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Beginner Fingerpicking Exercises for Guitar

If you started learning guitar with a pick, fingerpicking can seem a bit daunting as your picking hand will likely be a bit stiff and uncoordinated. Not to worry though. In this lesson we’ll go through some fingerpicking exercises that’ll help get your fingers in shape and moving smoothly across the strings.

Fingerpicking Basics

Fingerpicking consists primarily of using the thumb, index finger, middle finger and ring finger of the picking hand to pluck the strings of the guitar. Generally speaking, the pinky isn’t used, but may come into play in certain instances.

Overall, fingerpicking is a bit more versatile than using a guitar pick as you’re able to easily play multiple notes across non-adjacent strings simultaneously. Consider the follow note pattern.

Tablature example for finger picking

To play this with a pick you’d have to strum across all strings while muting the ones you don’t want to sound. Using your fingers it’s quite easy to play cleanly without striking all of the strings.

Technique

There are a few things you want to be aware of when it comes to fingerpicking technique in order to sound the notes cleanly and play efficiently.

First, when plucking the strings you want to make sure you’re using the tips of your fingers (unless you’re playing with your fingernails). This will help ensure you get a nice tone and are able to move freely across the strings.

Generally speaking, the thumb is used to play the bass notes (typically strings 4-6) while the index, middle, and ring fingers are used to play strings 1-3. Obviously this will vary depending on what’s being played, but this is the rule of thumb.

Some people choose to “anchor” their hand by placing their pinky against the body of the guitar. I’m guilty of using this technique myself at times. I think in some cases it’s perfectly fine to do so, but in others it can be an impediment to your playing as you’ll find you’re not able to position your hand as freely.

Tablature Notation for Fingerpicking

Before we jump into the exercises, a bit of explanation of the tablature notation is necessary. For each note in the tab, the finger to use for picking the note is notated using PIMA, which stands for the following:

  • P (pulgar) = Thumb
  • I (indice) = Index finger
  • M (medio) = Middle finger
  • A (anular) = Ring finger

This notation will be found on the top of the tablature for the corresponding notes. For notes that are played together, the notation will be stacked in order according to the strings the notes fall on.

Exercises

The fingerpicking exercises in this lesson are progressive and cover several patterns you’ll come across when learning songs. They’re meant to help build coordination and timing. As with any exercise, use a metronome to keep in time and start with a tempo that’s slow enough to allow you to play without any mistakes. Increase the tempo as you progress.

Exercise 1

In this first exercise we’re arpeggiating over a G major chord. Working in sequence from the thumb to the ring finger, you’re just going to ascend across strings 6, 3, 2, and 1.

Tab for fingerpicking exercise for guitar

Exercise 2

Here we’re working in the opposite direction as exercise 1 and descending across the strings starting with the ring finger and ending with the thumb.

Tab for descending fingerpicking patterns on guitar

Exercise 3

With this exercise we’re combining both ascending and descending patterns from the previous two exercises.

Guitar tab for simple ascending and descending fingerpicking pattern

Exercise 4

This exercise is very similar to exercises three, but at the end of the descending pattern you go back to the previous note (the open G on string 3) instead of the playing the G on the 6th string as a quarter note. This is a very common pattern used frequently with chord transitions, as you’ll see in the next exercise.

Exercise 5

In this exercise we’re going to introduce chord changes, moving from G, to G/B, to Cadd9. The position of the index, middle, and ring fingers won’t change, but the thumb will be moving from string 6 to string 5 as you transition through the bass notes.

Exercise 6

Up to this point we’ve only played across four strings in any given sequence, which aligns well with the four fingers we use for fingerpicking. In this exercise we’re going to move to a five string sequence.

When ascending, you’ll play the first two notes (strings 5 and 4) with your thumb then continue with the index, middle, and ring finger sequence. When descending, you’ll play the notes on strings 3 and 4 with the index finger. This keeps in a pattern of playing in the direction in which we’re going next.

Exercise 7

For this exercise we’re going to take the same picking pattern as exercise 6 and apply it to a C, G6/B, Am chord progression.

Exercise 8

Now we’re going to move on to playing multiple strings at the same time. For this exercise we’re going back to the G, G/B, Cadd9 progression. You’ll play the bass note with the thumb and then play the rest of the chord notes together with the index, middle and ring fingers.

Exercise 9

In this fingerpicking exercise we’re going to play two notes together using the thumb and middle finger using a pinch technique, and then play individual notes in between.

Exercise 10

For our final exercise, we’re going to apply the picking pattern from exercise 9 to a C, G/B, Am chord progression.

Wrap up

Fingerpicking is a versatile picking style that gives you some unique advantages over using a pick. Like with anything involving guitar, it can take some time to build up the coordination necessary to do it well. The fingerpicking exercises in this lesson will help you get started on the right foot. Once you’re ready, it’s always good to learn some good fingerpicking songs to help keep you motivated and challenged.

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Cheat Sheet: Fingerpicking Exercises

Download the cheat sheet for this lesson: