Fingerstyle or fingerpicking is a guitar playing technique in which the fingers of the right hand play the strings without a pick. The right-hand thumb, index, middle and ring fingers are normally used, though it is not unheard of to employ the pinky finger. In traditional guitar, these fingers are lettered for easy reference: p, i, m, a. The thumb is p, the index finger is i, the middle finger is m, the ring finger is a. These abbreviations don’t match the English words for the names of the fingers, because they come from the Spanish language. (pulgar, indice, medio, anular).
The ultimate goal of the fingerstyle guitarist is to play several independent musical parts all at once. This means that the bass part, chords and melody of a song can be played altogether, with some adjustments.
The best way to begin playing guitar in this style is simply to play individual chords with the fingers. The notes of the chords can be “broken” or arpeggiated—played one at a time by each finger. The fingers can also play the notes all together.
Let’s start our study of fingerstyle guitar with a familiar chord: G major. (left). This is slightly different than the “G” seen before. Since our example will be in the key of “G”, all tones depicted here will work—even the high “E” string, played open, which is in the key of G major but not in the G major chord at all. Fingerpicking changes the ‘rules’ of guitar playing a little bit. The chord in the diagram may not sound good to some ears if strummed; this is because all of its tones will assault the ears at once. If played with the fingers, they each begin separately and ring out; this can disguise even chords that are very dissonant and make them sound beautiful.
How do we approach playing this chord? Since most of us have less than six fingers on our right hand, we’ll need to choose some tones from the chord to pick. Let’s try a few sequences.
Sequence 1 - All four fingers move together
In sequence #1, all four fingers work as a team, playing each note in sequence. The thumb starts on the lowest string, and the index finger starts on the next string, and so on. When it’s time to move to the new string, all four fingers take a step down to the next set of four strings.
In sequence #2, the thumb continues to play the bass note of the chord, G. the next three fingers work as a team like they did before, playing each note in sequence, then moving to the next set of strings and repeating.
In sequence #3, the four fingers play in sequence as before, but now they can also reverse direction, so that the ring finger is first and the thumb is the last.
Once you’ve developed these fundamental motions in the right hand, the notes of the chord can begin to change as well.
Sequence 4 – Moving bass line
In this last sequence, we’ll play the same three strings over and over again with the index, middle and ring fingers: the fourth string, the third string and the second string. (tones D, G and D). Now, we’ll move the bass of the chord around and create a more active, flowing chordal harmony.
Sequence 4 – as heard in the Level 6 Backing Track:
This example shows how even a very simple pattern can be musically interesting. To hear a recorded version of this example, just listen to the Level 6 backing track, which this last example serves as a basis for.
There are infinite possibilities for the fingerstyle chords. The bass part can move, the highest note or melody can move, and so can inner voices – the notes played on the strings that are neither highest nor lowest. Experiment with this technique of playing chords fingerstyle and moving voices around, and in time you’ll discover the possibilities for yourself.