So, you have had enough of simple old strumming and want to expand the fretboard, taking your harmonic knowledge to new heights? Or perhaps you simply better want to accompany your self or a companion while they serenade you or another? Whichever your path, fingerpicking songs would do well along it, achieving both of these things and more. In fact, I’ll bet some of your favorite singer songwriter type songs are written around or reimagined by the art of fingerpicking songs.
Fingerpicking or fingerstyle guitar has been around for about as long as any one can figure, being a common technique in such medieval instruments as the Lute. So effective was it, it’s no doubt that it would still be such a prominent force in popular music today. The sheer variety of its uses makes it a popular candidate across a whole spectrum of different styles of music, each forwarding it in their own way slowly over time until they became more and more distinguishable from each other.
Seen in band contexts, this technique is also especially suitable to those intending to perform in smaller outfits, the rhythmic, percussive, melodic, and harmonic aspects bolstering other parts effectively, maintaining momentum and yet not clogging the musical atmosphere.
While there will be a whole series of songs for you to choose from below, the intention is that you choose those which interest you only. There’s no need to learn a bunch of songs that you haven’t any intention of listening to or playing again! Simply pick and choose those fingerpicking songs that interest you or that you already have an interest in, using this resource intelligently and with your own discretion, bearing in mind that this selection will be going from beginner songs to more advanced.
1. ‘Greensleeves’ by The Past
Where better to start our journey than with one of the first known fingerpicking songs in the whole of the Western canon. It is so old that no one knows who originally composed it, and so it is often listed as a traditional piece, which is about the same as listing it under Anon.
Composed over 400 years ago, there are rumours that it is the handy work of Henry VIII, though no one can ever be sure he composed it, unless we time travelled of course! He was quite a gluttonous lay about anyhow, so I highly doubt it! The piece is entirely based on a style of composition from Italy that didn’t arrive in England until after Henry’s VIII’s death. This would increase the likelihood that it is more Elizabethan in origin. The actual origins of the song, however, remain entirely a mystery, as it seems to just appear from nowhere…
In terms of the theoretical aspects and details, the song is typically in A minor and can be played in standard tuning, that is E – A – D – G – B – E, from lowest pitch and string to highest pitch and string. As fingerpicking songs go, this one is at a reasonable difficulty, so digested by the ever spanning annuls of folk and country music.
This song is a country and folk classic, a favourite that has been shared by ear and by word of mouth throughout the ages, becoming an emblem of what it means to be a part of the British folk tradition, as well as a part of folk traditions world wide. This is one to bolster any aspiring folk musician’s ever burgeoning song book.
2. ‘Fast Car’ by Tracy Chapman
This worldwide hit by singer songwriter Tracy Chapman should need no introduction. This mammoth track took the world by storm upon release in 1988, receiving even more radio play when Chapman performed at the 70th Birthday Party Tribute of civil rights icon and worldwide inspiration Nelson Mandela.
Stevie Wonder was meant to perform after her set but, due to technical difficulties, was unable to do so. Thus, Chapman was urged back onto the stage where she performed this song and another while the event organisers worked on readying the next act for lift off. This brought an unprecedented amount of otherwise unknown spotlight on Chapman and the song at large, enabling the album to top the Billboard 200 in August of 1988, with the song itself reaching number six on the Billboard Hot 100 on the same week.
As fingerpicking songs go, this is incredibly forlorn, lathered with gritty, real world themes. Detailed within is a story that singles in on a poor working woman attempting to escape the cycle of poverty, though repeatedly getting set back by elements slightly outside of her control. Some consider the overall message and meaning of the song somewhat hopeful.
The bed of acoustic folk rock is befitting of such a gentle song, allowing the harsh truths to be delivered in a soft and palatable format for the whole world to consume. This couldn’t be more relevant considering the poverty and homelessness epidemic crisis that the Western world in particular currently faces. Any songs that are going to attempt to address this issue in the act gets a thumbs up from me.
3. ‘Let Her Go’ by Passenger
Who doesn’t know this classic? Maybe even too much perhaps? It has certainly been circulated ad nauseum through the air waves of the Western world. The song was originally released in 2012 by English singer songwriter Mike Rosenberg under the moniker Passenger, acting as the second single from his fourth album, All the Little Lights, though it didn’t achieve anywhere near the amount of success upon this initial release.
It became what is known in the entertainment industry as a ‘sleeper hit’, for in the last couple of years it has become so large a hit so long after its initial release that it often tickles the ear in a rather unpleasant way when it comes on.
This tune is one of those fingerpicking songs that, though a little more difficult, is incredibly enjoyable to play along to and also to hum along or sing along with, should you feel so inclined. The guitar has an incredibly gentle quality in this song owing to the fact that the capo is placed on the 7th fret, the pitch being inherently raised while also allowing the chords to be easier to play and sing along to.
The song has become so ubiquitous that you might even be able to play it from memory! Though it is of those slightly more advanced fingerpicking songs, it is a fantastic one to add to any repertoire or fingerstyle song book you might be accruing, mentally or literally. Perhaps if you learn the song… it will finally stop playing itself over and over in your head? Even if not, it’s still worth a try, no?
4. ‘Jolene’ by Dolly Parton
This is another one of those fingerpicking songs that has to have been heard the world over, has to have reached every corner of the globe at some point, so universal are its forlorn and gut wrenching messages of longing and begging. The song was a huge hit when it was released in 1973, and continues to hold sway among many top songs of all time lists. For a genre so littered with bravado and similarly brash emotions, it’s interesting to see these themes of insecurity, longing, wanting, and low self esteem explored in such a wide spanning forum as a pop song.
Dolly Parton, all round popular culture legend and philanthropist, alleges that the song is inspired by a real world encounter she had in a bank, when a member of staff flirted with her newly wedded husband, Carl Dean, just after they were married. She also claims to have taken the inspiration for the appearance of the eponymous Jolene character from a fan who jumped on stage for her autograph around the time the track was written. This personal aspect is precisely the reason Parton is so averse to singing this live, doing so very rarely because it runs so deep in her own history.
Logistically, this fingerpicking song begins by us putting our capo on the fourth fret. The song is in C# minor, so will be made a lot easier to navigate if we play the Am shape while the capo barres the fourth fret, for C# operates outside of the jurisdiction of any of the open chords. The song is relatively fast which can make the fingerpicking aspect a little demanding, so I would urge you to take it at your own pace to begin with, perhaps even playing alongside the haunting version uploaded onto YouTube, of the 7 inch single being played at 33rpm instead of 45rpm.
5. ‘Dear Prudence’ by The Beatles
This one is an oft neglected classic from the mainstream Western roster of fingerpicking songs. Released as one of the flagship singles from the Beatles’ self titled ‘White Album’, we have before us an example of what makes the act and skill of fingerpicking so effective, acting as the vehicle for the entire song’s movements, whether that be structurally, harmonically, or melodically.
Celebrating the beauty of nature and its simplicity, the song is used as a vehicle to recount an autobiographical story. During a spiritual retreat in Rishikesh in early 1968, both John Lennon and George Harrison attempted to coax attract Mia Farrow’s sister, Prudence Farrow, outside to ‘come out to play’, as she had become obsessive about staying inside and practising meditation with their spiritual guide, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Inspired by other fingerpicking songs of the period, Lennon utilised a fingerpicking technique on the guitar that he had been taught by fellow singer songwriter Donovan Phillips Leitch. This fingerpicking technique acts as the main force behind the song’s progression, being the only instrument that can be said to consistently play throughout the song, proof of the technique’s ability to act as rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic muscle.
First things first is to tune down the lowest E string to a D, to a tuning fittingly called drop D tuning. Being able to play this low D on the guitar enables said guitar to act more as a vehicle for the whole band, playing bass frequencies rather than relying on an another instrument to do so.
These bass notes will be shared out with the thumb hopping from string to string, hence why this song has been placed at such a point in this list of songs, the technique requiring a little more of the aspiring fingerstyle guitarist. This is a vital stepping stone for fingerpicking songs, however, so I would encourage you to take it one step at a time and approach it at your own pace intelligently.
6. ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ by Harry Nilsson
There is scarcely anything not iconic about this so iconic of fingerpicking songs, from the original version by Fred Neil, the consequent cover by Harry Nilsson, and the incredible movie Midnight Cowboy, in which the cover is featured so prominently.
The original version by American folk legend Fred Neil was the result of a hurried and anxious recording process. Neil was simply anxious to wrap up the recording of the eponymous album Fred Neil to return to his home in Miami. His manager, Herb Cohen, promised Neil that, if he wrote another song and recorded it there and then, he could go. The result, scribbled on to a napkin in the bathroom of the recording studio then performed and recorded in one single take, was the original version of ‘Everybody’s Talkin’.
The song took on new life a couple of years later when up and coming singer songwriter Harry Nilsson was shown the song while searching for a successful song to cover on his upcoming album, Aerial Ballet. The song, though not altogether different from the original, does feel like a reinvention of sorts, fed through Nilsson’s signature lens, his unparalleled ear for a ballad.
Soon enough, the song was featured as the main theme to the movie Midnight Cowboy, and it is indeed impossible to imagine one without the other. The song’s themes speak dearly to those of the movie, depicted the introverted narrator’s struggles to connect with those around him. Not able to hear or see them enough to discern what they are saying, they declare an intention to leave for nicer climes and times.
This is certainly one of the more complex fingerpicking songs, the delicate ascensions and descensions along the strings and fretboard moving by at a breath taking pace upon closer inspection. However, as with every aspect of learning the guitar, I would encourage you to take each individual aspect at your own pace, for there is no need to rush, and doing so could damage your progress as a musician.
7. ‘Angeles’ by Elliott Smith
Elliott Smith was a master of the guitar, however under stated, and was an incredible writer of fingerpicking songs and songs in general, his talents not limited to the guitar, but stretching to the piano and various other instruments. This is all to neglect how singular his voice truly was, in the abstract as a force of expression, and literally as a vehicle for that expression. No one sounded quite like Elliott.
The song is the 9th track from his third studio album Either/Or, and though it was not strictly released as a single it is still beloved by fans, heralded high among his greatest work. The song, thematically, grapples with Smith’s internal feelings of being torn between his beliefs. In this song, the (Los) Angeles of the title seems to represent the move from more independent record labels in Portland, Oregon, to the move that he makes following this album to DreamWorks Records in the big city. Yet it is a decision that he eventually makes, repeating the mantra a few times in the song: ‘So, glad to meet you, Angeles.’
As Elliott was such an adept guitarist, this is the most difficult of the fingerpicking songs here listed, though with time and due diligence I have no doubt you’ll have it under your belt. It is certainly worth your efforts, being so beautiful and crystalline a song. Begin by placing your capo on the 5th fret to make things a little easier for yourself, and away you go!
There you have it! If you were struggling at all with inspiration for where to start with fingerpicking songs, then I hope you are well on your way along a path of ideas and intrigue.
There’s plenty here to choose from, though don’t let this limit you in any way. Carve and sculpt the experience out for yourself. Use your ears and listen out for songs that might be using these techniques. Listen to your favorite songs with these ideas in mind, and experience them anew, with a new appreciation for all the finer details you might otherwise have missed!
FAQs Fingerpicking Songs
This very much has to do with what kind of music you are into or intend to learn. If you are into folk or Spanish classical guitar, you likely won’t want to be learning ‘Let Her Go’ by Passenger (though you would be surprised at the similarities between the two). Start out with something relatively simple that has been covered a bunch of times, if only to test the waters.
I suppose it would be if you had been so used to playing it, though a lot of people would argue that getting to a peak of finesse with fingerstyle is harder than simply strumming or plucking with a plectrum. Simply by default of playing more than one string at a time, fingerstyle is more difficult, but it doesn’t have to be, and can often be more rewarding, for you are the band at your fingertips!
Both terms are used interchangeably throughout the internet and throughout much other media on the subject, though this isn’t quite the same in classical guitar circles. Fingerpicking, too, can be used to refer to a very specific tradition of guitar playing in blues, folk and country music in the United States. Generally, though, in guitar circles, both phrases are almost certainly being used to refer to the same thing, namely the playing of a stringed instrument by plucking the strings directly, as opposed to flatpicking (playing with a plectrum).
It certainly can be, especially to begin with. And depending where you take or what styles of music you are learning the fingerstyles for, it can be more or less difficult to learn. Objectively, at least in the beginning, it is harder than simple flatpicking, though no less rewarding (in fact even more so).