How to Finger Pick: Guitar Fingerpicking Basics

So you want to learn how to finger pick guitar?  Fingerpicking (or sometimes referred to as fingerstyle) guitar might feel a little bit tricky at first, but there are some easy to follow basics that can have you fingerpicking in no time!  Today we’re going to look at proper fingerpicking hand position and a basic picking pattern to get us started.

Fingerpicking Hand Position

A correct fingerpicking hand position will use your thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers for picking.  Your thumb will pluck the 6th (E), 5th (A), and 4th (D) strings (the top 3 strings).  Your index finger will pluck the 3rd (G) string.  Your middle finger will pluck the 2nd (B) string.  Your ring finger will pluck the 1st (E) string.  

Sometimes your fingers may pluck other strings (there are always exceptions) but this should be our default fingering position.

Here are pictures of correct fingerpicking hand position:

You want to make sure your hand is as relaxed and naturally positioned as possible.  Any tension will limit your fingerpicking speed and accuracy.  Your wrist should not be crooked or bent.  

First Fingerpicking Pattern: “Outside-In”

The first pattern we’re going to learn is called an “Outside-In” fingerpicking pattern.  We’re going to apply this pattern to a C major chord.  

You are going to first pluck the root of the chord (a ‘C’ note) with your thumb.  Usually in fingerpicking patterns you will want to pluck the root of the chord first.  Then, you will also pluck another ‘C’ note with your middle finger.  Next, you will pluck an ‘E’ note with your thumb.  Lastly, you’ll pluck a ‘G’ note with your index finger.  Here is the pattern tabbed out:

    T    M     T    I      T    M     T    I
e ----------------------|----------------------
b -------1--------------|-------1--------------
g ------------------0---|------------------0---
d -------------2--------|-------------2--------
a --3-------------------|--3-------------------
e ----------------------|----------------------
    1    &     2    &      1    &     2    &

It sounds like this:


At first, start off slow and work on steady, consistent timing.  As that becomes easier, pick up your speed. Remember though, as you pick up your speed, maintain steady, consistent timing.  

Adding a Chord Change

Once you have the previous down, try adding a chord change.  Let’s switch from a C major chord to an A minor chord.

   T     M     T    I     T     M     T    I      T    M     T    I     T     M     T    I
e ----------------------|----------------------|----------------------|----------------------
b -------1--------------|-------1--------------|-------1--------------|-------1--------------
g ------------------0---|------------------0---|------------------2---|------------------2---
d -------------2--------|-------------2--------|-------------2--------|-------------2--------
a --3-------------------|--3-------------------|--0-------------------|--0-------------------
e ----------------------|----------------------|----------------------|----------------------
    1    &     2    &      1    &     2    &      1    &     2    &      1    &     2    &

It sounds like this:


Again, start off slow.  If you’ve never done any fingerpicking before you probably can’t play it as fast as the examples.  The key is that you are consistent in your timing (no matter how slow) and accurate in plucking the strings.

Do I need fingernails?

Some fingerpickers will grow out their fingernails to get a bit more “leverage” in their picking.  Those who fingerpick with their nails will produce a brighter and sharper sound.  Those who just pick more with the skin on the tips of the fingers will produce a more mellow sound.  So fingernails aren’t necessary for fingerpicking, but they may contribute more to the type of sound you want to create.

Also, you might notice that you’re picking fingers hurt a bit after you first practice.  This is normal.  After awhile, you should build up callouses on the fingers of your picking hand.  Give it time!  You’re on your way to becoming a real fingerpicker!

Further Resources

One very good fingerpicking instruction book that I own and recommend is The Art of Contemporary Travis Picking by Mark Hanson. It’s very easy to follow and thoroughly explained. It even includes a CD with instruction and examples as well. The book is dirt cheap too. You can learn something from this book no matter how long you’ve been playing. I recommend it.

We’ll be looking more in the future at fingerpicking. These are just the very basics and enough to be dangerous. Check back soon for more!

About Brett McQueen

Brett McQueen is a musician, songwriter, and the founder and editor of Guitar Friendly and Ukulele Tricks. Learn more about him here and follow him on Twitter at @GuitarFriendly.