Beginning Fingerpicking: How to Play Melody and Bass Lines at the Same Time

Guitarist Mary Flower demonstrates how to play melodies and bass notes at the same time on acoustic guitar via an exercise she calls "Nimble Fingers."

If you’re new to fingerstyle technique, here’s how to how to play a simultaneous melody and bass line on guitar. To get the hang of things, try a tuneful exercise in first position, with a slow-moving bass line and simple rhythms. 

Embrace the Basic Concept

Students often ask how they can get into playing melodies and bass notes at the same time, and I tell them it’s easier than they think. Case in point is an exercise I call “Nimble Fingers,” which is a little thing in the key of C major that I might have stolen—I’m sure you’ll let me know if that’s the case. 

“Nimble Fingers” sounds vaguely classical and uses notes that imply basic chords like C, Am, Dm, and G. I tend to play it using thumb- and fingerpicks; however, straight fingerstyle technique will also work well. Whichever approach you prefer, pick this lesson’s bass notes, those on strings 6–4, with your thumb, and play the melody with your index and middle fingers on the higher strings. 


Break Things Down

Before you tackle the full exercise, I’ll break it down for you. Throughout the piece, it’s best to let each bass note ring for as long as possible. In some measures, like those based on the C chord, that will be tricky. As shown in Example 1, begin by playing the third-fret C with your third finger. Since you also need to use that finger to play the third-fret G on beat 4, you won’t be able to hold the C bass note throughout the measure. 

Some other chords, like Am (Example 2) and Dm (Example 3), use an open string as a root. In these instances, you can easily play the bass note for the duration of the measure. You might have noticed that these different chords share the same three-note ascending melody (E–F–G), but when you get to the G chord (Example 4), the melody notes move in descending order. 

The exercise’s first pinch occurs when you pick strings 1 and 5 together on the downbeat of the second appearance of the Am chord, as shown in Example 5. While all of the previous examples have followed a simple set of rules for the left hand, with the first finger assigned to fret 1 and the third to fret 3, I fret certain bass notes, namely F and F#, with my thumb, as notated in Examples 6 and 7, respectively. I do a final pinch in the last bar (Example 8), where I play a double-stop (F–D) that sounds like a G7 chord. And for the last appearance of the Dm chord, I do a hammer-on move with first and second fingers on strings 1 and 3, respectively (Example 9).


String It All Together

Now try the full “Nimble Fingers” exercise (Example 10), which includes all of the preceding figures. Play it slowly at first, making sure that none of the bass notes overpower the melody, again, letting the notes ring as long as possible. If any measures give you trouble, be sure to practice them until you can play them seamlessly. The beauty of this piece is that the bass line works together with the melody such that the harmony is clearly defined, even though you aren’t playing full chords. However, it can also be satisfying as a duet—just find a partner and take turns playing the melody and accompaniment, using the chord frames shown above the staff. Note the use of the Am7, Dm7, and D7/F# chords, which helps keeps things colorful, harmonically speaking.

Mary Flower is an award-winning guitarist, touring artist, and teacher based in Portland, Oregon.

Melody and bass line fingerstyle guitar lesson music notation
Melody and bass line fingerstyle guitar lesson music notation sheet 2

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Mary Flower
Mary Flower

Award-winning guitarist Mary Flower hosts the Blues in the Gorge guitar camp and has recorded numerous CDs and instructional DVDs.

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