Don’t be afraid to embrace the freedom of playing fingerstyle—and the myriad tones that it produces.



Chops: Intermediate/Advanced
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• 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. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

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.

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Don’t sleep on one of the most unique and expressive techniques we guitarists can develop. From B.B. to Beck, everyone has their own version, and it’s about time you get a handle on yours.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Increase control of your fretting hand to shape and improve your vibrato.
• From subtle intonation adjustments to wide, authoritative statements, learn different strategies for using vibrato.
• Explore ways to unlock your creative potential in any situation.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Ask 10 guitarists what constitutes great vibrato and you’ll get 10 different answers. Because there are several different ways to vary the pitch, one size does not fit all. In the early days of guitar, the classical approach to vibrato was to create subtle pitch variations with a quick rocking motion of the fingertips. By alternately moving toward the headstock and soundhole, the player stretched the nylon string sharp and flat. It works with steel strings too. Try this: Hook up a tuner and watch how the pitch changes when you move your fingertip from left to right, perpendicular to the fret. Your finger should move with the palm, not independently. It’s a very expressive technique that can be used in a variety of situations (Ex. 1).

Click here for Ex. 1

This kind of vibrato also serves as my preferred method for a quick recovery when playing in a band, or even on a solo guitar gig, if a note or interval is not quite in tune. Considering the compromises of guitar tuning in general, I can fluctuate the pitch just enough to even out the intonation while imparting some expression.

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Grab your thumbpick and learn how to break down—and build up—Chet-style arrangements.


Chops: Intermediate/Advanced
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Increase the independence between your picking-hand thumb and fingers.
• Learn different strategies for harmonizing melodies.
• Create alternating-bass patterns that work over simple harmonies.


Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

As inspiring as it is to hear Chet Atkins play some mind-bending fingerstyle licks, it can be quite daunting to decode what he’s doing. Where do all those sounds come from? How do we create our own tunes or arrangements in that style?

It’s useful to break a big job down into smaller parts, and “Chet-style guitar” certainly benefits from that approach. We’ll break this technique down to the smallest components; once we understand the elements, we’ll then be able to build up arrangements using this knowledge. Practicing this way helps beginners form good habits, and it also gives experienced players a chance to identify and fix bad habits that are often the result of ineffective practice.

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