Fingerstyle guitar playing, not to be confused with chicken picking, is a difficult, but rewarding, way to play your guitar. When learning how to play the guitar, many musicians are attracted to fingerstyle guitar.
Because there are more rhythms, the fingerstyle guitar is perfect for solo playing. It is popular amongst bluegrass guitarists, folk guitarists, and more.
At Acoustic Life, we help you on your acoustic journey. Whether you’re learning to play guitar or you want to branch out into different styles, we have you covered. We have tons of free online guitar lessons, like this one, that can help you learn to play guitar.
In today’s lesson, we are going to cover the top 5 biggest mistakes guitar players make when fingerpicking.
If you’re looking for a more guided approach to practicing fingerpicking, be sure to check out Tony’s Acoustic Challenge. Built by guitar geeks, for guitar geeks, Tony’s Acoustic Challenge is a great way to learn the guitar and connect with other acoustic guitar players. Request an invite today to learn more!
Without further ado, here are the top fingerpicking mistakes fingerstyle guitarists make.
Originally published on May 23, 2019, this article was republished on August 5, 2022.
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Fingerpicking Mistakes to Avoid
Before we take a look at the exercises you can practice to get better at fingerstyle guitar, let’s look at a few things you can do to prevent developing bad habits from the start.
1. Hitting the Wrong Strings
This is a fairly simple issue that is easily fixed. By assigning each finger to a string for the fingerpicking pattern, you can create consistency and muscle memory. Without assigning specific fingers to specific strings, inefficient playing can lead to inaccuracies in executing the fingerstyle pattern.
One of the most common assignments is covering the low E, A, and D strings with your thumb. From there, you can play the G string with your index finger, the A string with your middle finger, and the high E string with your ring finger. Without consistency, your fingers may accidentally play the wrong strings.
2. Picking Hand Position
The placement of your picking hand is crucial to executing a fingerstyle pattern. Oftentimes, people feel awkward or uncomfortable using multiple fingers to pluck different strings. We want you to have an awesome technique to maximize efficiency and prevent sore wrists or arms.
The first picking hand position is similar to a traditional banjo position. Start by placing your pinky finger on the face of the guitar, just below the high E string. Some people object to this because it limits where you can fingerpick on the guitar, but it’s a great way to anchor your hand and learn to fingerpick on the guitar.
The second picking hand position uses the meaty part of your hand as the anchor. Place the area below the thumb joint just above the low E string. Both of these positions provide solid anchors for your fingers and will prevent fatigue and inaccuracies while playing. Try using both of these picking hand placements to see which one works best for you.
3. Flicking the Strings
When learning fingerstyle guitar, many players use too much force in flicking or striking the string. This motion will wear out your fingers and create wasted energy.
To remedy this issue, take advantage of gravity. For example, try letting your thumb naturally hang onto the string, and simply let it fall off the string. By using gravity, you can create an awesome tone while staying in control of your fingers and hand.
For the index, middle, and ring fingers, let the string indent the pad of the finger. From there, just move the finger off the string. This will conserve more energy than actively striking or flicking the strings.
4. Limiting Your Technique
There are almost limitless techniques used to play fingerstyle guitar. Each one offers specific advantages. While some favor agility and dexterity, others will create more powerful and sustaining notes.
One of the most popular techniques utilizes the pads of your fingers to pluck the strings. This creates a more rhythmic, thumping tone of the notes. Using the pads of your fingers is great if you’re playing blues or more rhythmic styles of music.
Another popular technique involves using your fingernails to pluck the strings. When you use your fingernails in fingerstyle guitar, you create a more delicate tone. The fingernails create a bright, articulate tone in your playing. If you’re playing with others and you need your guitar to cut through the mix, using your fingernails is a great way to diversify your fingerpicking tone.
5. Too Much, Too Fast
When you sit down to play a fingerstyle song, many players are overwhelmed at the pattern, the chord changes, and the tempo of the song. This can be dismaying, and many players abandon the fingerpicking project altogether.
To prevent this from happening, try to isolate patterns in the whole fingerpicking pattern. For example, try looking just at the thumb. See or hear which notes are being played on the bass strings. Again, focus just on the bass line.
From there, try isolating just the melody. Take note of the melody and see if you can play it with the correct fingers. Don’t worry about the thumb at this point. The goal is to isolate certain patterns and learn them individually before combining them all together.
Fingerstyle Guitar Exercises
While there are tons of fingerstyle guitar exercises you can find on the internet, this one is geared towards beginners. We wanted to create an exercise that proved fingerstyle guitar doesn’t have to be insanely difficult.
How to properly exercise fingerpicking:
- Grab any chord on the guitar.
For this exercise, let’s go with the C chord.
- Assign your fingers to the appropriate strings.
Your thumb will cover the A and D strings. Meanwhile, the index will cover the G string and the middle finger will cover the B string.
- Begin picking the A and D strings with your thumb
Alternate strings for every downbeat.
- Next, start by pinching your thumb and index finger and strike both strings simultaneously.
For the next beat, pinch your thumb and middle finger. Continue doing this until you feel comfortable with the pattern.
- Finally, stagger the fingerpicking.
Instead of playing notes simultaneously, strike the bass strings with your thumb on the downbeats. Then, strike the G and B strings with your index and middle finger on the offbeats respectively.
This exercise will hopefully help you gain confidence in learning fingerstyle guitar while giving you a simple and versatile fingerpicking pattern on guitar.
If you liked this lesson, be sure to let us know in the comments. And if you’re looking for more lessons or you’re stuck in a guitar rut, you NEED to check out our 3 Secrets to a Consistent Guitar Routine.
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Thank you Tony, I’m a 65 year old beginner. Been playing for 16 months noe, and have a private in home teacher. I check out your mini lessons I’ll call them, every week. I working on my finger picking, and a lot of your tips are the same techniques he’s showing me although I also pick up some helpful tips from you! Right now I’m working on “Me Without You” by Jennifer Nettles, and “Little Martha” by Dwayne Allman. The second one is tough, but consider the Artist! Thanks again for the tips, Mike K !
Good lesson Tony. I am working on your Finger Picking Jump Start, and am on lesson 4 at this point while going back to review each older lesson each practice. It is slow going, but very good lessons. This was a good refresher for me. The anchor point advice was especially helpful.
Great commentary Tony. The exercise and your suggestions were very good. I do believe though that you neglected to talk about the left hand and how it moves in coordination with your right picking hand, which has always been a problem for me and others I’ve talked to–it can get complicated. Over the years, I’ve developed my own finger picking style, which is actually no style at all, just what makes me feel good. I doubt that I would be able to teach it to someone else as I am never really aware of what I am doing except in a general sense. It is a three finger roll, but I add some ‘stuff’ now and then to give it some pizazz. This development came about because I lacked training and could never ‘cover’ exactly what the original artist did and eventually decided it wasn’t worth the effort. This played out excellently with the only band I’ve ever played with. We never really ‘copied’ the tune, and judging by our audience’s reactions and our own standards, we sounded just fine. Recently, since I’ve improved my style–lately it seems I’ve jumped up a level in my playing–I’ve taken a rather simple song performed by Lyle Lovett, “Bears”, and tried to copy his style. I have succeeded somewhat, but still I detect my own ‘style’ coming through, and liking it. Oh well, I guess I am just too old to totally change, and maybe that is a good thing. But here’s the thing: keeping some of my own style and adding something from Lovett’s results in an overall comfortable and nice sounding song. I will try your exercises and see if they help. Keep up the good work Tony, it is much appreciated.
I am a dinosaur. Rock legend style. Started on acoustic and still love it, but mostly flat picking. Found your video very instructive and l am sure to incorporate. Thanks
What is that 12 fret guitar you are using in this lesson? I really like the simple clarity of your presentations. Thanx
I use a thumb pick occasionally, but haven’t really tried finger picks. Do most players use finger picks on all four fingers, or limit it to 2 or 3? Just curious.
This lesson and exercise really helped me understand the flexibility of fingerpicking.
I think it was Doc Watson that said, learn the finger picking styles and then throw them out the window. Because everybody has their own. Nice lesson though Tony, very helpful.Thanx
Easy-peasy, ONCE YOU SLOW DOWN. And for those with an “opinion” about metal fingerpicks, if Doc Watson used ‘em that ought to be sufficient endorsement! (Never mind that he tended to just use his thumb and index finger.)
Always enjoy these mini lessons. I joined TAC after catching a couple of UTubes online. I learn something new every day. Love the way the lessons are designed and presented. Thank you!
In your jump start to finger picking, you have using index for g and b, and middle fir e. Now you are saying index g, middle b(although you say a, and ring finger for high e. which is it?
Hi – classically 3 fingers for 3 high strings and thumb for 3 bass strings, as Tony says… best way to learn in the beginning but many players change to only using 2 fingers in which case you have a choice to either use first finger for G string and second finger for the B and E, or first finger for G and B and second for E, or just how your fingers fall naturally. Obviously the problems start if you need to play three high strings at the same time. Unusual but some more complex pieces do require it … then it’s back to the classical arrangement. in the end people develop their own style – Mark Knopfler uses only first finger a lot but not exclusively…. doesnt do him any harm . hope that helps Undrell
I struggle with my finger picking. Your help is indeed generous.
Tony, I thought this was one of your best. Would like to say more, but its time to practice.
Thanks Tony, your tips and advice are always very good.
When I am using my fingernails I find it easier if I arc my wrist so that I am picking straighter on the strings
Great Starter Lesson – Thank you
Guitar scale exercise was huge in helping me strengthen my playing hand and keeping tempo ! Rock on
Nice lesson tony I learn a lot and thank you for being a good teacher to all of us begginer!! I wish you will continue your lesson to give us an idea how to make a good sound. I learn a lot thank you I”m from philippines I’m big fan of you tony thank you im inspire so much
This was great! I just started looking at the finger picking lessons today. This snippet was the perfect accompaniment to those lessons and cleared up my questions on anchoring and assigning fingers to strings. Will experiment with all.
Very helpful lesson Tony. , Thankyou