Finger picking is the name given to the technique that involves playing the strings with your fingers (on your right hand), as opposed to with a pick. Playing with fingers allows you to do certain things that you can’t do with a pick, such as playing two (or more) non-adjacent strings in unison.
Style or Necessity?
Do we play with our fingers because we want to achieve a certain style, or do we do it because of a technical necessity relating to a piece of music that we want to play? The answer is that it is probably somewhere in between. The ‘finger picking style’ is often referred to as classical guitar style, because classical guitarists (mostly) use their fingers when playing, but the technique itself is used in many styles of music, from pop, to rock, to classical, to metal and everything in between.
Fingerpicking involves using the fingers and thumb on our right hand to strike the strings. Each finger (including the thumb) has a letter assigned it, which can be seen in the following diagram:
p = thumb
i = index finger
m = middle finger
a = ring finger
*The pinky finger is not used (with standard finger picking techniques) therefore it does not get a letter assigned to it.
These letters are initials derived from spanish words, which is why not all of them translate to initials of the english equivalent. The reason why it is important to know what these symbols mean, is because they are used extensively in sheet music to indicate which finger to use for any given note.
Let’s Get Playing!
Let’s play an exercise using the finger picking technique. We will touch on posture and technique a bit later, but first let’s just give it a go.
The first exercise involves holding a C chord with your left hand and finger picking with your right. Make sure you hold the C chord throughout the entire exercise, as all of the notes required are contained within this chord. If you’re not sure how to play the C chord, here it is:
Let’s have a look at the first exercise:
The sheet music contains regular notation as well as tablature. If you are reading the tablature, for each number that you read, you have to glance up at the aligning note and use the right hand finger that is assigned to that note. The first note is a ‘3’ on the 5th string (C). If we look at the notation above the tablature, we can see that there is a ‘p’ assigned to it, which means that we use the thumb on our right hand to play this note. As I mentioned before, the left hand is very easy. It does not change. Simply form a C chord and all of the notes will be contained within. Your focus is therefor on the right hand, where the task is basically to figure out which strings to pluck and which fingers to use.
This introductory exercise should sound like this:
This is a good exercise because it uses the thumb and three fingers. It is also a typical example of how each finger is often assigned to a particular string. Often, the thumb takes care of the 4th, 5th, and 6th strings, where the bass notes are often played. The 1st finger is often assigned to the 3rd string, the 2nd finger to the 2nd string and the 3rd finger to the 1st string. Please note that this is a general rule only.
A Bit About Posture
It’s worth talking a little about good posture/technique with regards to the right hand. The first thing you should take care of is making sure that the posture of your right hand/fingers is correct. Observe the images below:
- Your right hand and fingers should be relaxed and with a slight arc (as in the image above)
- Your Thumb should be slightly clear of your fingers, so that when it strikes a note, it misses the other fingers.
- The thumb picks downwards, similarly to how you pick a downstroke when holding a pick.
- Your fingers strike the strings in an upward direction (as if they are closing into the palm of your hand).
- Each strike of the string should involve a movement of the fingers (or thumb) only. Your hand and arm should not move. Think of the strike of a string as an action where your finger comes in towards the palm of your hand, rather than a jerk of the hand itself.
10 Right Hand Exercises
You already know the value of technical exercises and how they can be used to develop basic technique. The following ten exercises are right hand finger picking exercises designed to develop your right hand technique. Each exercise involves two chords and a finger picking pattern with the right hand. The first five exercises use the same two chord shapes. The second group of five exercises use a another two chord shapes.
The two shapes that you need for the first five exercises are as follows:
Right Hand Finger Picking Exercise 1
Right Hand Finger Picking Exercise 2
Right Hand Finger Picking Exercise 3
Right Hand Finger Picking Exercise 4
Right Hand Finger Picking Exercise 5
The next five exercises use the following two shapes:
Right Hand Finger Picking Exercise 6
Right Hand Finger Picking Exercise 7
Right Hand Finger Picking Exercise 8
Right Hand Finger Picking Exercise 9
Right Hand Finger Picking Exercise 10
The Great Thing About Finger Picking
If you enjoy playing classical music (which you should) or you are just looking for ways to develop your finger picking playing, the great news is that classical guitar has been around for hundreds of years, and there are many many great books and resources available. A lot of them are so old that they are in the public domain and are therefor free. Before the internet, electric guitar, shredding and youtube videos, there was a fantastic tradition of classical guitar methodology and repetoire available. Books originally published for classical guitar are generally very thorough and methodical. There is an abundance of repetoire and technical material ranging from very easy to very difficult.
It’s easy to get started with classical you can quite easily find a good classical guitar method and work your way through it. Research artists/composers such as Matteo Carcassi, Andrés Segovia and Mauro Giuliani to get started.
There hasn’t been much theory in this lesson, because getting into finger picking is really just a matter practising the technique. Practise the exercises in this lesson and start to develop your right hand technique.
Next lesson we are going to look at solo guitar pieces, using the finger picking technique.