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Easy Guitar Fingerstyle Patterns (Fingerpicking)

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Chasmac is a semi-retired guitar teacher who has taught in various schools in London and elsewhere for over 30 years.

This is how to hold your picking hand.

This is how to hold your picking hand.

Learn the Patterns for Fingerstyle Guitar

If you're interested in learning some easy-to-play fingerstyle guitar patterns that can be used as simple song accompaniments and played as an alternative to strumming, then here they are.

How to Hold Your Picking Hand

First, if you're new to fingerstyle guitar (aka fingerpicking), the picture above shows how the picking hand is held. This is the so-called classical position and is considered the most efficient way whether you're using a nylon string guitar, a steel string acoustic guitar or even an electric guitar; however, you'll see lots of variation among many great fingerstyle (but not classical) guitar players.

What Does P, I, M, A Mean for Fingerpicking?

The labels p, i, m and a are abbreviations for the Spanish names of those fingers, which is another classical guitar convention. The 4th finger isn't used in standard fingerstyle or classical guitar, but flamenco players use it. For our purposes, we can ignore it. Some publications use the alternative labels, t, i, m, r (thumb, index, middle, ring) instead of p, i, m, a.

Default Position for These Patterns

For the patterns included here, you should adopt the following default position. The 6th, 5th and 4th strings are played by downward strokes of the thumb. The other fingers play upstrokes as follows: The 3rd string is played by the index finger, the 2nd string is played by the middle finger, and the 1st string is played by the ring finger.

Keep in mind that this is just a default position because, most of the time, it's the most efficient way to play the strings when playing the most common patterns. Other times, it's necessary to ignore the default position and change the fingering.

What Is Fingerstyle Accompaniment?

Fingerstyle accompaniment, at its simplest, is performed by plucking the strings in a set order, while holding and changing chords, producing a flowing arpeggio accompaniment. It's similar to strumming a rhythm with a set pattern of up strokes and down strokes of the pick.

Here's how a pattern looks in guitar tablature (tab).

Fingerstyle pattern in guitar tab

Fingerstyle pattern in guitar tab

Play each of those strings in turn. If you're unfamiliar with guitar tab, the six lines are the six strings. The lowest line is the 6th string. The numbers tell you which frets to place the fingers of your other hand behind. We are only interested in your picking hand for now, so all those strings are played open (unfretted).

Play each string using the hand position and each finger in turn as explained above. Play them in time. You can count the pattern as 1 & 2 & 3 & for each string as you play it. Repeat it until it's a smooth flowing sound. This isn't a very interesting pattern, musically, although it's often heard as an accompaniment to various versions of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. It's included here because it gets your fingers used to moving in sequence.

Now we can look at some more musically interesting patterns:

4-beat fingerstyle pattern

4-beat fingerstyle pattern

Four-Beat Fingerstyle Pattern

This is a 4 beat to the bar pattern and sounds good for smoothly flowing songs, like Let it Be or Imagine, for example. Count the 4 beats evenly as: 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & and play as follows:

  • Count 1: Play string 6 with your thumb.
  • Count &: Play string 3 with your index finger.
  • Count 2: Play strings 1 and 2 together with the other two fingers as explained above.
  • Count &: Play string 3 with your index finger again.
  • Count 3: Play string 4 with your thumb.
  • Count &: Play string 3 with your index again.
  • Count 4: Play strings 1 and 2 together with both fingers.
  • Count &: Play string 3 with your index finger.

Repeat over and over without missing a beat and keeping a steady count. Speed is unimportant for now - timing is everything.

Adding Chords

Now you can play that pattern while your other hand is holding a chord. Hold any chord with your fretting hand and play the same pattern. But here's the important part.

The first thumb note won't always be on string 6; it depends on the chord shape you're holding. For six-string chords like E major (the six strings at frets 022100), the open 6th string, E, which is the root of the chord, is the obvious choice. The same goes for many others, such as G7 (320001) where the 6th string at fret 3 is the root G.

If you want to play a five-string chord shape such as C major down at the nut (x32010), your thumb will play the 5th string instead of the 6th. That means your bass note will again be the root of the chord, C which gives a stronger and more balanced sound. The effect will be of a flowing arpeggio over an alternating bass moving from the root up to E on string 4 or whichever note is on string 4 of the chord you're holding. If you play a 4-string chord like D major (xx0232), then both bass notes will be on string 4.

In the example below, the pattern is played over a-five string C major chord, so the pattern starts on string 5 instead of string 6. The example is also shown in notation for anyone who prefers to read notation rather than tab. Others can ignore it completely and just follow the tab.

4 beat pattern on C major

4 beat pattern on C major

Hear the Fingerstyle Pattern (Video)

3-beat fingerstyle guitar pattern

3-beat fingerstyle guitar pattern

Three-Beat Fingerstyle Pattern

Count and play the above 3 beat pattern as 1 & 2 & 3 & using the usual picking hand fingers for each of the notes.

Play the example below by holding a five string C major chord as shown by the tab. Make sure you start with your thumb on string 5. This is a good and easy pattern that works well for songs that have 3 beats to the bar or measure.

3 beat fingerstyle pattern on C major

3 beat fingerstyle pattern on C major

Alternating bass fingerstyle pattern (Travis)

Alternating bass fingerstyle pattern (Travis)

Alternating Bass (Travis) Fingerstyle Pattern

This alternating bass style has a good rhythmic feel to it. It's the most difficult to get right in terms of timing. Just follow the numbers and play the right string with the right finger at the right time. Count aloud and slowly. As you can see only two fingers and thumb are needed for this pattern. Easier said than done - but that's what practice is for.

This style is the basis of alternating bass solo fingerstyle playing. The ring finger can be used to pick out melodies while keeping the bass and rhythm going. You can hear this style in Bob Dylan's "Don't think twice it's alright", Paul Simon's "Kathy's song", The Beatles', "Dear Prudence", "Blackbird" and "Julia" and Pink Floyd's "Brain Damage". If you know strumming patterns, then this style has the same rhythm as the D - DU - UD- pattern

This pattern is also (loosely) called Travis Picking after the guitarist Merle Travis, who had a unique alternating bass style. It's not exactly the same though, - as Travis only used thumb and one finger to do everything, rhythm, harmony and melody.

On 6 string chords like E (022100) and G (320003) play the first bass (thumb) note of each pattern on string 6 and the next bass (thumb) note on string 4. On 5-string chords like C (X32010) or A (X02220) play the first bass note note on string 5 and the 2nd bass note on string 4.

4 string chords - Because this style needs the bass to be constantly alternating, if the chord is a 4 string chord, such as D major (xx0232), you need to break from the default fingering given at the start. The thumb now alternates between strings 4 and 3 and the 1st and 2nd fingers move up to pick strings 2 & 1.

4-string pattern

4-string pattern

Changing Chords With Fast Alternating Bass Pattern

Here's a full alternating bass progression at 240 beats per minute (ignore the tempo marking) based on chords: G C D7 G. Notice the ending is slightly different, and both the 6th string and first strings are played at the same time.

When playing any pattern, you should always find ways to modify it here and there, otherwise it sounds too mechanical. Add hammer-ons and pull-offs to and from the chord tones that you're already holding. When you can do that fluently, then you can attempt solo fingerstyle guitar (see the link below).


Learn the Patterns, Then Improvise

I hope you find these patterns useful. Accompaniment patterns are easily mastered with practice. Once you've mastered a particular pattern, start adding your own improvised changes such as hammering on or pulling off from fretted notes. Or make your own patterns. All fingerstyle accompaniment patterns are valid, if they can provide a good rhythmically solid accompaniment to any particular song. The more you start to make your own variations, the more ready you'll be to take on solo fingerstyle pieces.

If you can play the above accompaniment fingerstyles quite easily, you can learn how to make solo fingerstyle arrangements.

© 2012 Chas Mac