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?

37 Comments

    1. Hi Gordon —

      There really isn’t any pain that I can discern. You don’t even get callouses that I can tell. The left hand, the cording fingers, get strained and calloused, but it seems the right hand, because it the fingers are momentarily plucking, and not pressing down, don’t sustain the same sort of “playing damage” as the left. I will keep an eye on this and report back if there are any changes!

      1. actually when I play the electric guitar, I play it with my bare hands. I dont use guitar picks. I do have them but I dont use them. I didnt really get hurt nor did my fender. Trust me, playing it with your fingers is much better. Although, I usually use my nails. :D.

          1. Friend, yay! xD. Cool so you’ve had this blog over a year. same thing with my friend and his blog. mine is like 5 months old? I think yeah. cool. how many views do u have total?

          2. Yes, this blog has been alive for a year, but only on WordPress.com since May 2010. We currently have over 35,000 blog views on WordPress.com.

            This is only one of 14 blogs in our network, though. Some of our blogs have been around since 1990, other for six years, others for a few years and some that are only a year old.

          3. oh ok. Awesome you have 14 blogs! That’s radical! 1990! WOW YOURE GOOD! but I was asking on this blog, how many views do you have. I think I have like 3100 on mine. Yeah about that much. How many do you have? I dont have 3100 blogs, I mean 3100 people have viewed my blog. And btw, if you wanna know why my language is kind of slang it is only because I am 11 years old, but Im smart so be warned, lol. 😀

  1. I changed to playing fingerstyle a few years back, after many years using a pick. It started first with the acoustic – nylon and steelstring. But found after spending so much time playing fingerstyle on those guitars, using a pick on the electric just felt wrong. In fact, I found that my entire playing style changed when I used a pick again. It’s as if there were certain riffs and phrases that I had ingrained into my playing using a pick..

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Grant. I, too, love playing fingerstyle. I found that moving up from 10s to 13s really helped me get a louder sound with the same effort, and it’s much easier for my fingerpads to “grip” the thicker strings.

  2. Hey Mr. Boles,
    I recently started playing with my fingers because I just got angry at my picks… I could not find a pick that was thin, felt nice, but would not bend at all…. I just gave up and went to fingerstyle. I either use the back of my index fingernail or just Mark Knopfler style thumb and index/middle finger for playing. I found that my ring finger is absolutely horrible for anything except floating in the air to move along with my middle finger. The only thing I miss is tremolo picking and certain licks that I haven’t figured out how to move over to fingerpicking. What fingerpicking style do you use?
    Nihar

    1. Hi Nihar, and thanks for the interesting comment!

      I use the fleshy side of my thumb to strum the three bass strings. I use the fleshy tips of all my fingers, except for the pinky, to pluck the three treble strings. I find this system makes everything faster. The thumb handles three strings, and the melody is dedicated to one finger per treble string.

      If you keep practicing, you will build strength in your ring finger. It will come around.

      I also purposefully stay away from involving any of my fingernails because I type all day for a living and having nails interferes with that — and I like the unique sound of “flesh plucks” — and I don’t have to worry about maintaining an angle or length on my nails everyday. I just have to uniformly clip them all once a week.

      1. Oh I don’t grow my nails long. That’s pointless. (ba-dum tss :P) I just use the back of my index nail (the pink part) or a thumb-index-middle on any 2 or 3 strings (both index and middle on the same string allows me to play most of the licks I was having trouble fingerpicking). Very little of my playing style relies on each note being on a different string, so the isolated finger-per-string does not work for me. I just play in a classic rock style, the only exception being that I don’t use a pick. You can watch a video of me playing here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7Rike9ko7o&feature=g-crec-u I use a pick in the middle section for speed, but otherwise I just play regular solos with my fingers. I hope you understand what I’m saying.

          1. Thanks Mr. Boles! It’s my first video and I was pretty scared of baring myself out to the world. What guitar/amp/equipment do you use? I’m curious.

          2. I loved the part where you dropped your pick and then gave up! Ha!

            It looks like you’re playing in the garage. Is that by choice or not? SMILE!

            I use a lot of different equipment. I like my Princeton Reverb and my Vox Valvetronix. My Clapton Custom is quite beloved, as is my L5 and my new Sadowsky.

          3. See? I haven’t played with a pick in so long I forgot how to pick one up! I actually did get my pick the second time I went for it (when it fell on the ground). Yes, I was in my garage. It started out as my parents making me play there because I was too loud, but now I really like the sound in the garage, it has a natural reverb feel because it’s all cement and the tone just seems more focused and tight. My dream amp rig one day is to have a Princeton Reverb and a vintage Hiwatt DR103. The Hiwatt will have the nice low-mid punch and hollow mids while the Princeton will add a nice crispy top end to the tone. Do you ever use a dual-amp setup? I normally run a Bugera V5 (Fender Champ clone) and my Mustang set to a Twin Model to get a clean and dirty sound going on, but I wanted distinct clean and dirty parts in my video so I only used the Mustang. What’s your opinion on solid state vs tube vs modeling?

  3. Hi David,
    My first guitar was a nylon string guitar so it was so much easier to play it fingerstyle than with a pick. I feel really uncomfortable with a pick, I don’t know how to hold it propertly (if there is any rule how to hold it) and sometimes I just drop it. I am really into electric now but the problem is how to play fast sections like solos and tricky rhythm parts with fingers. Can somebody give me advice how to develop my fingerpicking speed? What do you think about thumb pick or pick for each of your fingers? I’ve seen that some guys used it, you get as nice, bright tone as with regular picking technique.

    1. I don’t like a pick, either.

      I know some people go all the way with a thumb pick and fingerpicks, but that seems like overkill unless your playing a laptop steel or maybe a banjo.

      A lot of players are using acrylic fingernails today to get that natural sound.

      As for holding the pick — it varies on your finger size and pick size. Find what’s comfortable for you — some use a thumb and first finger while others triangulate by adding a the second finger for a stability base.

      Some people like a lot of pick hitting the strings, while some just like the edge of the pick to hit. Some people play with the back end of the pick for a fuller sound. Django Reinhardt used a trouser button for his pick! SMILE!

    2. Hey Stoks,
      I might be able to help you. If you’re trying to play fast on one string (multiple notes on one string) and one finger plucking is just not fast enough, try using both your index and middle fingers on that string. Play as if you were playing a bass guitar, using alternate finger picking. It’s what Mark Knopfler did in the fast arpeggios in the Sultans of Swing solo.

  4. Nihar —

    See? I haven’t played with a pick in so long I forgot how to pick one up! I actually did get my pick the second time I went for it (when it fell on the ground). Yes, I was in my garage. It started out as my parents making me play there because I was too loud, but now I really like the sound in the garage, it has a natural reverb feel because it’s all cement and the tone just seems more focused and tight. My dream amp rig one day is to have a Princeton Reverb and a vintage Hiwatt DR103. The Hiwatt will have the nice low-mid punch and hollow mids while the Princeton will add a nice crispy top end to the tone. Do you ever use a dual-amp setup? I normally run a Bugera V5 (Fender Champ clone) and my Mustang set to a Twin Model to get a clean and dirty sound going on, but I wanted distinct clean and dirty parts in my video so I only used the Mustang. What’s your opinion on solid state vs tube vs modeling?

    Yeah, your video was real and in situ. I liked the honest of the setting and the performance. Well done!

    I haven’t played with a Hiwatt yet, but my Princeton Reverb really sounds good as it ages.

    I haven’t used a dual amp setup yet — dual speakers, yes, but not a dual amp. I was not impressed with dual speakers. They seemed to muddy the sound instead of giving me two different and distinct voices as I had hoped.

    I love tube amps, but they are noisy, and I live in an apartment without a garage — so I really have to play quietly. So… I’m starting to really love solid state amps. They work great at low volume, they run cooler, you can play around with them more and they are hardier and harder to break. Modeling amps are fine — but when I use my iPad as an amp — the sound just doesn’t feel as rich to me as a real amp does in practice.

  5. Hi all,
    Why not both, pic and fingers!
    You may know the Buddy Guy Teaching the Blues DVD (if not I encourage you to search the internet and get it, amazingly instructional…). MIck Taylor, John Mayer, Jack Pearson… they all play both pic and fingers! I began learning guitar long time ago and franckly i’ve always used both, at this time it was too difficult for me to jump over 2 or 3 strings to play next note. the pic between my thumb index, using middle and ring finger for notes over the jump! Later I decided to go to guitar school for léarning classical nylon string, I had to leave the pic “prohibited” in this world! But as soon I went back home for playing the blues, I began to mix these two technics…
    It not that “painfull”, once again just a matter of practicing a bit. Better than too many words, look at the videos of Jack Pearson Performance And Style Parts on youtube… You’ll find out howto!

  6. I use 3 different techniques.. 1. Plectrum 2. Fingers 3. Plectrum and Fingers -> Hybrid Picking……. Your question about which strings to pluck for chords depends on if it is a triad or an extented chord ex. G major or Gmaj7 or Gmaj9 or Gmaj7sus4 ect; For G major you only need 3 notes for the triad the others are just repeated root and fifth and for Gmaj7 you need four notes however you can omit the fifth or the third and still achieve the maj7 tonality…it is all about voicings and inversions…don’t abandon the plectrum though learn fingerstyle and hybrid picking and your guitar playing will improve exponentially. You can pinch chords, strum with thumb, claw hammer them using index, mid, ring and pinky and my personal favorite is using the thumb and claw together and using plectrum and claw together for the most unqiue strumming… I use that for one of my newer songs I am recording “High Noon” it helps differentiate my rhythm guitar, slide guitar, and lead guitar and when I play it live I combine all 3 parts into a hybrid by using my plectrum and claw with my slide on my pinky and it sounds like 3 guitars at once….I never want to hassle with another guitarist in our band unless I find one as passionate/creative/dependable and skilled as I am. Remember these words of advice and use them or give them a try and it will pay off…Also, my signature trademark slide is brass it sounds equally great on electric, acoustic and resonator….Dunlop Brass Slides are my favorite…. I also use a stainless steel 11/16ths socket for long sustained atmospheric parts. My brand/style of music I call Progternadelic Blues Rock ( Progressive-Alternative Psycedelic Blues Rock) or simply Dynamic Rock.

      1. Thank you David for your time I just discovered your blog and I am enjoying the articles…. a lot of useful and interesting information. Have a great Thanksgiving if I don’t log on before then. Time to fire up the studio and track some guitars and vocals…. I am doing a Double Album my first solo one with my vocal based songs. I write/compose instrumental-ambient-psycedelic rock and record them too…check out my website jtbomar.bandcamp.com. ……… I am currently creating 2 official websites one for my solo projects and one for my new band Blue Cell.

  7. Hi David,

    For a few decades, I’ve tinkered with playing the guitar. I can’t call myself a guitarist because I’ve never gotten as good as I should. I’ve never dedicated the time or energy it would take to be more than a hobbyist. Life interrupts! I first learned to play at 12 years old and I learned to fingerpick on a giant old acoustic of my aunt’s. I came from a musical family who mostly played in small country churches. I never liked playing chords so I never really learned but a few.

    I learned individual notes within the pentatonic scales and where to find them on the fretboard. It sure was easier than strumming and remembering what fingers went where to make up different chords. I wasn’t a rhythm guy. In my late teens, I moved to the electric guitar and played it just like I’d learned. I’ve tried using a pick, but just can’t do it. It seems SO slow! I’m working on using finger picks next month, but only because I’m also going to have to move to playing the electric on my lap due to some bad carpel tunnel and a couple of wrist cysts. I’ve been watching Jeff Healey play and I if he can figure it out, I’m betting I can get good enough my dog won’t leave home.

    Well, I hope you haven’t given up fingerpicking. Using the pads of the fingers gives such a smooth sound that nothing else can replicate.

    Take care,

    Eric