Four Fingerstyle Techniques

Weekly Newsletter #13

November 4, 2021

This one is for all you fingerpickers out there! 

When you think of fingerpicking what is it you imagine? Maybe it’s Paco De Lucia playing some outstanding flamenco guitar, or perhaps Tommy Emmanuel ripping a rockabilly tune, or possibly it’s James Taylor arpeggiating chords as he sings. 

Whatever form of fingerpicking you aspire to, there are certain fundamentals that will help get you from where you are now to where you want to be. 

Today I’d like to share with you four things you can implement immediately to improve your fingerpicking. In order to get a visual understanding of these concepts it would be helpful for you to watch this video as you go through each one. 

The Wrist 

The first of these is your wrist position. Many players start out as flat-pickers and graduate to fingerpicking; this is completely normal, and I was no different. However, the problem arises when you take the same strategies that worked for flat-picking and apply them to fingerpicking. 

Most flat-pickers rest their picking hand on the bridge and pivot in order to strike the strings, then when they start fingerpicking they adopt the same right hand position: resting the wrist on the bridge (or even worse, the top of the guitar). This has several immediate drawbacks. 

For starters, it creates automatic tension by forcing yourself to engage the muscles in your forearm and wrist in order to hold that position. Try holding your arm up naturally and letting your wrist dangle. That is certainly not the same position as if you were resting your hand on the bridge. 

In order to stay on the bridge, you must flex your wrist and curl your fingers drastically inward. Right from the get-go this puts you in a position of tension and ultimately fatigue will occur. 

By starting from a tense, rigid position in which you use a significant amount of muscle energy, you are then expecting to perform complex and intricate finger patterns that may be extremely fast? This is highly unlikely to occur. 

Not only are you starting from a position of tension, upon which you will add even more tension as you play, you have also limited your dynamic range. By having your fingers curled inward so heavily, since they cannot stay elongated with your hand so close to the strings, you create somewhat of a barrier to movement. By staying in this curled finger position you have a very small range of motion and therefore can’t really execute a wide variety of dynamics. 

To solve these issues (there are many more associated with this position, but this would very quickly turn into a manifesto if I were to outline them all), simply lift your arm up in the air, resting your forearm on the side of the guitar where it normally sits and let your hand hang lifelessly. 

The position you should see and feel is one of complete relaxation. Your wrist is hanging, your fingers are elongated, but slightly curved and there is no tension in your hand at all. Now maintain this exact shape and move your hand so that you bring your fingers and thumb to the strings as though you were about to play. But remember, maintain the wrist angle and the elongated fingers! 

This is the ideal position for your wrist to be in while fingerpicking. The reasons for this are numerous, but besides solving the aforementioned issues, this position also allows a greater distance from your big knuckle (which is where fingerpicking movement originates) to the tip of your finger where you make contact. This larger distance allows for a much stronger attack with more kinetic energy and force. Ultimately this results in greater volume and a larger dynamic range. 

The Triangle 

The next crucial adjustment is the way many players hold their thumb in relation to their index finger. Many players actually hold their hand so that the fingers are almost parallel to the strings. The hand is curved upward, sitting higher than the wrist itself and the thumb strokes into the hand and can actually touch the palm. 

This is a horrible position to fingerpick from because it essentially renders your thumb useless if followed by an index or even middle finger. From this position you stroke using your thumb and then the index finger plays and wraps on top of the contracted thumb. Your thumb is now in your palm and your index finger is sitting on top of your thumb. In order to play the thumb again you must remove the index finger, return the thumb to its starting position and then strike again. 

These extra steps cause a huge delay in speed and fluency while fingerpicking. Not only that, but it is very common for players in this position to have their thumb and index finger bumping into one another, creating a fumbling and inarticulate way of playing. 

In order to remedy this, start with the correct wrist position from step one above. Now rest your thumb on the low E string and your index finger on the G string. Slide your thumb along the E string toward the headstock and your index finger along the G string toward the bridge. If you look straight down between these two fingers you should see a triangle of empty space made up of the string as the lower arm of the triangle, the outside of your index finger as the right side of the triangle, and the outside of your thumb as the last side. 

Whether that triangle of empty space is large or small is a matter of personal preference. The main goal is to keep that triangle there all the time. This allows you to play your thumb and index finger in quick succession, or simultaneously without them running into one another. 

The Pinky 

The pinky finger is often the bane of many fingerpickers existence. Even if you get the wrist and the triangle perfectly, the pinky can still wreak havoc on your playing. 

The main issue is that the pinky and ring finger are intrinsically tied together due to the anatomy of muscles and tendons in the forearm and wrist. 

Very often players who have decent technique will begin to curl their pinky inward as they play. This is a result of using the ring finger, which necessitates some small pinky movement. However, when the ring finger relaxes back into its neutral position, the pinky doesn’t relax back, but instead stays slightly contracted. Then the ring finger plays again and the pinky contracts a little more. On and on this process continues until the pinky is curled upward touching the palm and causing a lack of mobility in the ring finger as a result. 

This is a more complex issue to solve, and will require some serious dedication and mental focus. The idea is to learn how to attack with your ring finger and then relax it without the pinky contracting. If the pinky does contract, which it can, depending on the strength of the ring finger attack, then it must be immediately relaxed along with the ring finger. 

This synchronicity between the two is essential for relaxed and advanced fingerpicking. In order to achieve this it is often helpful to imagine slightly sticking the pinky outward. You don’t need to strain and stick it out so it’s in a straight line, but just enough so that you can feel the extension of the pinky. 

Play simple, slow music focusing only on maintaining that extension in the pinky. Particularly when your ring finger is playing, should you be focusing on the amount of movement in the pinky. Does it contract? If it does, does the pinky then relax after the stroke is over? If you answer no to those questions then you must stay focused on this element of your playing until it becomes natural. 

Don’t worry, all of us have gone through this stage and have gotten just as frustrated with the pinky finger as you. I knew guitarists in music school who actually put medical splints on their pinky finger to stop it from bending. I don’t recommend that because you will not learn to control it yourself using your mind. Needless to say, that method didn’t work for them and they eventually had to learn to control that digit mentally. 


The final element that can massively improve your fingerpicking is the concept of “planting”. Planting refers to resting the tip of your finger on the string before you strike it. 

Many inexperienced players swipe at the string from the air. They begin the stroke of the finger in the air, move the tip towards the string and then brush through the string without stopping, similar to hitting a baseball with a bat. 

The problem with this method is two fold. You will never be able to hit the same spot on your fingertip consistently because you simply can’t adjust quickly enough, especially such a miniscule target on your fingertip. This inconsistency in where you make contact will inevitably lead to various volume and dynamic issues, along with missed strings and flubbed notes. 

The second problem with swiping at the string is that you can also never be sure when exactly you’ll make contact. You can certainly get a rough idea of when, but because your “backswing” or the wind up of your finger as it goes outward prior to attacking will always be slightly different, you can never truly gauge when the tip will make contact with the string. 

Not only that but its very likely the speed at which you attack from the air will change from stroke to stroke, creating a wild and varied amount of dynamics. These inconsistencies must be remedied if you are to attain true mastery of fingerpicking. 

In order to prevent this swiping form the air, it’s vital that you practice planting the tip of your finger on the string before striking. Depending on the speed of the notes you’re playing you may have a lot of time or very little time to plant your finger, however planting is essential for accuracy and consistency. 

Practice by taking simple eighth note open strings, alternating between index and middle fingers. Begin with the index finger planted on the string. As you strike through the string and return to the starting position, your middle finger should travel toward the string and plant, stopping it from ringing. 

The faster you can plant, the more staccato the sound of the string. If you can manage to make the string hardly ring at all by planting the next finger, you are likely capable of using this technique in an actual piece of music. 

There are many more elements that go into advanced fingerpicking, however these are, by far, the most fundamental. Without these being natural and instinctive to your playing, any challenging fingerpicking will simply lead to bad habits and frustration. 

Master these four things and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a fantastic fingerpicker! 

Hopefully you’ve found this newsletter and the attached video helpful. If so please consider signing up for the newsletter here, or for those who are truly dedicated to the instrument, you might like to consider a private lesson.  

I offer discounts to all the members of the newsletter, so if you are looking for personalized help with any guitar-based subject, I’d be happy to work with you.  

In addition, any member who refers a friend who goes on to take a private lesson will receive a free 30 minute lesson as thanks for the referral.  

Thanks for reading and remember, stay relaxed!  

Max Rich