From the June 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY MAC RANDALL

When I started playing guitar at age nine, many years ago, I felt far more comfortable using a flatpick than picking with my fingers. My first teacher specialized in bluegrass, and he showed me the basics of fingerstyle. But when I was playing on my own and push came to shove, I tended to stick with the pick. Fingerstyle was too complicated; too many moving body parts. If a pick wasn’t handy, I’d fake one by putting the tips of my right-hand thumb and index finger together, and catching the edge of the strings with the nail of my index finger. Prolonged bouts of this particular activity would turn the fingertip black. They also likely had something to do with why my right index fingernail is considerably and, it would now seem, permanently thinner than any other nail on either of my hands.

However, neither of those peculiarities account for why I eventually got serious about fingerstyle. It came down to circulation trouble. In my late teens, I practiced every day for several hours at a time. While I was playing, I would often lose feeling in the third and fourth fingers on my right hand. Sensation would gradually return, sometimes after a brief pins-and-needles period, once I took my arm off the guitar. Clearly, the way I positioned my arm was cutting off the blood flow to those fingers and turning them into dead weight. But try as I might, I couldn’t figure out a way to stop this from happening and still hold the guitar comfortably.

Then, after months of experimentation, it finally hit me: Maybe I should try using my third and fourth fingers instead of just leaving them to go numb. So I grew my nails and started working on my fingerstyle chops in earnest. As I’d hoped, my fingers stopped falling asleep—and they’ve never done so again. Throughout the decades that have followed, I’ve kept my right-hand nails long, which sometimes prompts people to make comments along the lines of “Are you sure you’re not part werewolf?” I’ll gladly take such occasional ribbing, though, in exchange for having all my fingers work properly.

Although I adopted fingerpicking out of personal necessity, I soon began to notice its other attractions, both technical and aesthetic. When you play with a flatpick alone, your picking hand doesn’t have as much direct contact with the strings; go fingerstyle and you cut out the middleman. You also gain the ability to execute more complex patterns, and to play separate strings at exactly the same time—
impossible with a pick. Then there’s the tone factor: Playing with your fingers just plain sounds different from playing with a pick, in much the same way that a plucked harp sounds different from a strummed dulcimer or zither. And, of course, fingerpicking allows you to replicate more convincingly the styles of myriad great guitarists of the past and present, from Andrés Segovia to Steve Howe to Joan Baez to Taj Mahal.

Before you can reach that point, though, you have to get comfortable with the basics. You quickly realize that simple things—subtle changes in the position of your arm and hand, or an alteration in the balance you strike between nail and flesh—can make major differences, and that more complicated things—like acquiring the muscle memory you need to get your fingers working independently with consistency—can take a long time to achieve.


Flesh, Nail, or Both?

Let’s say you’re interested in playing fingerstyle but you’d rather avoid the werewolf jokes. No problem; you can get by (and sound splendid) using just the flesh on your fingertips. Feeling those strings dig into your skin may not be all that comfortable at first, but over time you’ll develop calluses just as tough as the ones on your fretting hand. Still, growing your nails, even a little, gives you more options. Picking a string with only the nail produces a sharper attack, while adding a pinch of flesh puts more body behind that attack. And one of the nicest things about fingerpicking is that you can change the ratio of nail to flesh for each finger by simply raising or lowering that finger a tad, giving each separate string the potential to have a slightly different articulation and tone.

Of course, if you’re going to grow your nails, you’ve got to take care of them, because there’s only one thing worse for a fingerstyle guitarist than breaking a nail just before a gig: breaking it during a gig. To avoid such problems, many players often apply Super Glue or a similar hard-drying adhesive to their nails, while others will use that adhesive to attach pre-shaped plastic “player’s nails.” Pierre Bensusan’s favored solution, described in his The Guitar Book, is a combo of Krazy Glue and baking soda. Some players, like Latin jazz/pop artist Raúl Midón, make regular trips to the manicurist. “I used to do acrylic nail polish on three of my picking-hand fingers,” Midón told me recently, “but now I do gel. It’s even stronger than acrylic, and it doesn’t have that toxic smell that you get sometimes when you go into a nail salon. Usually it holds up for two or three weeks.”

To keep your nails intact, it helps to keep them well-shaped, i.e., rounded to follow the fingertip’s natural curve, with no nasty sharp edges. Midón uses six different files on his nails, each one a different thickness. “You’ve got to remember to file underneath the nails as well as along the edges,” he advises. “Otherwise, if you have a burr underneath, it’s going to get caught on a string or it’s going to make an undesirable noise.” An additional option, and one that a lot of guitarists (particularly classical players) swear by, is buffing the edges of the nails with sandpaper.


Prime Position

When you pick a string with a flatpick, you usually hold it pretty much parallel to the string. Although it’s possible to do the same thing with your fingers, I wouldn’t recommend it. To pick a string head-on with the edge of a fingernail, you have to move your forearm back and scrunch up your shoulder in a way that doesn’t promote comfort over time. It’s much easier, and more sustainable, to keep your fingers at an angle to the strings. When they’re at rest, they should form a roughly diagonal line, with the thumb closest to the neck and the little finger closest to the bridge.

Unless you want to engage in some Merle Travis–style country picking and dampen bass notes with the palm of your hand, it’s best to keep everything except your fingertips and nails off the strings. Your four fingers should arch upward from their tips, and you’ll find that your arm’s center of gravity will move a little further up its underside than it generally does when you play with a pick, closer to the crook of the elbow. This change in arm position doesn’t need to be big—for most players, it’s only fractions of an inch, something that few observers would ever notice—but it helps orient the hand more securely for picking rather than strumming.


Declaration of Independence

The biggest challenge of fingerstyle playing is getting your picking-hand fingers used to working independently. For beginners, the time-honored method of doing this is to assign each finger to a string and keep it there, with no deviation; that way there’s less chance of you getting confused. This method is time-honored because it works, and so I’ve used it for all five examples in the sidebar on page 29. To make the most of the examples, you’ll need to get acquainted with my old friend Pima, a.k.a. p-i-m-a, the standard system of symbols for the picking hand: p stands for the thumb, i is the index finger, m is the middle finger, and a is the third (ring) finger.

As seen in the sidebar, the most common approach in fingerstyle is to assign i to the guitar’s third string, m to the second string, and a to the first string, leaving p to float between the fourth, fifth, and sixth strings. Since this forms the basis for most blues, country, folk, and even classical picking patterns, odds are that you can successfully apply it to whatever type of playing you care to do. That doesn’t mean you need to be tied down to it; once you’ve gotten used to fingerstyle playing and your fingers are doing what you want when you want without your having to think about it all the time, try assigning your fingers to different strings or mixing them up randomly. I have to confess that when I play fingerstyle now, I’m not always aware of which finger is doing what. But that’s a good thing—as guitarists, we aim to reach the point where our conscious minds can be left behind and we’re playing music rather than just playing our instrument.

To keep your nails intact, it helps to keep them well-shaped, i.e., rounded to follow the fingertip’s natural curve, with no nasty sharp edges.

Solving the Pinky Problem

You might have noticed that the p-i-m-a system leaves something out: the pinky. That’s because in most classical and popular styles of fingerpicking, the little finger has no function other than to hang in space—or rest on the guitar’s top as an anchor—while the other fingers do all the work. Frankly, this makes sense; after all, that finger is so much shorter than its brethren that incorporating it can be impractical. But when I was in my teens and trying to solve my picking-hand circulation problem, I found this state of affairs unacceptable. If you’re going to play with your fingers, I reasoned, you need to play with all your fingers. And so I grew my picking-hand pinky nail to lengths that often bordered on the absurd and tried to work finger number four into my patterns.

The most successful approach I found—and one that you may wish to try, too—was to turn the fourth finger into a and assign it to the first string. The third finger thus became m, the middle finger became i, and the index finger, now planted by the fourth string, took up some of the duties previously handled by the thumb. I must be honest here and note that I haven’t always been able to do this consistently. (I’ve gotten better results over time with a hybrid-picking approach, in which the pick, held between thumb and index finger in the usual manner, becomes p and the remaining three fingers are i, m, and a.) Also, I’ve learned from harsh experience that assigning the pinky to any string below the first is unlikely to yield positive results; it requires too much contortion of the hand.

Still, my various fingerstyle experiments have allowed me to incorporate the pinky into my playing enough that it at least pulls its own weight now. Which is a lot better than falling asleep on the job.

Five Core Fingerstyle Patterns

Learning how to pick fingerstyle can be frustrating at first. To make things easier, each of the following patterns employs the samqe classic I–vi–IV–V chord progression, C–Am–F–G, in first position and common time. In each pattern, the thumb (p) is the first thing you hear in every measure. It handles the quarter-note beats (1, 2, 3, and 4) while the first (i), middle (m), and third (a) fingers play the 16th notes in between (ee-and-ah).

The trick with the first four examples is getting comfortable with the way the three fingers alternate. In Examples 1 and 2, they move in a straight line, first forward (i-m-a) and then in reverse (a-m-i). Examples 3 and 4 change things up by putting m before i; Ex. 4 (m-a-i) feels more counterintuitive than Ex. 3 (m-i-a), but that could just be a personal issue on my part. There are plenty more combinations that you can try using this basic pattern—for example, put a in the spot where m just was and see what happens.

For Example 5, things get a bit more complicated. This is an example of clawhammer-style picking that introduces the element of syncopation. As before, p keeps time by picking out straight quarter notes, but a plays simultaneously with p on the first beat of the measure, while i and m fall on off beats (the “ands” of 2 and 3). You can hear similar patterns in countless folk and rock songs, perhaps most notably the Beatles’ “Julia.”


This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.