Introduction To Fingerpicking
What came first - the chicken or the egg? This infamous dilemma of causality has been fascinating scientists, philosophers, theologians, cartoonists, and basically everyone else for millennia; was the egg a result of the chicken, or the chicken a result of the egg? Here at Guitar Head we’re a little more laid-back (no pun intended) about the whole thing. Whichever came first, they’re both delicious!
There’s a not dissimilar question in our world as well. What came first - the guitar or the plectrum? Well weirdly it was actually the plectrum. Although perhaps not so weird when you consider that the earliest examples were used for playing the classical Greek lyre, and later examples were fitted into harpsichords (yes, the strings in those things are plucked rather than struck!).
In fact, musicians have been picking away at stringed instruments with everything from feathers to bits of turtle shell for thousands of years. Guitarists were actually fairly late to get in on the act, with finger and thumb picks (primarily designed for banjos or mandolins) initially being far more commonly used to play steel-string guitars than the standard ‘flat pick’ that we’re all familiar with today.
It’s perhaps a near certainty that any guitarist reading this popular guitar blog (especially the beginners) will have been playing exclusively with plectrums from the start. This is completely understandable and totally sensible, since finger-style playing is traditionally a feature of Spanish or Classical guitar playing, including Flamenco and Bossa Nova styles, all of which can be accomplished relatively painlessly when you’re using nylon strings. But ‘tradition’ naturally has its limits…
Pickin’ things up
As you might imagine, the world is full of individuals who have been happy to buck conventional playing trends for years - Jeff Beck and Mark Knopfler are just two examples of virtuoso guitarists who for years have habitually avoided conventional picks even when soloing using steel-strung instruments. But this still falls under the heading of ‘Finger-style’, whereas we’re focussing on something much more basic and far more rhythmic here!
‘Fingerpicking’ is a type of Finger-style playing, but should definitely be regarded as a distinct technique in its own right. Having developed from early ragtime styles, through blues, country, jazz and even folk, it also covers a pretty broad spectrum of methods and genres for rhythm guitar playing. All of which generally rely on the same principles with your picking hand;
- Positioning your hand over the strings in a slightly ‘cupped’ shape, with your thumb away from the fingers, is a good starting point for any fingerpicking style. Ideally you won’t need to move the hand at all - remember it’s the digits that should be doing the work!
- The thumb (T) is mainly used to pluck the lower strings (4th, 5th and 6th)
- Your index (I), middle (M) and ring (R) fingers tend to cover the higher strings (1st, 2nd and 3rd). Your fourth finger gets a break!
One final general rule; let the plucked strings ring out throughout the duration of whatever chord you’re playing, or at least until you come to a natural rest or break in the music.
So now let’s actually try something!
Probably the simplest method of fingerpicking. So-called because you’re making a ‘claw’ shape with your hand, and using three fingers to pluck the strings simultaneously.
This is basically alternating between picking the lowest 2 strings with your thumb, and ‘clawing’ the three indicated higher strings with the index, middle and ring fingers. Play it straight for a country feel, and experiment with some swing to make it jazzy!
Otherwise known as ‘broken chords’, which you may have already tried playing with a pick (certainly if you’ve had a go at ‘Halleluiah’!), these are just as easily performed with your fingers.This is just a case of working through the digits of your picking hand sequentially, starting at the thumb, moving through to your third finger, and then back again. The key here is to try and keep the rhythm constant – listen to ‘Hand On Your Heart’ performed by José González for an example of this technique at its absolute finest.
We’ll end with the king of the country picking styles, named after the legendary Merle Travis. It’s versatile (works in blues, folk, country, you name it…), good for impressing non-guitarists (looks seriously complicated), but is actually far easier than it looks - you only need your thumb and 2 fingers!
Just take things one step at a time…
- Begin with picking those bass notes with your thumb, one at a time. Repeat this until you’re comfortable.
- Now add a ‘pinch’ on the first beat with your middle finger. Repeat this until you’re comfortable.
- Drop in the first off-beat note with your index finger. Repeat this until you’re comfortable.
- Drop in a whole load of other off-beats to form a ‘roll’. Repeat this until your fingers fall off or a string breaks…
There are very few chords this technique won’t work over. Trust me – Travis picking can keep you entertained for hours!
Wrapping it up
And there you have it – three new ways with your instrument that won’t mean losing yet another plectrum. Or hopefully any fingernails. Until next time…