There’s nothing quite like playing the Blues guitar using your fingers. It can be another matter entirely when you toss away your pick and play with only your fingers on an electric guitar. Mark Knopfler is probably the best known, and most successful, “fingerstyle” electric guitarist of our generation.
Knopfler is famous for his “pinching” style of playing the guitar with his fingers. He pinches, or “claws,” the strings mainly between his thumb and index finger and, sometimes, he goes full-on Wes Montgomery and plucks all the strings with only his thumb.
The more traditional fingerstyle is to play the three wound strings, the bass strings, with your thumb and the three treble strings with your index, middle and annular (ring) fingers. Your pinky finger can steady the rest of your hand from the pickguard, or just float in space. Traditionalists prefer floating. Almost every fingerstyle electric guitarist I’ve seen play, plants the pinky on the pickguard.
Here’s Mark explaining his special fingerstyle picking technique:
Andy at Pro Guitar Shop is a YouTube favorite of mine, and here is Andy demonstrating his unique way of playing an electric guitar with only his fingers:
Let’s done forget to include the late, great, Sean Costello and his grand fingerstyle playing:
I recently decided to toss my Dunlop Ultex pick — for now — and concentrate on playing all my guitars with only my fingers. It has been a difficult transition from striking strings with a pick to only plucking them with my fingers, but I am taking it slowly, and I am being methodical and rigid, and I am slowly finding a whole new “voice” in my fingers I never knew existed.
There are two things I find difficult about playing with only my fingers. The first is consistency of sound. My index finger always plucks the “G” string like a pro on a reliable basis while my annular finger tends to variety pluck — sometimes the sound is too soft and oftentimes it is too loud. I am working on getting my thumb and three fingers to use the same attack for a similar voicing, and that will take some time, because I need to create muscle memory for my right hand.
The second thing that stumps me is how to strum — play more than four strings at a time — without having to use a pick. I am using only the fleshy pads of my fingertips and thumbs. I don’t want my nails playing any role in plucking a string. That fingernail sound replicates the tone of a guitar pick to my ear, and I want a totally new tone based on my skin and not my nails.
Mark Knopfler just uses his thumb to strum, and sometimes he flicks his three fingers across the strings and the nails replace the pick.
Andy at Pro Guitar Shop pinches his thumb and index finger together as if they are holding a pick — but they are not — and on the downstroke his index fingernail strikes the strings and on the upstroke, his thumbnail strikes the strings. That makes an interesting sound, but I don’t want risking that kind of damage to my fingernails.
Strumming, to my ear, is an individual string sounding mashed together in a multiplicity of strings — it sounds muddy — and I much prefer to “strum” by simultaneously plucking four strings only because those unison plucks create a piano sound, but with a woody guitar coloring, and the harmonics ring out just a little more interestingly.
The trick I have yet to master is knowing WHICH FOUR strings I need to pluck for a strum replacement when a chord has six necessary strings. Do I pick four of the six notes to play, or do I need to do some sort of on-the-fly transcription in my head to find a chord that matches the required notes, but is sounded in only four strings or less?