• Develop fretting-finger
• Learn how to anchor one note
while moving others around it.
• Polish your picking patterns.
• Explore oblique and contrary
Welcome to the second lesson in our
series on building fingerstyle technique.
Last month, we explored exercises
designed to strengthen the ring finger and
include it in a variety of fingerpicking
patterns [“Picking on the Ring Finger,”November 2011]. As promised, this month
we’ll look at another aspect of fingerstyle
technique—one that’s often overlooked
when discussing fingerpicking—and that’s
One benefit of fingerstyle technique is
that it gives you the ability to simultaneously
play multiple lines. This can be as
simple as arpeggiating a chord while playing
descending or ascending lines, or it can be
as involved as juggling phrases that move in
opposite directions. Whatever the situation,
fingerpicking demands digital dexterity in
both hands, and often it’s the fretting hand
that actually has the toughest gig.
With that in mind, let’s look at ways to
increase independence between the fretting
hand fingers in the context of fingerpicking.
We’ll dive right in with the Robert Johnson inspired
blues turnaround shown in Fig. 1.
In measure 1, use your 4th finger to hold the
high D as you lower a major sixth chromatically
on the 2nd and 4th strings. Your thumb
(p), index (i), and middle (m) fingers pluck
the 4th, 2nd, and 1st strings, respectively.
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Measure 2 offers the same musical motif,
but this time you’re holding A on the 2nd
string (use your 4th finger again) and the
major sixth descends on strings 3 and 5.
That last five-fret stretch (beat 4) can be a
bear, so ease into it gently. If you have trouble
making the final Dm-to-A move, practice
it slowly by itself a few times, and then
rewind and try measure 2 in its entirety.
Incidentally, this example illustrates a
type of counterpoint called oblique motion,
in which one or more lines move against a
fixed note or interval. This “anchor-some-notes-while-moving-others” approach gets
to the heart of fingerstyle guitar.
We encounter oblique motion again
in Fig. 2, but this time, we’re arpeggiating
a chord (Dm) above a descending bass
line (D–C–B–B%). There’s more to this
slash-chord passage than meets the eye, as
you have to shift your fingers around to
hold the Dm chord while executing the
bass line. Start with the fretting fingering
as shown. Then as you sort out the subsequent
moves, notice how the 4th finger
is the only digit that doesn’t swap places
with its mates sometime during this four measure
passage. Pluck the bass line with
your thumb and use your index finger on
the 3rd string, your middle on the 2nd,
and ring on the 1st.
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So far, we’ve parked the 4th fretting-hand
finger and practiced moving the others
around it. In Fig. 3, we flip the process and
hold a sustaining bass note while playing a
melodic phrase above it. Notice how the bass
note changes every two measures, yet the
melodic figure repeats. Use the same picking finger
assignment as in the previous example.
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FYI: Slash Chords
Sheet music and songbooks often
show chord symbols that contain
a slash mark. These “slash
chords” indicate specific voicings
that are crucial to the song
or piece, and they occur when
a chord’s lowest note is not the
root. The chord name is at the
left of the slash mark. The second
element—to the right of the
slash—indicates the lowest tone
in the voicing. For example, A/C#
specifies an A triad with a C# in the
bass. (To a bandmate, you’d say
“A over C#.”) Slash chords typically
occur when an arranger wants to
flag a bass line that moves through
This passage sounds cool—once you
decode all the subtle hammer-ons and
pull-offs—but it’s a bear in terms of finger
independence, so go slowly. When working
out tricky independence exercises, it’s easy
to overdo it and strain your finger muscles,
and that’s not the goal. Regular, relaxed
workouts are the key to better technique.
By the way, this repeating passage sounds
great through a flanger.
One of the most compelling sounds
you can make on a guitar involves contrary
motion, in which a melody and bass line
move in opposite directions. Though it’s a
creative challenge to compose music using
contrary motion, it’s very easy to craft exercises
to develop this technique. Here’s one:
Simply select a scale and simultaneously
ascend and descend through it. (This makes
a great parlor trick, by the way, when you
want to impress your guitar-playing buddies.)
Fig. 4 shows a humble G major scale
that simultaneously moves in two directions.
Using quarter-notes, the bottom line
ascends starting on a low F# (the seventh
degree of the G major scale), while the
top 16th-note line descends starting on A
(the second degree). Ultimately both lines
converge on G—the root. Pretty cool, huh?
Use your thumb to pluck the quarter-notes
and your ring, middle, and index fingers to
attack the 16ths.
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You can fret some of Fig. 4’s notes on
different strings, so as an experiment, see
if you can find an alternative way to play
this example. Then for mega bonus points,
select another scale and figure out how to
ascend and descend through it using a similar
Next month, we’ll continue expanding
our fingerstyle chops by dipping into some
basic bossa nova rhythms.
A veteran guitar journalist and senior editor at
PG, Andy is based in Nashville, where he backs
singer-songwriters on the baritone guitar. He
also hosts The Guitar Show, a weekly on-air and
online broadcast. For the schedule and links to
audio streams and archived audio interviews
with inspiring players, visit theguitarshow.com