How To Finger Pick At Guitar – Introduction And Exercises

For the longest time, I ignored finger picking. I figured if I could do it with a pick, why would I use my fingers? It didn’t really seem important to me.

But especially for acoustic guitarists, it’s an extremely useful and expressive technique. Once I got used to the feeling, I started to see how beneficial it was to my playing, and how it expanded my vocabulary as a guitarist.

There’s nothing wrong with using a pick. But I think it’s important to get used to using your fingers as well, before you’re stuck in your habits like I was. That’s why this blog focuses on how to finger pick at guitar.

Finger Picking

How to finger pick at guitar

Finger picking is the technique of plucking the strings of your guitar with your fingertips or fingernails. The opposite of finger picking is flat picking, which is the technique of using a guitar pick to plug your strings.

Finger picking was originally founded in the late 1800s and early 1900s when blues guitarists started to imitate ragtime piano music. They started to use their thumbs to mimic what the left hand of the pianist was doing. The other fingers would play what the right hand of the pianist was doing.

Famous finger picking artists are Chet Atkins, Mark Knopfler, and Derek Trucks, but also many modern pop artists like Ed Sheeran and John Mayer are known to be great as finger picking.

Five Fingers vs. One Pick

The biggest advantage of finger picking is that you have five units available opposed to flat

picking, where you only have one unit: the pick. This means you can play several notes simultaneously.

This makes it possible to play combinations that aren’t possible with only a guitar pick. You can play a very low and a very high note at the same time with a single pluck, without having to mute all the strings in between.

Not only that, but you also don’t have to make huge movements with your right hand when you skip between strings. Your right hand can stay steady whilst your fingers do all the work. Having five fingers available, which can all move individually, means you can build up a lot of speed in time.

How To Finger Pick At Guitar

Let’s focus on which fingers to use on what strings:

How to finger pick at guitar

As the picture shows:

  • The lower three strings (E, A, D) are played by the thumb.
  • The G string is played by the index finger
  • The B string is played by the middle finger
  • The highest E string is played by the ring finger

In some situations you may divert from this form, that’s absolutely fine. But considering this is an introduction to finger picking, we’re gonna keep it basic.

Whilst plucking, your thumb should always make a downward motion (towards the ground). Your other fingers should always make an upward motion.

Here’s a simple pattern:

This is how you play it:

If you don’t know how to read tabs, click here: How To Read Tabs For Guitar

E|-----------0--
B|--------0-----
G|-----0--------
D|--------------
A|--------------
E|--0-----------
E|-----------0--
B|--------0-----
G|-----0--------
D|--------------
A|--0-----------
E|--------------
E|-----------0----
B|--------0-------
G|-----0----------
D|--0-------------
A|----------------
E|----------------
E|-----------0----
B|--------0-------
G|-----0----------
D|----------------
A|--0-------------
E|--------------0-

Remember, your thumb should play the Low E, the A, and the D string. This means the order of your fingers in this example should always be: Thumb, index, middle, ring, thumb, index, middle, ring, etc…

Special Attention

  • Your right hand should never move. It should always be steady. Only your fingers should be moving.
  • Nails or tips? It’s really a matter of taste and what you’re used to. Personally, I use my tips, but the consensus seems to favor nails, so don’t cut your nails because I use my fingertips.
  • Try to gently pluck the strings. You’re not supposed to hit the strings and neither should you pull on them. If it sounds soft, that’s because you’re fingers are not used to the movement yet. Your fingers will gain strength and control in time.
  • Lastly, start out with simple chords, or just with open strings. I’ll try to help you out with some exercises.

Exercises

This is the backing track upon which but exercises are built upon. The first chord is a G major and the second chord is an E minor.

Exercise 1

The picking pattern of this exercise is the same as the one we did earlier with the open strings. Now we’re gonna add chords to the patterns. First, we play a G major, then we play an E minor. If you don’t know how to play these chords yet, feel free to visit this blog: Four Basic Guitar Chords For Beginners

This is what it should sound like:

This is how you play it. Your left hand just plays the chords. For the rest, it should not move.

E|-----------3--
B|--------0-----
G|-----0--------
D|--------------
A|--------------
E|--3-----------
E|-----------3--
B|--------0-----
G|-----0--------
D|--------------
A|--2-----------
E|--------------
E|-----------0--
B|--------0-----
G|-----0--------
D|--------------
A|--------------
E|--0-----------
E|-----------0--
B|--------0-----
G|-----0--------
D|--------------
A|--2-----------
E|--------------

If this goes too fast for you, try it on your own, slowly. It’s okay to make mistakes.

Exercise 2

For this exercise, we’re going to use the same backing track. We’re just gonna finger pick our notes differently. This time we’re going to use our thumb and our ring finger at the same time at the first count of each bar. Our thumb goes down, our ring finger goes up. They should move towards each other, but should not touch each other.

It should sound like this:

E|--3-----------3-----------
B|-----------0-----------0--
G|--------0-----------0-----
D|--------------------------
A|--------------------------
E|--3-----------------------
E|--0-----------0-----------
B|-----------0-----------0--
G|--------0-----------0-----
D|--------------------------
A|--------------------------
E|--0-----------------------

This is not easy at first, so don’t worry if it doesn’t go well at first. Remember to take breaks.

Famous Finger Picking Songs For Beginners

Until next blog, here are some songs that you can give a try. “YouTube” leads you to a YouTube video of the song, “Tabs” leads to you to the tablature of the song.

Outro

That’s all for today. I had a lot of fun putting those backing tracks together. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to leave them below.

Happy strumming,

Timo

2 thoughts on “How To Finger Pick At Guitar – Introduction And Exercises

  1. Awesome information here, i enjoyed it.

    As a guitar player. I will admit I was lazy at the beginning. My Father, when I was young (he was also a guitarist) told me it was important to go acoustic to start with. Learn how to strum, learn the chords, really feel the guitar. He never used a pick as choice, but he was excellent with his fingers.

    I knew better though (as you do as a kid), and for my 10th birthday I got my way. A nice new electric guitar with a small amp/speaker. I learned to play over many years, and I think I am pretty good, but I fail miserably when it comes to finger picking. Come to mention it, I find acoustic in general hard to master.

    I simply cannot do it, which is what has led me to your site. 

    Only yesterday I was watching a master guitarist (Mike Oldfield) play a wonderful piece completely solo, acoustic and with the finger picking style.

    The difference is, he can play with all the styles. So I guess my father was right in the early years.

    Finger picking is important, and i am here to take it seriously, all be it years too late.

    Thanks for the info here. Awesome!

    Chris

    1. Hello Chris!

      Going from electric to acoustic, it will just take a while to get used to the distance between the strings and the way the strings sustain, but fingerpicking can be learned, just like any other technique that you already mastered 🙂

      If you feel more comfortable on the electric guitar, there are plenty of players who use their fingers on the electric guitar as well. Mark Knopfler comes to mind.

      Good luck, Timo

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