Fingerstyle Technique Overview

The fingerstyle technique can be utilized in many different genres and types of music, but (if you can’t tell from the name) it’s basically just strumming the strings of a guitar with your thumb, middle, index and ring fingers. The best way to set up for fingerpicking is to sit with one leg raised to align your shoulders and create a balance your left and right hands. This is a great technique to use as a one-stop-shop to represent the bass, harmony and melody simultaneously on one instrument. When played correctly, the guitar will take on a piano-like quality. Just an FYI – It can also be referred to as fingerpicking, thumb picking, alternating bass or pattern picking. 

Guitar or banjo musicians use this technique frequently, and the nylon guitar string adapts best to this technique. The goal of fingerstyle is to have more control over the instrument in regards to the musical dynamics, texture, articulation and timbral characteristics. The two most popular forms of fingerpicking are the Carter Family picking and Travis picking; Carter Family picking is a thumb brush technique on the bass strings and Travis picking is a combination of alternate-bass fingerpicking and syncopated melodies used mostly on a steel string acoustic guitar. 

Most musicians take advantage of this technique in country, blues, American primitive and folk music. In blues music, the musician will maintain a steady rhythm with the thumb on the lower three strings and use the index and middle fingers to play a melody on the high strings. This technique was born in the late 19th century as guitarists attempted to replicate the piano playing in ragtime music, which was a popular genre at that time. American primitive guitarists blend alternating-bass fingerpicking with ostinato patterns and alternative tunings; John Fahey can be thanked for this style coming to life in the 1950s. 

Basic fingerstyle playing is a great way to break away from strumming the same old chords and achieve a more musical and interesting sound. Some of the topics we teach include: 

  • Alternating bass – “bouncing” the thumb between notes
  • Travis Picking – a common style often credited to Merle Travis
  • Finger independence – breaking out of a repetitious finger pattern
  • Alternate tunings – achieve different sounds and textures through common alternate guitar tunings (DADGAD, open tunings, etc.)
  • Classical guitar
  • Pop fingerstyle guitar
  • Blues fingerstyle guitar

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