What is Fingerstyle Guitar? Why It’s More Than Just a Technique – It’s an Expression

By Mark
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Are you a guitar enthusiast looking to explore new techniques and expand your musical horizons? If so, fingerstyle guitar might just be the perfect avenue for you. But fingerstyle guitar is more than just a technique – it’s an expression of your unique musical voice.

With fingerstyle guitar, you use your fingers to pluck the strings instead of using a pick. This technique allows for a greater level of control, enabling you to create intricate melodies, harmonies, and rhythms all at once. Whether you’re playing a classical piece, a folk tune, or a modern pop song, fingerstyle guitar brings a rich and dynamic quality to your music.

But fingerstyle guitar is not just about the technical aspect of playing. It’s an art form that allows you to convey your emotions and tell a story through your music. The way your fingers dance on the strings, the tone you create, and the subtle nuances you add – all contribute to the unique expression that fingerstyle guitar brings.

So, if you’re ready to take your guitar playing to the next level, embrace fingerstyle guitar as more than just a technique – it’s a powerful way to express yourself through music.

The history and evolution of fingerstyle guitar

Techniques and styles in fingerstyle guitar

Fingerpicking styles and examples in modern music today

Famous fingerstyle guitarists and their impact on the genre

How to get started with fingerstyle guitar

Fingerstyle guitar resources and learning materials

Fingerpicking songs for beginners and advanced players

Fingerstyle guitar competitions and events

Conclusion: The beauty and versatility of fingerstyle guitar

The history and evolution of fingerstyle guitar

The roots of fingerstyle guitar can be traced back to the early 15th century, before the guitar was used, musicians played the lute and the oud with their fingers. Within the 17th-18th century, baroque guitars were commonly used and played either with fingers or with plectrum. 19th century, where it was commonly used in classical guitar music. The technique gained popularity among guitarists who wanted to achieve a fuller sound and emulate the complexity of multiple instruments. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that fingerstyle guitar started to make its mark in popular music, with artists like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins popularizing the style in country music.

Over the years, fingerstyle guitar has evolved and incorporated elements from various genres. From the intricate fingerpicking patterns of blues legends like Robert Johnson to the percussive techniques of modern fingerstyle players like Andy McKee, the genre has continuously pushed the boundaries of what can be achieved with just a guitar and a set of fingers.

photos of Fingerstyle Guitarists: Andy Mckee on Harp guitar, Robert Johnson on right holding his guitar
Andy McKee” by Kasra Ganjavi, used under CC BY-NC 2.0 and “robert-johnson” by Ray MacLean, used under CC BY 2.0

Techniques and styles in fingerstyle guitar

Fingerstyle guitar encompasses a wide range of techniques and styles, each with its own unique characteristics. One of the most common techniques is Travis picking, named after Merle Travis, which involves alternating the thumb and fingers to create a bassline and melody simultaneously. This technique is often used in country, folk, and blues music.

Another popular technique is classical fingerstyle, which focuses on precision and clarity. This style requires proper finger positioning and control, allowing for the execution of complex classical compositions. Fingerstyle guitarists like John Williams and Julian Bream have mastered this technique and brought classical guitar to new heights.

A more niche set of techniques in fingerstyle is that of flamenco guitar. Where classical guitar focuses on precision and accuracy, flamenco-style music is deeply rooted in Spanish culture.  The music is passionate, and the music has a much stronger focus on improvisation and rhythm.  Classical guitar players usually omit the usage of the pinky, but in flamenco, all your fingers are at your disposal to make the guitar sing.   

flamenco guitarist strumming guitar with fingers

In addition to these traditional techniques, fingerstyle guitar has also embraced contemporary styles like percussive fingerstyle and hybrid picking. Percussive fingerstyle incorporates tapping, slapping, and drumming techniques to create a rhythmic and percussive sound. Hybrid picking combines fingerpicking with the use of a pick, resulting in a unique blend of sounds and textures.

Fingerpicking styles and examples in modern music today

Fingerpicking is a versatile technique that can be applied to various musical styles and genres. One of the most popular genres associated with fingerpicking is folk music. The melodic and storytelling nature of folk music lends itself well to the intricate and expressive qualities of fingerpicking. Songs like “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas and “Blackbird” by The Beatles are great examples of fingerpicked folk songs.

Blues is another genre where fingerpicking shines. Fingerstyle blues guitarists like Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt used fingerpicking to create a raw and emotive sound that perfectly complements the blues. By combining intricate fingerpicking patterns with soulful vocals, these musicians were able to convey the depth and emotion of the blues genre.

Classical guitar music is perhaps the genre most closely associated with fingerpicking. The classical fingerstyle technique allows for precise control over each note, making it ideal for playing intricate classical compositions. Pieces like “Asturias” by Isaac Albéniz and “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” by Francisco Tárrega showcase the technical and expressive capabilities of fingerpicking in classical guitar music.

John Williams – World Renowned Classical Guitarist uses a technique called tremolo to play “Recuerdos de la Alhambra”

While fingerpicking is often associated with acoustic guitar, it can also be applied to electric guitar playing. Many rock guitarists, such as Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits and Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, incorporate fingerpicking into their playing to add a unique texture and dynamic to their sound.

Famous fingerstyle guitarists and their impact on the genre

Throughout history, there have been many influential fingerstyle guitarists who have left their mark on the genre. One such guitarist is Tommy Emmanuel, whose virtuosic playing and innovative techniques have captivated audiences worldwide. Emmanuel’s ability to combine melody, harmony, and rhythm seamlessly has redefined what is possible on the guitar.

Tommy Emmanuel” by Rosana Prada, used under CC BY 2.0 and “Chet Atkins – Store norske leksikon” by Kåre Eide, used under PDM 1.0

Another iconic figure in fingerstyle guitar is the late great Chet Atkins. Known as “Mr. Guitar,” Atkins popularized the fingerpicking style and influenced countless guitarists with his smooth and sophisticated playing. His contributions to country music and fingerstyle guitar are immeasurable, and his legacy continues to inspire new generations of musicians.

How to get started with fingerstyle guitar

If you’re ready to embark on a fingerstyle guitar journey, here are some steps to get you started:

1. Familiarize yourself with the basics of fingerstyle technique. A very common way to play fingerstyle is to have your thumb play the 4th string-6th string.  Meanwhile, your index finger plays the G-string, your middle finger plays the B-string, and your ring finger plays the 1st string.  We commonly name our fingers after the first letters of the Latin names for our fingers:

P – Pulgar – Thumb

I – Indice – Index

M – Medio – Middle

A – Anular – Ring 

Hand labelling fingers for playing fingerstyle guitar

PIMA, altogether. Here are some example exercises, in both notation and tablature, that you can use to familiarize yourself with the fingerstyle technique. 

  1. PIMA: straightforward quarter notes
fingerstyle exercise with notation and tablature
  1. PAMI: straightforward quarter notes
fingerstyle exercise with notation and tablature
  1. PIMAMI: 6/8 time, to go up and down the strings
fingerstyle exercise with notation and tablature
  1. PAMIMA: 6/8 time, go down and up the strings
fingerstyle exercise with notation and tablature
  1. PIMIAIMI: get used to this picking pattern to play eighth notes with fingerstyle.
fingerstyle exercise with notation and tablature

Practice fingerpicking exercises and focus on developing control and precision.

2. Start with simple songs and gradually increase the difficulty level as you progress. Choose songs that showcase different fingerstyle patterns and techniques.

3. Study the techniques and styles of famous fingerstyle guitarists. Learn from their playing and incorporate their ideas into your own musical vocabulary.

4. Experiment with different fingerpicking patterns and chord progressions. Explore different rhythms, harmonies, and textures to create your unique sound.

5. Practice regularly and be patient with your progress. Fingerstyle guitar requires time and dedication, but the rewards are well worth it.

To improve your fingerpicking skills, it’s essential to practice specific exercises that target different aspects of the technique. One exercise you can try is playing arpeggios, which involve plucking the individual notes of a chord in a specific pattern. Start by practicing simple arpeggios, such as those based on the C major and G major chords, and gradually increase the complexity as you become more comfortable.

Another exercise that can help improve your fingerpicking speed and accuracy is playing scales using the fingerpicking technique. Start with simple scales, such as the C major scale, and focus on maintaining a steady and even rhythm while plucking each note. As you become more proficient, challenge yourself by playing scales in different positions and keys.

These are exercises that help to introduce beginners to fingerstyle and arpeggiating chords.  Beyond arpeggios are scales which would be a separate topic that we can discuss in another article.  Eventually, you’ll be able to combine the two techniques and play the beautiful music you hear your favourite guitarists play.  

Fingerstyle guitar resources and learning materials

There are plenty of resources available to help you along your fingerstyle guitar journey. Online platforms like YouTube offer a wealth of tutorials and lessons from experienced fingerstyle guitarists. Websites like Ultimate Guitar provide tabs and sheet music for a vast selection of fingerstyle songs.

Additionally, investing in instructional books and courses can provide structured learning and guidance. Books like “Fingerstyle Guitar Method” by Mark Hanson and courses like “Fingerstyle Guitar Techniques” by TrueFire offer comprehensive lessons and exercises to help you develop your fingerstyle skills.

Fingerpicking songs for beginners and advanced players

Whether you’re a beginner or an advanced player, there are fingerpicking songs that cater to every skill level. For beginners, songs like “Horse with No Name” by America and “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas are great starting points. These songs feature simple fingerpicking patterns and chord progressions, making them accessible for those just starting their fingerpicking journey.

As you progress and become more comfortable with fingerpicking, you can challenge yourself with more advanced songs. Songs like “Blackbird” by The Beatles and “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton incorporate intricate fingerpicking patterns and advanced chord voicings. By learning and mastering these songs, you’ll further develop your fingerpicking technique and expand your musical repertoire.

It’s worth noting that fingerpicking songs can be found across various genres, so don’t limit yourself to a specific style. Explore different genres, artists, and eras to find fingerpicking songs that resonate with you and match your musical preferences.

Fingerstyle guitar competitions and events

For those looking to showcase their fingerstyle guitar skills and connect with fellow musicians, fingerstyle guitar competitions and events provide valuable opportunities. Competitions like the International Fingerstyle Guitar Championship and the Canadian Fingerstyle Guitar Competition attract talented guitarists from around the world, offering a platform to compete and gain recognition.

Fingerstyle guitar festivals and workshops, such as the Montreal International Guitar Festival and Workshop and the International Guitar Night, bring together fingerstyle guitarists of all levels for performances, masterclasses, and networking. These events provide a supportive and inspiring community for fingerstyle guitar enthusiasts to learn, grow, and share their passion.

Conclusion: The beauty and versatility of fingerstyle guitar

In conclusion, fingerstyle guitar is more than just a technique – it’s an expression of your unique musical voice. It combines technical skill with emotional depth, allowing you to convey your feelings and tell a story through your music. Whether you’re drawn to the rich history of fingerstyle guitar or the contemporary innovations of modern players, exploring fingerstyle guitar opens up a world of possibilities for your musical journey. So, pick up your guitar, let your fingers dance on the strings, and let the beauty and versatility of fingerstyle guitar inspire and captivate you.

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