From the September 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY ADAM PERLMUTTER

Steel-string guitarists tend to rely on a relatively narrow range of picking patterns—more than a few players have based their entire careers on Travis picking—while the repertoire for classical guitar makes use of a more varied assortment of approaches. A sampling of etudes by Mauro Giuliani, Matteo Carcassi, and Fernando Sor reveals a trove of picking-hand templates, some of which might not have occurred to you as a steel-string guitarist.

In this lesson, you’ll play through some of these picking patterns. It would be beneficial to borrow some basic approaches from classical guitar, as suggested by the Los Angeles–area virtuoso Juanito Pascual, when working on these examples. To ensure that your picking hand is optimally positioned, rather than angling it as some steel-string players do, try this: Hold the arm of your picking hand straight forward in the air, make a fist, and let your fingers gently fall out. Then, while maintaining your picking hand’s position relative to the forearm, place the hand in front of the guitar near the strings. This will ensure the most neutral position for your tendons, allowing you to pick with the least amount of tension.

Unintentional notes are not uncommon—and even an attractive feature—in blues and folk settings. But in classical playing, there is a premium on cleanliness and accuracy. To avoid inadvertently sounding a string after you articulate a note, instead of bringing your thumb or finger straight back (which can easily cause an accidental collision with the string you just picked), lift it slightly. Done correctly, this will create a sort of circular finger motion when you repeatedly pick a note on the same string.

Week One

This week you’ll work through some exercises by the Italian musician Mauro Giuliani (1781–1829), who in his day was regarded as the ultimate guitar virtuoso. (For a full lesson on Giuliani’s etudes, see the November 2010 issue of AG.) In Giuliani’s 120 Right-Hand Studies, Op. 1a, a simple I–V (C–G7) harmonic progression is treated to a series of increasingly complex picking-hand patterns.

In Example 1, which depicts “Study No. 1,” an active bass line on strings 5–3 supports static dyads (two-note groupings) on strings 1 and 2. To play this figure—and the others for this week—fret and hold a basic open C chord for the duration of bars 1 and 3, and a G7 chord with a B in the bass (second finger on string 5 and fourth and first fingers on strings 2 and 1, respectively) in bar 2. Pick the down-stemmed notes with your thumb and the up-stemmed notes with your index finger on string 2 and your middle on string 1; strum the C chord in bar 3 with your thumb.

Work through the example at whatever tempo you can cleanly play the music without slowing down when you switch between chords, and repeat bars 1–2 as many times as you’d like. Once you’ve got the figure under your fingers, switch things up by picking strings 1 and 2 with your ring and middle fingers. You can also try the exercise using different chords.

“Study No. 76” (Example 2) is a bit more demanding of the picking hand. In a typical steel-string picking pattern, the thumb is assigned to strings 6–4. But here, the thumb picks an eighth-note bass line, assisted by the index finger on beats 2 and 4, while the middle and ring fingers pick dyads in an eighth-eighth-quarter rhythm. If needed, learn the up-stemmed and down-stemmed notes separately before combining them.

In Example 3, “Study No. 81,” you’ll pick a bass note with your thumb, squarely on each beat, adding a 16th-note pattern with your index and middle fingers on the upper two strings. Play this one as evenly as possible. Once you’ve mastered it, try picking strings 1 and 2 with your middle and ring fingers, just like you did with Ex. 1.


Bring week one to a close with “Study No. 93” (Example 4), which reverses the direction of the picking pattern, now going from highest note to lowest on each beat—a direction that will feel less natural for many guitarists. This example incorporates the sixth string, requiring different fretting-hand fingerings. For the C-chord measures, stop the sixth-string G with your third finger and the fifth-fret C with your fourth finger; for G7, use the same grip as in the previous figures, adding your third finger to the sixth-string G. Don’t feel discouraged if at first you need to play Ex. 4 considerably slower than the others from this week.

Beginners’ Tip #1
Picking-hand technique can be a highly personal thing; experiment with various ratios of nail to flesh, to find what works best for you.

Week Two

The source materials for this week’s workout are two excerpts by Matteo Carcassi (1792–1853), from the Italian virtuoso guitarist’s 25 Etudes, Op. 60. Example 5 shows a portion of “No. 1,” a scalar study in the key of C major. In this figure, the thumb picks bass notes, and a single-note line is articulated by the index and middle fingers, picking in alternation. Key to playing this is getting your fingers in at the right place and at the right time, and that goes for both hands. For instance, start bar 1 by simultaneously fretting the Cs on strings 5 and 2, and remove your first finger to play the open B on beat 2. Keep in mind that “No. 1” is meant to be played Allegro, or relatively fast at around 120–156 bpm, so gradually work up to that tempo.

Also in the key of C, “No. 6” (Example 6) ups the ante by moving the scalar aspect to the lower strings and adding a half-note melody on strings 1 and 2. Your thumb has to kind of hustle as it picks all of the bass notes throughout, while the other fingers have much less to do. Try picking the up-stemmed notes on string 1 with your ring finger and those on string 2 with your middle and index fingers. And though it’s important to play “No. 6” evenly, try to do so not mechanically but expressively.

Beginners’ Tip #2

Proper nail care is of obvious importance to the pick hand. Always keep your nails well shaped, following your fingertips’ natural contours. (For more on the care and feeding of the picking hand, see Mac Randall’s feature in the June 2018 issue of AG.)

Week Three

Another giant in the world of classical guitar, the Spanish instrumentalist and composer Fernando Sor (1778–1839) was quite the prolific writer. Sor’s Twenty Studies for the Guitar is generally regarded as among the most beautiful collection of etudes in the classical guitar literature and can serve as a great workout on the steel-string guitar.

This week, you’ll focus on a big chunk of “Estudio 2” from Twenty Studies (Example 7). As with all the previous examples, it’s in the key of C and in the first position, selected for the simplicity of the fretting-hand’s role. This study introduces a new picking pattern: Throughout much of the piece, the thumb alternates strokes with the index finger in 16th notes, supporting a less rhythmically active melody on the higher strings, picked by the index and ring fingers.

When you work on Ex. 7, strive for an economy of fretting-hand motion. For instance, maintain an open-C grip throughout the first two measures, using your fourth finger to add the third-fret G on beat 1 of bar 2. Finding the most sensible fingerings will help you focus on the picking hand, the pattern of which might not yet be in your muscle memory. Also, be sure to observe the dynamic markings—the crescendo (gradually getting louder) and decrescendo (getting quieter), as indicated by the hairpin lines. Remember, you’re not just exercising your picking hand, you’re making music. 

Beginners’ Tip #3
Guitarists can be unaware of the unintentional notes they produce when fingerpicking. Record yourself playing these exercises, and listen carefully, to make sure that you’re playing everything with precision.

Week Four

This week’s original etude (Example 8) uses an entirely different chord progression, toggling between Amaj9 and Am9 chords, and stitches together a sampling of the picking patterns you learned—and hopefully internalized—in the previous weeks.

The chord shapes in bars 1 and 2 are the only grips you’ll need to play the example. Play the Amaj9 (bar 1) with your third and fourth fingers on the fourth-string G# and third-string C#, respectively, and your first finger on the first-string G#. Slide this whole grip down one fret (a half step) to play the Am9 chord (bar 2). Work on Ex. 8 until you can switch between the different two-bar patterns with ease, and then remember to borrow the materials for use in your own work, whether coming up with new textures for accompaniment patterns or for writing songs. 

Beginners’ Tip #4
Pick up copies of Mauro Giuliani’s 120 Right-Hand Studies, Op. 1a; Matteo Carcassi’s 25 Etudes, Op. 60; and Fernando Sor’s Twenty Studies for the Guitar. Work on these pieces as part of your daily practice routine.

Adam Perlmutter is a contributing music editor to Acoustic Guitar and other String Letter publications.



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