Fingerpicking drills/tips?

BohemianLikeMe

Synchromatic
Apr 18, 2020
805
Prague, CZ
Confession: I've never been good at fingerpicking. I can do the basics, I can fake it for parts etc. But I was watching a Pops Staples video a few days ago and I realized that I've never really tried to properly learn how to do it. I came up through the garage, underground punk scene and while my technique is light years better than it was 15 years ago, I've never had a formal lesson.

So, I figure this site has a ton of excellent players-- what would yinz recommend as a starting point for fingerpicking? Any particular books or videos you'd recommend? I'm not particularly picky (heh) about the genre, I'd just like to get some good techniques to put in my bag o' tricks.

Also, are thumbpicks worth getting the hang of?
 

Emergence

Synchromatic
Gold Supporting Member
May 25, 2022
724
New York
Confession: I've never been good at fingerpicking. I can do the basics, I can fake it for parts etc. But I was watching a Pops Staples video a few days ago and I realized that I've never really tried to properly learn how to do it. I came up through the garage, underground punk scene and while my technique is light years better than it was 15 years ago, I've never had a formal lesson.

So, I figure this site has a ton of excellent players-- what would yinz recommend as a starting point for fingerpicking? Any particular books or videos you'd recommend? I'm not particularly picky (heh) about the genre, I'd just like to get some good techniques to put in my bag o' tricks.

Also, are thumbpicks worth getting the hang of?
You and me both, brother. I’m self taught on guitar over public school music. I taught myself finger style one song at a time until it’s become my preferred way of playing. I’m faster with my fingers than with a pick. My primary style is unorthodox but I also use country two finger, thumb strum, play jazz solos with my thumb, and play a mean three finger using my thumb, ring finger, and index finger. That leaves my middle finger to make a point when I need to. At 72, I have no intention of learning to do it the right way. I already do it the right way for what I play.
 

Ricochet

Senior Gretsch-Talker
Gold Supporting Member
Nov 13, 2009
22,770
Monkey Island
Try starting out with a classical guitar. The fingerboards are flat and wider and easier to navigate at first. A thumbpick might be helpful.

Maybe start out with some classical Bach pieces arranged for beginning players. Air, Bouree etc. It's a different approach from the typical banjo roll influenced country picking.
 

Duo Slinger

Country Gent
Sep 11, 2020
1,223
California, USA
Well, the problem is, fingerpicking is as diverse as straight picking. I have a country banjo-esque and Travis picking thing going, and that means my wrist is raised a lot more, and my fingers more extended than a classical-inspired player. I would recommend picking a genre or style (I started on Travis picking, because I'm super into it, and now it's my go-to) then googling methods on how to go about it. For general tips, (and this is coming from a country-style fingerpicker, keep that in mind, it could be different for classical) I recommend making sure your fingernails are short. If you're picking a steel-stringed guitar, long nails can be a hindrance. Of course, some amazing dudes like Daniel Donato like their long nails so much they grab acrylic ones, so what do I know? I just know super short nails work for me, using the flesh of my fingers. Another thing is, try to make the position your right fingers roughly 45 degrees to perpendicular to the strings. That's a big thing, right-hand positioning.
 

BohemianLikeMe

Synchromatic
Apr 18, 2020
805
Prague, CZ
Well, the problem is, fingerpicking is as diverse as straight picking. I have a country banjo-esque and Travis picking thing going, and that means my wrist is raised a lot more, and my fingers more extended than a classical-inspired player. I would recommend picking a genre or style (I started on Travis picking, because I'm super into it, and now it's my go-to) then googling methods on how to go about it. For general tips, (and this is coming from a country-style fingerpicker, keep that in mind, it could be different for classical) I recommend making sure your fingernails are short. If you're picking a steel-stringed guitar, long nails can be a hindrance. Of course, some amazing dudes like Daniel Donato like their long nails so much they grab acrylic ones, so what do I know? I just know super short nails work for me, using the flesh of my fingers. Another thing is, try to make the position your right fingers roughly 45 degrees to perpendicular to the strings. That's a big thing, right-hand positioning.
What I know of finger picking comes mostly from old delta and hill country blues, to be honest. Lots of R.L. Burnside, John Lee Hooker, Charlie Patton, Junior Kimbrough, Muddy. I don't really know anything about Travis picking besides the basics of it (bass note alternating picking), let alone banjo rolls or other more country/folk styles of picking.

Thanks for the tips, @Duo Slinger, especially about the finger angles.

And also thanks to everyone for the tips and suggestions, please keep 'em coming! :D
 

Duo Slinger

Country Gent
Sep 11, 2020
1,223
California, USA
What I know of finger picking comes mostly from old delta and hill country blues, to be honest. Lots of R.L. Burnside, John Lee Hooker, Charlie Patton, Junior Kimbrough, Muddy. I don't really know anything about Travis picking besides the basics of it (bass note alternating picking), let alone banjo rolls or other more country/folk styles of picking.

Thanks for the tips, @Duo Slinger, especially about the finger angles.

And also thanks to everyone for the tips and suggestions, please keep 'em coming! :D
Ahhhh well, in that case, I'm gonna recommend you take a look at Justin Johnson, that's his thing. He's an amazing, awesome guitarist, and his videos make a really good visual aid. Furthermore, he occasionally releases free lessons on his YouTube channel, and he has some lessons on his Patreon too if I'm not mistaken. You will find that a lot of his fingerstyle is done in tandem with a slide, but that's Delta Blues for ya (he's also responsible in part for me getting into Delta Blues lol)! Another Delta Blues YouTuber I would recommend is Edward Phillips. Johnson's playing is very atmospheric and slow, usually, though he does have his rhythmic moments, with a usually syncopated and vocal melody on top. Phillips, on the other hand, is a lot more hard-driving and rhythmic, in the traditional style. However, he doesn't have any instructional videos, but it's a good thing to see and listen to.
 

Duo Slinger

Country Gent
Sep 11, 2020
1,223
California, USA
Can't run from Travis Picking though, it's such an excellent and useful style, especially for soloists. It fills the sonic space with bass and rhythm in a way that makes one guy sound like a band, and a lot of Delta Blues stuff overlaps with it, with a walking bass from the thumb. Any sort of country or blues fingerstyle, especially Delta Blues, relies on thumb independence, which is something you can get from practicing Travis Picking. Even the aforementioned bluesmen, Phillips and Johnson have videos of them Travis Picking (with Phillips on a Gretsch no less!) out some well-known standards of the style.



 

Shadowy_Man

Synchromatic
May 18, 2020
646
Chicago
Find one relatively simple song you want to learn and just practice over and over, going very slow at first. It takes time to make your hands learn how to do it - kind of like making the jump from playing with one hand to two hands when learning the piano.

Thumb picks really help for more complicated songs - assuming you want a bright clear bass notes. Sometimes for easier songs I'll use a flat pick for the bass note and my middle and ring finger do the picking on the treble side.
 

Horse Nation

Gretschie
Jun 7, 2022
174
new york
Find one relatively simple song you want to learn and just practice over and over, going very slow at first.

That's the answer.

Just find a popular song that you know and look up on the net some tutorial and then just learn that song. Best example would be The Beatles "Dear Prudence." Doesn't matter if you are a Beatles fan or not, you probably know the song. Knowing the song helps greatly because when you know the song, you notice any minor mistakes you are making while playing it.

- Travis picking is a great start
- choose a song you know and work on that ("Dear Prudence" is Travis picked)
- go slow. You will not be able to play the song at the right tempo for a while -- three weeks most likely
- at one point it will magically all click in. Your mind will not be thinking about which string and which finger. It really will suddenly all click in
 

Electrosynthesis

Gretschie
May 11, 2011
391
São Paulo
You can also try Mauro Giuliani's 120 right hand studies. The exercises are well established among classical guitar players, but IMHO they are very good for popular genres also. I've gotten a lot of mileage out of them using a thumb pick. His book is already in the public domain, so you should find a free copy available on the web. Good luck!
 

Bob Perrone

Synchromatic
Mar 7, 2017
503
allentown, pa
I lost my picks about 20yaers ago and I haven't looked back. I've been playing now for 60 years. You Tube is your friend for picking up styles. Watch the best players on there, everyone from Chet Atkins and acoustic players. There are a large range of styles.
Regarding a thumb pick I can't use them, they simply get in my way. I may curl a regular pick in my forefinger on electric to be there when I need it, but acoustic fingerstyle which is my main focus I don't use any picks.
Tommy Emmanuel once told me after a show that since he was self taught (amazing isn't it?) for him there is no right way or wrong way regarding using a thumb pick or not. Said to use, or not use, whatever is comfortable.
 

Jelly Roll Horton

Country Gent
Nov 10, 2017
2,043
Portland, OR
Listen to Mississippi John Hurt. When he appeared in the early sixties people were asking, "Who’s playing the second guitar?" There wasn’t any second guitar. Hurt was that good.
 
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Outlaw

Country Gent
Jul 13, 2011
1,347
UK
I would start with something simple.
Here is a lesson for learning Johnny Cash's version of hurt.
 

SH61

Electromatic
Jul 23, 2017
10
Providence, RI
My best advice would be don’t allow frustration as you get this going. When I was first learning to fingerpick, I would be rolling my fingers in I think a Travis pattern on everything, my desk, my clothing, etc. all day. One day maybe half a year later, I woke up and I was picking like lightning! Took a while. Just keep it up. I use National NP1 picks on my fingers, and a Herco #52 thumb pick. I do prefer the sound of bare fingers, so I do that when it fits the song best, but I can do so much more, and so much faster (if that matters) with picks.
 

SledDawg

Electromatic
Jun 5, 2008
20
New Jersey
You can also try Mauro Giuliani's 120 right hand studies. The exercises are well established among classical guitar players, but IMHO they are very good for popular genres also. I've gotten a lot of mileage out of them using a thumb pick. His book is already in the public domain, so you should find a free copy available on the web. Good luck!
+1 on this. Easy to find, excellent exercises.


geezer warning here :), my long experience

re: Travis picking
Basic Travis picking is relatively easy. But... realize that Merle Travis didn't really adhere to the strict version himself. He added a lot of extra multi-string "brushes" and stuff. So, YMMV

re: flat pick + fingers
Not to complicate matters further but you might experiment with using a flat pick and two fingers (m and a in classical parlance..) This is like Travis picking, but with the flat pick being the "thumb". Lot's of country guys play this way on electric. It allows you to shift from finger to flat picking quickly and easily. You get the best of both worlds, since you can still do flat pick strummy and percussive stuff plus the finger picking. If you are already a pretty good flat picker this may be a good way to go for you.

re: thumb pick + 3 fingers
The classic Chet style. Like classical but with a thumbpick. Sometimes you can use the thumb pick as a flat pick. He would play single lines and chicken-pickin stuff with the thumbpick. He could also do incredible sweep picking with just the thumbpick. I have always found this transition to be very awkward and hard to get used to, though I'm a pretty good "Chet style" player otherwise. I find it almost impossible to play strummy stuff with this "rig". It really depends on finding a thumb pick that's comfortable to you and then sticking with it. Plus practice of course. These are the best thumb picks i have found for this style:

re: thumb pick + finger picks
I would not recommend thumb pick + finger picks. This is a very "niche" style, AFAIK and not many folks are doing it these days. It's a bit archaic. It is a distinctive style, with the emphasis on style. Maybe comes from bluegrass banjo? A few famous players played this way, including Roger McGuinn and James Burton (thumb pick + one finger pick), Leo Kottke (I think?), some old blues guys. Kind of awkward and not versatile IMHO. Plus you have to keep track of all those picks...

Maybe spend a month on each and see which one you like best? Whatever you choose, it's a whole new world of versatility.. Good luck!
 
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wildeman

I Bleed Orange
May 10, 2015
16,374
norcal
Listen to Misssissippi John Hurt. When he appeared in the early sixties people were asking, "Who’s playing the second guitar?" There wasn’t any second guitar. Hurt was that good.
I agree, MJH is where I started, his music is lovely and very approachable, from there I went to Reverend Davis, still lovely and approachable but much more complex.
 


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