Simple Fingerpicking

This lesson is an introduction to fingerpicking.
This lesson (like all others) assumes a right-handedness. If you're a southpaw, just switch the words left and right.

A little notation before we start. We give the fingers of the picking hand names and use their first letters as short hand. The names and correspondences are:
P for pulgar = Thumb
I for indicio = index finger
M for medio = middle finger
A for annular = ring finger
S for (*) = pinky finger
*(Out of tradition for what I was brought up with I will use S for the pinky, although there are several letters/names for the pinky, and no general concensus, other sources use p or c).

To anchor or not to anchor? This is a question of personal preference.
An anchor is placing your pinky (or thumb, yeah -it happens in bass playing), on the soundboard (front of the body).
On the pro side, anchoring gives support, takes movement off the elbow and moves it to the wrist and hand. In my opinion it improves muscle memory. Since string positions are relative to one another, it's important that you build up a knowledge as to where the strings are (individually). Also I've never felt crippled by only being able to use my thumb and first three fingers at any one instant.
On the con side, it stiffens up your hand movement. It can make certain banjo and flamenco things difficult if not impossible to play. And it does reduce the number of fingers available at any one instant.
Try them both (with and without anchor) and decide for yourself whether or not to anchor.

Free strokes and rest strokes.
Ok. Put your finger above or on the string you're going to play, play through the string. If your finger goes back into the air without hitting another string, it is called a free stroke. If upon going through the string, your finger stops on the next string, it is called a rest stroke. Rest strokes are often heard in classical music. Those people interested in learning classical guitar should find a flesh and blood teacher. There are many things not covered in books (a good classical book is "solo guitar playing" by Frederick Noad). For arpeggiating chords, etc. we're mostly concerned with free strokes.

Let's talk for a moment about time. Count evenly to 4, then repeat. 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-etc. We can arbitrarily divide time into any repeating cycle. We can describe our arbitrary divisions of time by using a time signture. This will allow us to understand other peoples arbitrary divisions of time. Out of an arbitrary foundation we can develop a context to describe any division of time. Let's start simply by looking at the most common divisions of time in western music. That would be counting in groups of 2,3,4,6,8. The amount of time it takes to count one of these groups is called a measure (of time), or a bar. In standard notation , or tab, we seperate each measure (or bar) with a bar line. (A line that goes through all five lines and four spaces of the staff). A double bar line is usually used to indicate the end of a song. each even count is called a beat and are counted using numbers one through whatever you are counting in and then strarting over (ex. 1-2-3-4-1-etc.). Those beats can be subdivided. For example if I played 8 even notes in a measure where there are 4 beats to a measure, I would count it 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-1-etc. Subdividing it into groups of three would give: 1-and-ah-2-and-ah-3-and-ah-4-and-ah-1-etc. Subdividing into groups of 4 would give: 1-ee-and-ah-2-ee-and-ah-3-ee-and-ah-4-ee-and-ah-1-etc.

Getting back to time signatures... In standard notation, time signatures are the fractions found on the staff after the clef and key signature and key signature. It contains two numbers in a fraction form. The top number tells how many beats there are in a measure. The bottom number tells what type of note/rest gets the beat.
Some common note/rest values are:
Whole note/rest gets 4 beats,
Half note/rest gets 2 beats,
Quarter note/rest gets 1 beat,
Eighth note/rest gets 1/2 beat,
Sixteenth note/rest gets 1/4 beat,

So to play a whole note, pluck string on the 1 beat and let it ring (don't touch string) through 2-3-4 beats. If you played two half-notes in a measure of 4/4 you'd play the 1rst on the 1, let it ring through 2, play the 2nd one on the 3 and let it ring through 4.
Timing- it's possible to play exactly on the beat (in time), before the beat (ahead of the beat), or after the beat (behind the beat). Try your best to play on the beat. Swing music is an example of where you'd play differently than on the beat.

Ok. Back to fingerpicking.

Chord-string-finger relations.
There is a general rule that the picking hand falls naturally across the strings above the sound-hole. The thumb (P) covers the bass strings. The index finger (I) covers the next higher string than the thumb. The middle finger (M) covers the next higher string past the index finger, the ring finger (A) covers the next string, and the pinky (s) if used, covers the next string. So each finger is assigned to one or more strings per chord. This rule places the hand in a comfortable way without cramping the fingers in some awkward position.

Let's look at some examples. Note: there is more than one possible way to assign fingers to strings. I'm using the condensed notation seen here commonly. where C=X32010 is the open C chord (major chord- C shape) that looks like this:

E 0|-|-|-| S
B  |0|-|-| A
G 0|-|-|-| M
D  |-|0|-| I
A  |-|-|0| P
E X|-|-|-|
for C=X32010=XPIMAS
Notice that the fingers are in order. So here are some examples of common beginning chords (open position) with possible right han d designations. (note these apply to the barre version of these as well).

Cm=X3101X = XPIMAX

Here comes the payoff.

Picking Patterns
The majority of fingerpickers use an abstraction called a picking pattern which defines the order that the picking fingers move in over a chord; so they need not worry about which fingers to move when. It creates a pattern in the rhythm that is then repeated . and in most musics, repetition is desired (classical music being an exeption). reading from left to right the picking pattern tells how to play the pattern once (you would then repeat).

Here are some exercises with the picking pattern given (2nd after the time signature), a progression and chords with appropriate fingerings.
Some warmups:
1.) 4/4 P-I-M-A; Am-Dm-E-Am; Am=X0X210=XPXIMA, Dm=XX0231=XXPIMA, E=0XX100=PXXIMA
2.) 4/4 A-M-I-P; G-Am-C-D; G=3XX003=PXXIMA, Am=X0X210=XPXIMA, C=X3X010=XPXIMA, D=XX0232=XXPIMA
3.) 6/8 P-I-M-A-M-I; Dm-G7-C-G/B-Am-A7-Dm; Dm=XX0231=XXPIMA, G7=3XX001=PXXIMA, C=X3201X=XPIMAX, G/B=X2003X=XPIMAX, Am=X0221X=XPIMAX, A7=X0202X=XPIMAX
4.) 6/8 P-I-P-M-P-A over E=XX2100=XXPIMA.
So perform the whole pattern over one chord and then repeat the pattern.
Some similar patterns to try are: P-I-M-A-S, S-A-M-I-P, P-I-M-A-S-A-M-I-P.

What if we want to play more than one note at a time? Same rules. The notation gets a bit messy. Stack the letter names on top of each other if they are played at the same time.

5.) 4/4 P-I-M-I {musicbox} (A should be over the M).

here's the beginning of a song ("High") I wrote : G-G/A-G/B-G/C;

        I    M
6.) 4/4 P(1)-P(2)-A-M over Em=X799000=XP(1)P(2)IMA. (I should be over P1 and M should be over P2)

             A      A
             M      M
7.) 4/4 P(1)-I-P(2)-I {alternating bass strum} ( the A's and M's should be over the I's); G-D-C-G;
G=3X0003=P(1)XP(2)IMA, D=X00232=XP(2)P(1)IMA, C=33X010=P(2)P(1)XIMA.

And what do you do if there are multiple notes on the same string? Go back and forth between 2 or 3 adjacent fingers on the same string.
Here is an exercise. Use rest strokes on the open E(1) string (the highest string) using the pattern I-M-I-M-I-M-I-M, etc.

One last note. Many fingerpickers let their picking hand fingernails grow out, to pick with their nails rather than using the flesh of their fingers to pick with . It's up to you. You can also buy fingerpicks and thumbpicks (plastic or metal) to play with.

Have a great week! I'm off to the Mountville Folk festival!
Chris Roberts

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Last updated June 20, 2001
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