• Experience the sonic and practical benefits of attacking the strings with your picking-hand fingers.
• Learn different picking patterns and strategies.
• Create fluid rhythm and lead phrases.
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When most of us start learning steel-string guitar, we typically reach for a pick when we grab our instrument. This early habit can continue for decades, and even after we’ve become seasoned players, it can cause us to form misconceptions like playing sans pick is limited to “fingerpicking” in the Chet Atkins tradition or the singer-songwriter and folk realms. In reality, putting down the pick opens up new tones, patterns, and creative possibilities, no matter what musical style we play. Just as the pick offers inherent advantages, so do the fingertips. In this lesson, we’ll explore fingerstyle steel-string guitar in a variety of musical settings to see if we can discover a common thread between them.
I’ll never forget meeting Mark Knopfler when I was 19. After I asked him about his right-hand touch, he extended his hand and showed me it was all the flesh of the fingertips and then told me to talk to Richard Bennett if I wanted to know about nails. You’ll want to experiment to find what works best for you. So much of the guitar is a delicate balance between touch and mechanics. Tone is in the touch and fluidity is in the mechanics.
It’s good practice to start with the basics. Ex. 1 is a simple rolling pattern in G on the middle three strings, not out of place in a track or behind a vocal. If you’ve never used your fingers for articulation until now, the pattern might be new to you. The idea is to begin with a simple fretting-hand exercise that allows you to focus on the attack—specifically the point of contact between your fingertip and the string. Experiment with the point of contact, either close to the tip or further back toward the pad of the finger. Listen carefully and, if possible, record yourself and study the playback. Each subtle shift will vary and shape the tone.
With a basic rolling framework in place, you can start playing mini-melodies as shown in Ex. 2. We’re extracting melodic motion from a D major arpeggio before ending the phrase with some single notes. You’ll naturally gravitate toward certain combinations of thumb and fingers, but as before, I’ve included the patterns I’m using to assist you in this discovery process.
At a certain point, you’ll want to tackle some more developed and faster lines. Without a pick to rely on, you have to form a new alternating pattern to replace downstrokes and upstrokes. That’s easy: Simply consider your thumb to be the downstroke and your index finger to be the upstroke. Even for rhythm guitar phrases, this comes in handy.
To develop this habit, we begin Ex. 3 with a pattern in A. But heads-up: Just like when we wield a flatpick, sometime we’ll want to make exceptions to the strict alternation. For example, look at the triplet pull-off at the end of measure two. Notice how it naturally leads our thumb down from the 5th string to the 6th, and then back up to the open 5th at the start of the next measure. This is just like when flatpicking—a downstroke might transition to another downstroke on the adjacent string.
If you’re more used to the plectrum than anything in the Chet Atkins or Jerry Reed realm, thinking about your picking-hand fingers as a flatpick can take the mystery out of this type of fingerpicking. It’s a principle you can apply to many aspects of guitar: Use what you already know as a springboard into new techniques.
From there, it’s not a stretch to add the picking-hand middle finger to grab the 3rd string and start popping double-stops for the country-style rhythmic pattern in Ex. 4. Contexts and styles may change, but the approaches stay the same. Try using my example as a stepping-stone for your own phrases. For instance, tackle a Chuck Berry groove with your thumb, index, and middle fingers. Listen to what Mark Knopfler plays on “Walk of Life” and then invent your own rhythmic variations.