications, though often in two opposed respects:
- Innately more intricate, these various modes of fingerpicking can serve to draw more attention to the accompaniment, and to the guitarist in general if we are to think of this in the terms of a performance. This can be particularly useful if the guitarist in question is one of – if not the only – accompaniment to another musician, or even if they are the only musician playing. The ceaseless flow of arpeggiated chordal shapes is perfect for filling out what might otherwise be an empty musical space, should this scenario and necessity present itself.
- Conversely, the fact of the chords’ arpeggiation and subsequent dissection into single notes means that more care and attention can be paid to their individual notes, allowing for a gentler outlook on the guitar, instilling in the performance or composition an air of subtlety and cognition difficult to attain when thinking through the lens of simple strumming. This can be especially poignant when accompanying for a solo vocalist, or simply for more delicate music like folk that asks of its performers a deftness and timidity of touch that would seem unruly played strumming. These kinds of music often feature vocal lines and melodies that span larger ranges more suddenly, making the harmonic spread of fingerpicked arpeggios apposite for the cause.
This can all seem rather overwhelming at first, though the body’s knack for memorising through shape in muscles means that your fingers will be running away with you in no time! Like every aspect of learning an instrument such as guitar, consistent, diligent, and intelligent practise are required to get out of it everything that you can, and to find through it the potential of your creative self.
A goal to set oneself would be to master a certain number of these patterns until they feel innate, memorised as they are by the muscles and tendons in your fingers. Again, sowing the seeds of this work enables you to fill out the palette of your guitar abilities, enabling you more freedom and choice to colour and deepen your musical accompaniments, compositions, and performances, with comparatively little effort.
What Does This Mean for The Guitar?
To begin with, the emphasis should be on the picking hand. Nothing fancy necessary on the fretting hand, no flourishes or chord extensions: simply play what you would otherwise be comfortable strumming, preferably basic chords like Em, Am & D, which each use for their root bass note a different string (the E, A & D string respectively). Exercising your abilities on each of these supplementary bass strings is a perfect way to introduce the idea of the thumb acting as the bassist, so arpeggiating through these chords in any order, making sure to use your thumb to pluck the root note each time, will help immensely.
Remember, the most important thing here is accustoming your picking hand to these motions. Assess yourself and your own pace, and practise accordingly, only increasing speed and difficulty once you are absolutely comfortable with everything thus learned.
If you haven’t already done so, this would be a great opportunity to align your feeling of playing with what you are hearing: the feeling of a fret buzzing against your finger, for instance, with the anti-climax of the corresponding note’s sonority. Working backwards with this logic, if something isn’t resounding quite right rhythmically or sonically, take this moment to slow down the pace of your exercise and home in on the aspects most troubling to you. Again, this is a great time to be that which links your varying senses, the person at the centre of the spectrum of sensory information delivered to you at each and every moment: what the surroundings look like, how clearly you can see the fretboard; the sound of each note alone and as one, and how they sound against the ambience of the space; the feeling of one’s fingers against the strings, the vibration of the guitar against the body; the smell of the wood resonating in the atmosphere – being at one with all of these things in some way will have you a master in no time.
And Which Style is Right for Me?
There are an innumerable amount of styles, owing not only to the rich tapestry of styles and cultures that use such techniques, but also to the autonomy that this mode of playing gifts each and every musician who chooses to use it, enabling them and you to bring to it something of the self, your musical philosophy and methodology. If you are new to this technique, however, it might be an idea to think about how you use your pinky finger in all of this: before becoming too comfortable in using it to stabilise your hand in relation to the strings, might it not be better to force yourself into using it as an extra picking digit, thus maximising the amount of harmonic and melodic mileage you can get out of the guitar at once?
And also, it is essential to hold dear the idea that the bass notes are the role of the thumb, playing the root or whichever note it is inverted to. The bass, typically like the thumb, is best kept rounded and constant to flesh out the sound.
Essential Fingerpicking Patterns
You’ll find below a number of different and varying patterns for fingerstyle playing, that will vary in their styling and usage, and in being thus will encourage you the musician to find something of yourself within. Having a tight roster of these under your belt, well-practised and executed, will mean being able to accompany yourself and others in a panoply of scenarios on the fly, to basically any chord sequence.
Some of those below will feature chord extensions that might not be familiar to you, though I would encourage you to remain open-minded and to approach these exercises with a clear, patient head: perhaps seeing these chords for what they are, in all their vulnerability as parts, we can begin to realise that they are not so big, bad, and scary as previously thought.
As with a lot of patterns, at least initially, the fingers of the picking hand will be assigned to different strings, from which they will rarely wander. The thumb will often migrate between the lower, bass-centric strings, but that’s about it. It’s good practise to try and keep the fingers where they are, in this floating position, to strengthen their pertinence and dexterity in obeying the orders of your synaptic pulse:
- We begin with the thumb sounding out the G root on the low E string,
- followed by the index finger plucking the octave on the open G string,
- then the middle finger sounds the 5th D on the B string,
- returning afterward to the index’s open G string again,
- then sounding out the octave G on the E string,
- repeating the open G string,
- then the 5th D on the B string,
- and finally, again, the open G string.
This will usually move on to another chord, though equally likely is that this will loop back round. In this instance, it’s an idea to add variation to the chord, so, when you’re comfortable in this exercise, at your own pace, try playing other strings with your thumb while repeating the finger pattern shown above, namely the D and A string, slowly beginning to cycle through those strings in parallel motion to that of your fingers. This adds a particular country feel to the playing, perfect as an accompaniment to a croon soaked in the smell of wood smoke by a campfire after a hearty meal in the wilderness with the ones you love.
From the first chord, G, we move to C9, D and Dsus4, remembering at each stage to begin by placing your thumb at the root. Making sure to do this with each chord, the actual performing of it will come in no time, as you slowly grow used to shifting the shape of both your fretting and picking hand simultaneously and in counterpoint. Don’t forget to take this all at your own pace and practise intelligently, ensuring the ironing out of imperfections at the earliest possible stages, to avoid their being sowed into your subconscious mind and muscle memory.
The extended nature of these chords make this pattern a more apposite pick for folk chord progressions or moods, a little more challenging than the first pattern mostly for having two notes plucked simultaneously at certain points, the thumb and certain fingers working in conjunction with each other.
The progression itself, while relatively simple, is an exhibition of the way that these kind of styles of picking can act as both harmonic accompaniment (E – E9 – Asus2 – A – B7), bass bolstering, and melody, the latter here seen in the ascended 9th and the Asus2 rising to an A major:
- As with the previous pattern, we want our picking thumb resting on the root E on the low E string, though here using the ring finger to simultaneously pluck the octave E on the high E string.
- Keeping the fingers static, as in the previous pattern, it is the thumb which will be doing all of the manual work, moving from the E string to the D string, still plucking an octave E,
- after that the middle finger will pluck the open B string,
- then the index finger plucks the 3rd Ab on the G string,
- followed by the ring finger on the open high E string,
- and finally, the thumb returns to the octave E on the D string.
This repeats, depending on the chord in question, though so long as you begin with your thumb on the root note of the chord on one of the bass-oriented strings you shouldn’t have any problems. Try this with any variation of chords that you like. For a challenge why not try extending some simple chords in this way, making a cycle out of some folk-sounding chords, increasing the speed of your playing and the complexity of the chords once you are comfortable?
Here we have a pattern so ubiquitous as to almost be a right of passage for folk and singer-songwriter artists throughout the Western hemisphere, and so famous as to have its own name, popularised as it was by the folk and country artist Merle Travis. This is certainly a step-up from the previous two patterns, busy and aflutter with the flight of fingers and bass sways, though with a wealth of songs utterly founded on this style it won’t be hard to find real-world examples to help you along in your studies.
This pattern has more mobility of the fingers alongside that of the thumb, but a central position can be reliably found when homing in on the root note with the thumb each time (C – C/B – Am7 – C/G – F – Em – F – G):
- In this example, the thumb will begin on the A string, plucking a C on the 3rd fret, simultaneously plucking the octave C on the first fret of the B string,
- the index finger will then pluck the 3rd E on the D string, followed by the 5th G on the open G string,
- resolving round onto the thumbed root, here being the C of the A string,
- then sounding out the octave on the first fret of the B string,
- then the 3rd E again on the D string,
- and, finally, sounding out the 5th G again on the open G string.
In some cases, you can shift the fingers up and down the strings with the picking hand for a variation of the sound, though I would suggest only broaching this when you have become totally familiar with the method outlined above.
Adjusting the position of the fretting hand on the strings in relation to the chord changes is essential, so don’t forget to do so. A good exercise would be to use your own intuition to best judge where you think your fingers ought to be in relation to your fretting hand. Micro exercises, such as working on the shifting of shapes simultaneously in both hands, are sure fire ways to render more robust and lubricated your playing, ultimately offering you, the player, more control, and choice.
This pattern uses what are called double stops and triple stops to outline chords, while still making room to accompany another soloist or vocalist.
A double stop is simply playing two notes at the same time, as we have already done, and a triple stop, I’m sure you can guess, is the playing of three notes at once. This works in a similar way to strumming, though allowing much more room for the musician to switch their dynamics and highlight specific areas of the harmony at certain points, in counterpoint with another musician.
This ought to be relatively minimal, so shouldn’t take much getting used to, and is a vital tool to be slung from any guitarist’s belt:
- Simply playing the bass note root to begin with, then playing the double or triple stop is all that is required;
- In this example, because the triple stops are so static, the bass is conversely doing a lot of the melodic work, however we shouldn’t let our guard down whatsoever;
- It could be very easy for our fingers to be unaligned here and to play the individual notes of the triple stop in a syncopated way, which isn’t desirable in this instance. We want to be in control of when we are syncopating, and a useful way to remain autonomous here is to ensure that the picking fingers are touching and, thus, are able to act as one claw-like shape, without the delay that might otherwise prevail between the digits.
- This technique can be used in almost any time signature imagined or desired, though here I’ve seen fit to notate it in 3/4, simply as a way to invest some time in the swung rhythmic aspect hitherto unexplored.
The static nature of the higher, triple-stopped notes ought to serve as a reminder of just how interlinked these open chords can be – a real-world way of feeling the interconnectedness of Western harmony through your own fingertips.
Hopefully you’ve learnt something today, no matter your present progression as a guitarist: whether it be the dissection of harmony, rendering more adept your arpeggios, or simply coming to appreciate what might outwardly seem like some uncomplicated accompaniment. Take these exercises, hold them tight, and feel free at every point to experiment and forge your own path through the rippling hips of the acoustic guitar landscape, keeping your ear out for inspiration wherever it may be, and for new patterns wherever they might crop up in music and elsewhere.