Aka fingerstyle, fingerpicking is a method of setting the guitar strings in motion using the fingers, rather than a pick or a toothbrush, etc. It’s like having 4 picks rather than one. The thumb picks down, while the index, middle, & ‘ring’ pick upward [into the palm]. The pinky follows the ‘ring’. There are technique systems which use the pinky to pluck.
While the Classical tradition provides a point of reference, and a solid training position, it is also a point of departure. We can train in this methodology to get technical control, then bend the rules.
All of the fingers can and do strum [rasgueado, one of the primary techniques in flamenco].
Fingerstyle is a term meaning fingerpicking [as in Classical guitar], but typically on a steel string guitar. We can fingerpick (play fingerstyle) on any type of guitar, yet the term is closely associated with steel string guitars. Jazz players also use the term for finger comping too. Fingerpicking = Fingerstyle.
It is important to have the most natural mechanics – this creates great tone – round & resonant. Using our hands in alliance with nature & human physiology gets the best results. To shape our tone, we use the main drivers – main knuckle joints – for each finger. By using this knuckle, the finger will rebound. The thumb’s driver is the joint at the wrist.
Check out the Fingerpicking Training Series.
Next, we look at the essentials of fingerpicking…
Fingerpicking Drivers & Rebound
It is up to each of us where we place our main driver – where we float our hand. And, different type of articulations or patterns will require different hand shape profiles/location.
The upper joints typically follow the main drivers, yet can be primary for specific types of arpeggiation.
As far as using the main knuckle, think about how we pick things up. Can we effectively pick up anything effectively with the upper finger joints? These joints are strongest and have the best rebound.
It is up to each of us to get comfortable and know how our fingerpicking hand gets the best tone. This is often through the most natural mechanics.
Again, the main driver for fingerpicking is the joint at the hand. This offers us rebound. When we pluck with this joint, the finger will return to its position. If we are getting ready to pluck a different string, we move your arm to get a different fingertip location.
When we use the main knuckle driver, it automatically snaps back to where it was before [this is called rebound]. Rebound is automatic and is built into our hands [when using the primary driver = the other knuckles have a slower, less reliable recoil].
This is how we track where our fingertips are located. We pluck and forget about the rebound [a single blip of thought completes a whole stroke cycle]. It happens naturally. To pick different strings, we move our arm, which moves our hand. We keep the motion consistent for any string. Same stroke, different arm position.
The X & Fist
We should see an X when we look at our thumb-index. Not a teardrop!
In modern playing, we play thumb out. The thumb plucks to the outside of the hand, as when you make a fist.
If you plucked all fingers at the same time, your hand should be in a fist [save the thumbs upper joint].
The thumb & fingers need a pathway; a path that doesn’t interfere with the follow through of the others.
Always keep in mind: thumb plucks down, outside the fingers, & the fingers pluck up, inside the thumb.
We let our fingers rebound – come back to where they started. This allows our physiology to do most of the work. And, we naturally know where our fingertip is located [where it just was, unless we moved our hand/arm].
Free & Rest Stroke
There are two main types of strokes for fingerpicking, free and rest.
Free stroke is plucking upward into the palm. The fingertip misses the string above the plucked string.
A general training rule for free stroke is that the knuckle of the finger – that is picking the string – is directly above the string being picked. If we drew a line straight down from the bottom of the knuckle, it would lead directly to the string.
If this wasn’t the case, and we were as far away as a rest stroke position, we would have to use the upper joints to pick a free stroke.
Once we locate and train from this position – this point of reference – we can fall into our pocket, wherever that may be [if we drew a line, it might not line up perfectly, but we are producing sweet tone with good mechanics].
Rest stroke is plucking so the fingertip lands on the string above the string being plucked. To achieve this, we have to move our hand/arm so that the motor knuckle is ‘2 or 3’ strings above the string being picked. Rest stroke is naturally a stronger (louder) sound since we are directing the sound downward, into the bridge.
Free stroke is naturally less strong (though we can pick harder), since we are picking across the string, less sound goes into the bridge (than rest stroke).
We can play scales free or rest (this is a choice we make before starting a scale). For arpeggios, we can use thumb rest strokes, but the upper fingers have to be free. This is the desired sound of arpeggios anyhow…letting everything ring. On this site, we will train arpeggios all free stroke. Rest strokes are typically used for accented tones, typically the melody.
Each of us decides how and when to use these strokes. For now, work on the motion, which translates into using the main knuckle driver, and hand location.
The core idea here is that we pluck the same, and depending on our hand shape and location, the fingertip will end up either in the palm (free) or on the string above (rest). This core concept is similar to using a pick…”this is how I pick, what I pick is based on where my hand is located”.