Fingerstyle Guitar Explained Simply

Fingerstyle Guitar Playing

You’ve heard the term Fingerstyle Guitar thrown around, but what does that term actually mean? Can I only use my fingers, or is using a thumb pick acceptable? Is it ok if I sing along??

Fingerstyle Guitar is the technique of using one’s fingers as the method to make the strings ring out (opposed to using a tool such as a pick). A lot of times Fingerstyle guitar is associated with Classical Guitar Style but traverses many other genres such as Blues, Folk, and Country.

The term Fingerstyle Guitar is honestly thrown around a bit loosely. It really represents a large number of different playing styles. Let’s take a deeper dive into some of the meanings behind what someone is talking about when they say Fingerstyle Guitar.

It really is just how it sounds. You play the guitar with fingers on the “picking hand”.

I say the term is thrown around loosely because there really is no standard for what is considered Fingerstyle. There are players that use no pick at all, or maybe a thumb pick, and some players that create their own hybrid version of holding a standard guitar pick in their hand while using some of their other available fingers to grab the strings and create a custom dynamic picking/strumming pattern to the song.

Typically, when a player refers to Fingerstyle Guitar, he is referencing the technique of using different fingers to pluck the strings so he can simultaneously play two or more melodies at once.

Huh?? Yeah, sounds a little weird I know, but let me elaborate. If a player is strumming out chords on a song, the guitar sounds like one instrument. Which in many cases is perfectly acceptable and exactly the needed addition to the piece of music. Especially if the player has other instruments playing along in harmony or the guitarist is singing a tune along with the chords he’s strumming.

This is all good and fine, but the player has the ability to pull more out of the single guitar instrument and create a more varied, dynamic and interesting sound by adding some fingerstyle techniques to the guitar parts. Especially if the guitar is the only instrument being played in the session.

With Fingerstyle guitar, the guitarist can create the illusion that the listener is hearing more than one instrument by playing separate melodies in unison.

You see, typically with the the thumb and index finger the player can create a simple melody with the lower notes and strings on the guitar that simulate what a bass player may be playing had a bass player been present.

The guitarist can then can create a higher sounding melody/harmony line with his middle, ring, and pinky fingers thus creating the illusion that the listener is hearing multiple instruments in harmony.

Now, with this being said a simple thumbed base line on a guitar does not replace a bass player and drums, but it can help make the song sound more dynamic and interesting.

Imagine if the guitar player had the ability to play a bass line melody, a higher sounding melody, strum full chords with his index finger, sing along, and rake the strings with his fingers intermittently to simulate some percussive sounds/beat all at the same time. He would be a one man band and create an interesting/moving section of music for the audience to enjoy.

Fingerstyle Guitar practice/playing can add a wealth of value to a guitarist’s style. But as you could imagine, Fingerstyle guitar playing can be much more difficult than just strumming through basic chords.

It requires more precision and attention to detail when the player is plucking through the strings. Although, just as with anything goes when learning a new technique on the guitar, it can be mastered through purposeful practice and persistence.

The difference between “Fingerstyle” and “Fingerpicking”

A simple way to explain the difference between Fingerstyle and Fingerpicking is:

  • Fingerstyle is a generalized all around technique for playing a guitar without a pick, or with a pick in a hybrid finger/pick method.
  • Fingerpicking is a method of using your fingers to play through specific picking patterns on the guitar.

There are unlimited variations of Fingerpicking patterns that a guitarist can learn/use in his Fingerstyle guitar playing.

Different genres of music have adapted specific fingerpicking patterns that help define the style of the genre. For this example we will use County music. Many Country guitar players heavily depend on the use of fingerpicking patterns to write and play music.

One of my personal favorite fingerpicking patterns is a country style pattern called Chicken Pickin’.

……Haha, yeah I know. But it is honestly a great way to make full use of the guitar.

Check out this video for a great example of the Chicken Pickin’ technique.

Chicken Pickin’

Popular Fingerstyle Guitar artists.

As long as the Guitar has been around, there have been guitar players pushing the limits of the guitar’s abilities. Always working to make new sounds and styles, techniques and disciplines.

Here is a list of some popular guitarists that have utilized the Fingerstyle guitar method to awe their audiences throughout their careers.

  • Chet Atkins
  • Tommy Emmanuel
  • Mark Knopfler
  • Antoine Dufour
  • Sungha Jung
  • Michael Hedges

In my opinion, Tommy Emmanuel is the most impressive Fingerstyle guitar player in history. His speed and accuracy is incredible. He is a traveling performance artist that fills auditorium seats without even singing along with his music. With just himself, his story telling, and great guitar playing he travels the world impressing audiences night after night. A true musical craftsman.

Check out this performance by Tommy Emmanuel doing a cover of Mason William’s 1968 song “Classical gas”. I think you’ll understand what I mean.

Tommy Emmanuel | Classical Gas

What is a good Guitar for learning to play Fingerstyle?

Some people think that a certain guitar may be more conducive to Fingerstyle guitar, but it really just comes down to the practice.

You have to start slow just like anything else on the guitar. It can be quite confusing and you may feel like you are lacking in finger coordination when you first attempt to learn a Fingerstyle song. All I can really say is to find a reliable teaching source and just stick with it. Don’t Give Up!

It may be very frustrating in the beginner stages of learning, but I can’t think of a single discipline on the guitar that isn’t.

Also, pick a song that is doable. Don’t start out trying to learn Tommy Emmanuel’s version of Classical Gas. That’s not where he started. Pick a song that has a slow tempo and doesn’t leave you wanting to totally give up after the first two notes. Here’s a list of some great fingerstyle songs to learn and add to your repertoire. Good luck!

  • Dust In The Wind (Kansas)
  • Tears In Heaven (Eric Clapton)
  • Fire & Rain (James Taylor)
  • Fast Car (Tracy Chapman)
  • Blackbird (The Beatles)
  • Stairway To Heaven (Led Zeppelin)
  • Never Going Back Again (Fleetwood Mac)
  • Just Breathe (Pearl Jam)
  • Why Georgia (John Mayer)
  • Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen)
  • Under The Bridge(intro) (Red Hot Chili Peppers)

Recent Content