Tips for mastering finger picking on an acoustic guitar

Strumming and flat-picking guitarists can find that their range of sounds becomes limited after a while, but mastering the acoustic finger picking style opens up many more possibilities for musicality. Finger picking means using the fingers to sound strings individually, often layering up the notes played to make more interesting arpeggios and runs. Many artists have used the finger picking method, also known as finger style,  to great effect in their careers, including Paul Simon, Don McLean and John Fahey. Mastering the finger picking style on an acoustic guitar involves using the correct hand position, learning the fingering technique and practicing arpeggios.

Tips for mastering finger picking on an acoustic guitar

1. The hand position

  • Keeping the hand still over the strings is an essential skill for acoustic guitarists, who may be used to moving their hands up and down in a strumming motion.
  • Simply practicing getting the hand into the right position and holding it there for extended periods can help, although it may feel uncomfortable and tiring at first.
  • For right-handed guitarists, the best thing to do is to extend the little finger outwards and use the tip of it to anchor the hand in place on the soundboard.
  • Use this anchor point to swivel the right hand, as required from time to time, without losing the feel for where you are.
  • Placing the pinkie finger about an inch beneath the bridge is good starting point.

2. Fingering strings

  • The thumb will play the bass notes of the chord or tune.
  • Finger picking guitarists use their thumbs to play the bass E string and the A string, therefore producing simple two-note bass progressions.
  • Usually, the index finger, the ring finger and the third finger are all used to play individual strings at higher frequencies.
  • For beginners, this means setting the index finger over the G string, the ring finger over the B string and the third finger over the top E string.
  • As players advance, they can play with these rules a little to create some new patterns.

3. Playing arpeggios

  • Make a chord with the non-picking hand on the fret board and play an arpeggio of that chord with the other hand, sounding the notes out in a cascade one after the other.
  • Try striking the thumb on the lowest note, followed by the ring finger, the index finger and then the third finger.
  • For another arpeggio pattern, try using the thumb on the A string, then play the strings under the index finger, the third finger, and finally the ring finger.
  • The same chord will be played, but it will sound different in each case.
  • Practice repeating these arpeggio picking patterns.
  • By adding some grace notes with slides and hammer-ons, players can start to sound rather advanced after just a few hours practice with the finger picking style.
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