Lesson: Create Fresh Sounds with a Keyboard-inspired Approach to the Acoustic Guitar

The sound is quite different from a percussive strum or arpeggio—it’s more like a piano, with your fingers taking the role of the hammers striking the strings.

Guitarists often rely on default techniques for accompaniment: strumming, alternating boom-chuck bass/strums, or fingerpicking single-note patterns. You can cover a lot of ground with those techniques, but there’s another way to play that is often overlooked: picking multiple strings simultaneously with your fingers. The sound is quite different from a percussive strum or arpeggio—it’s more like a piano, with your fingers taking the role of the hammers striking the strings. When you play chords with this pianistic approach, the individual voices come through much more clearly than with strumming. That opens up a lot of expressive possibilities and works well with hymns, jazz, blues, Latin music, and other styles.

For this Weekly Workout, drop your flatpick and try out some piano-inspired fingerstyle approaches to picking chords. 

Week One

In pianistic picking, your fingers essentially act as a unit, as if they were glued together. To get started, practice this technique with the index and middle fingers, plus your thumb. In all of the examples in this lesson, play the up-stem notes with your fingers, and the down-stem notes with your thumb.

In Ex. 1, based on the Pachelbel’s Canon chord progression in the key of C, sometimes you pick with the thumb and two fingers at the same time, as in the opening C chord—this is like a basic thumb/index fingerpicking pinch with the middle finger added. Sometimes you play with the index/middle fingers by themselves, as on the last beat of measure 1. Notice how, in measures 5 and 6 and elsewhere, the two fingers create nice parallel harmonies, with notes a third apart. The harmony is cleaner than if you were playing these notes with a pick (because with a pick you would be sounding the notes in quick succession rather than precisely together). In measure 8, play a classic walk-up from G (heading toward C if you loop the example), as in Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” and other tunes.

Now, in Ex. 2, run through the same progression, this time bringing your ring finger into the action, so the ring, middle, and index fingers are working as a unit. Pick the highest note of each chord with your ring finger. It might take some time to get used to picking three adjacent strings at the same time—take it slowly and work on sounding only the strings indicated as evenly as you can. The last measure repeats the “Alice’s Restaurant” walk-up with the fourth string thickening the texture a little bit.



Week Two

Put the three-finger pianistic picking technique to work in Ex. 3, inspired by Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” Simon’s guitar part sounds distinctly like traditional church music, which is no accident—the melody can be heard in St. Matthew Passion, by J.S. Bach, who borrowed it from an earlier German composer, Hans Leo Hassler.

In the first two measures, play three-note chords with your fingers on the beats, and pick the off-beat bass notes with your thumb. This pattern recurs in measures 4, 5, 6, and 10. Elsewhere, change chords every beat, or every other beat, in sync with the melody, as an organist often does. In measure 8, play the G-to-C walk-up from previous week again, leading here to Bdim7 and then Am. Throughout the example, notice how the melody stand out on top of the chords, and the bass line below as well.


Week Three

In addition to working well in a church-music context, pianistic picking can sound great at the juke joint, as Ex. 4 shows. This is the old favorite, 12-bar blues in E, with a descending line on the seventh chord reminiscent of ragtime piano. The pattern is straightforward: on the E7, while you’re thumping a steady bass with your thumb, pick the open first string along with the second string at the third fret and third string at the fourth fret. Slide this shape down by half steps and then play the top strings open at the end of measure 1 before landing on an open E shape in measure 2. Follow essentially the same pattern on the A7 chord in measures 5 and 6, starting at the eighth fret.

In measure 10, add a touch of sweet dissonance on the C7 chord by including the open second string (a half step away from the AG on the third string) and then resolve to a B7. At the end of the example, in the turnaround, leave the first string open on the B7 to get a juicy B7sus4 chord.



Week Four

To close out this lesson, try this style in an example with a Latin-jazz feel. Ex. 5 comes from a song of mine called “End of the Line,” in which all the chords are picked with either two or three fingers in the pianistic style.

The rhythm is akin to bossa nova, with a light percussive slap added on beats 2 and 4. For the slaps, gently drop your picking fingers (including the thumb) on to the strings while still keeping your fretting fingers in the shape of the previous chord. One bonus of pianistic picking is that it’s compatible with this kind of fingerstyle percussion, which produces a softer sound than the scratch you get with
a flatpick.

The example kicks off with a quick single-note phrase (using a grace-note slide and a pull-off on the second string) leading to the main Bm7H5 to E7 to Am progression. Throughout the example, use the rhythmic pattern introduced in measure 3, with chords, slaps (x), and bass notes like this:

Playing these piano-like chords with discrete bass lines and percussion is like turning your guitar into a little jazz trio.

In measures 4 and 5, and 8 and 9, play an ascending line with your fingers over the Am, leading up to the unison E notes on the open first string and the second string at the fifth fret. In measure 10, shift to a Dm7 and cycle around eventually to the E7. From the second ending, in the final measure, you can go back up to the top and loop the whole example if you like.


Pianistic picking is what makes this song work—if I try to play it with a pick, it loses precision and seems flat.


As you become comfortable with pianistic picking, you’ll find all sorts of applications for it in whatever style of music you play. Use pianistic picking to spotlight subtleties in the harmony, play chord melody, or create distinctive rhythms—and provide a welcome change-up from the familiar textures of strumming and fingerpicking.


From the book and video Beyond Strumming | BY JEFFREY PEPPER RODGERS

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, founding editor of Acoustic Guitar, is a grand prize winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest and author of The Complete Singer-Songwriter, Beyond Strumming, and other books and videos for musicians. In addition to his ongoing work with AG, he offers live workshops for guitarists and songwriters, plus video lessons, song charts, and tab, on Patreon.

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