If you love grabbing a guitar and laying down some Blues, then sooner or later you’re going to put down your flatpick, sharpen your fingernails, and get ready to do some string plucking.  There are a bunch of fingerpicking “Learn to Play…” books, DVDs and YouTube videos.  My favorite book is “Beginning Fingerstyle Blues Guitar.”

I like “Beginning Fingerstyle Blues Guitar” because it starts off with easy chords that you then pluck.  You immediately sound good.  As you become better, the book leads you into more difficult rhythm lines.

You use your thumb to pluck the three bass strings and your index, middle and ring fingers pluck the three treble strings.  Your pinky finger can either rest on the guitar to help balance your hand, or you can just curl it into your palm for safekeeping.

There are all sorts of fingerpicking styles.  Some people use their thumb and two fingers.  Others, like Wes Montgomery, use only the thumb.  You’ll find your way, but the easiest, and most productive method is using your thumb and three fingers:  The thumb manages the bass line while the three fingers each have their own treble string to pluck.

If you decide to fingerpick, you will need to grow out the nails on your plucking hand so they can help sound the strings.  I like to keep my nails short because I do a lot of typing.  It took me about three weeks to grow my nails long enough to fingerpick.

You don’t need to have long nails — just make sure when you look at your hand with the palm facing you — that you can see the top of your nails peeking over your fingertips.  Some people fingerpick with the meat of their fingertips and don’t bother to grow their nails.  Your sound will not be as loud or as sharp without using your nails.

Here is guitar legend Chet Atkins giving you an advanced lesson in 2007 on how to play “Maybelle” —

— don’t get discouraged watching Chet play and teach.  He’s really talking to guitar pros and not beginners, but you can see his style, and his fingernails, and the fact that he uses a thumbpick to get his bass notes to really ring.

Here’s Chet playing another fingerpicked song, 30 years earlier, on “Pop Goes the Country.”  Be sure to stick around for the end of the video when he gives comedienne Ruth Buzzi — from “Laugh In” — a quick, and disastrous, and slightly cruel, guitar lesson:

You usually see fingerpicking done on an acoustic guitar — the resonances are better for sounding out your flesh and nails — but that doesn’t mean you can’t use fingerstyle plucking with an electric guitar.

Here’s the incredible Mark Knopfler fingerpicking — “Sultans of Swing” in HD so you can really see how he magically moves — and I love how he talks you through the intricacies of that difficult song by basically making fun of his degraded, and aged, fingers.  Notice how Mark drops his thumbs to help out on the treble strings and also watch how his fingernails are not obnoxiously long and yet he still gets that famous sound:

Fingerpicking can frustrating at first because it feels awkward and mechanical.  Stick with the process and you will get better in every practiced moment.  Start slow.  Earn perfection.  Then make that perfection faster.

I have since cut the nails on my fingerpicking hand because the nails were only long on that hand and I felt imbalanced and because the nails were getting too long for me to type all day long.  I can stick fingerpick — though the musicality of the moment is more muted and less sharp — but I can live with that tonal compromise.

12 Comments

    1. That’s a good question. I think yes, ASL does help me a lot with finger nimbleness. My left hand doesn’t seem to find the chords as quickly as I would like, but my right hand — my dominant hand — appears to more quickly be able to pluck single strings, and even two or three strings at a time, in a much more easy memory manner than I am able to with my left.

  1. What a beautiful lesson, David. Are you familiar with the styling and techniques used by Django Reinhardt? He had a couple of fingers missing and still picked with the best of them — some considered him the best.