No matter what genre you enjoy playing, you’re bound to come across fingerpicking at some point, so whether you’ve got picks or not, it makes sense to dedicate some time to it. Some fingerpicking techniques can take years to master, but the basics of the art are incredibly easy to pick up.
Let’s get into it!
How To Fingerpick Guitar
To get started, understand that fingerpicking is when you use your thumb and fingers to play the strings on a guitar rather than using a pick.
Your thumb typically handles the lower strings, while your index, middle, and ring finger take care of the rest.
When you fingerpick a guitar, it gives a much softer sound than you’d hear when using a pick. It also allows you to articulate chords in interesting and rhythmic ways, turning a bland progression into something special.
Fingerpicking in Tabs – The Basics
Before we get started with a few exercises, let’s briefly discuss how fingerpicking sections will be displayed on a tab.
Fingerpicking is expressed via the “Pima” system. Either p, i, m, or a will be noted above each note in the tablature stave. Each letter represents a different digit.
- p = Thumb
- i = Index Finger
- m = Middle Finger
- a = Ring Finger
All you have to do is read the letters above the notes, and you’ll know exactly which part of your hand to use for each section of the song. Let’s take a look at a simple example.
Look at the first note in this piece of music. It’s the 3rd fret on the A string (second string), which is a C. If you look just above the six lines of the tab, you’ll see a “p”, meaning you play that C with your thumb.
The next note is the second fret on the D string (third string), which is an E. That’s also marked with a p, so you can use your thumb for that note too.
Then we have an open note on the G string (no laughing please, well…maybe just a quick giggle). This G note has an “i” written above it, which indicates you should use your index finger to play it.
Moving on to the first note on the B string (fifth string). It says you should play the 1st fret, which is another C, but this time, there’s an “m” above it. Remember what that means? That’s right, you should play the string with your middle finger.
Now you can have a go at playing this whole line through. Take it nice and slow. Your fingers may feel clumsy at first, but you’ll be surprised how fast muscle memory kicks into action.
For this exercise, the finger movement is as follows: Thumb – Thumb – Index – Thumb – Middle – Thumb – Index.
Practicing fingerpicking on just one chord when you start is important. First, you should just come to terms with the general movements of fingerpicking, and experimenting with dynamics. Try to play as soft as you can, then get a little louder, then soften things out again.
Related Article: How to play a guitar without a pick
Fingerpicking – The Ultimate Beginner Riff
Nothing Else Matters by Metallica provides another awesome fingerpicking exercise for beginners. The opening riff consists of only open notes (no fretting required), so you can focus all your attention on your picking hand.
You’ll notice that there are no Pima finger prompts on the tab of this video, but before you start panicking, I’m going to provide them for you myself. Side note – a lot of tablatures, especially the stuff online, will not have these prompts but don’t shy away from the challenge. Figuring out the finger pattern can be a fun and engaging exercise.
For this riff, we’re going to focus on the first three bars. Ignore the last two with 7s on.
It requires an open low E note, then an open G note, an open B note, an open high E, then you simply walk your fingers back the way they came – open B, open G, then back to Open Low E. Go ahead and pop the song on and have a listen to the opening riff to get a feel for the pace and the rhythm.
The finger orientation is as follows: p – i – m – a – m – i, or, Thumb – Index – Middle – Ring – Middle – Index.
Notice how this riff forces you to use all your fingers. It’s the perfect way to help you find your feet (or fingers anyways) when your first learning to play without a pick.
Before we move on to a slightly more advanced exercise, let’s take a look at the last bar of Nothing Else Matters. See how the first notes 0 on the low E and 7 on the high E are stacked on top of one another? Just like with a regular strummed chord, that means you play them together.
You can use whatever finger feels natural, but I’d use my ring finger to play the 7 as it frees up the middle and index to walk back down those proceeding open notes on the B and G strings.
Related Article: Easy Power Chords Songs
Fingerpicking – Moving Up and Down the Fretboard
The opening of 3 Libras by A Perfect Circle is the best way to practice chordal movement while fingerpicking, as it’s all played in one chord shape that shifts up and down the neck.
Master that opening chord using your thumb and middle finger, add the three extra notes to finish the phrase, then, keeping your fingers in the exact same position, shift the whole chord to the seventh fret and repeat the picking pattern before returning to the third fret.
Final Fingerpicking Thoughts
Those are the basics. Your next challenge will be changing chords while fingerpicking. I’d recommend using two basic chord patterns to start with, such as C and A.
Keep the picking pattern the same on each chord at first, and use a Metronome to help keep time. It won’t be long before you’re fingerpicking with the best of them!