Fingerstyle Guitar Lesson: Part Two

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Getting the Most Out of Your Right Hand

In the first finger-picking lesson, we looked at how to Travis pick. Travis picking emphasizes repeating rhythmic patterns and is a great way to develop independence between the fingers of the right hand. But along with practicing this new muscle skill, it probably wouldn’t hurt to be sure your hand is equipped to do it correctly.

First, take a look at your nails—or in this case, my nails. They aren’t especially long, but they do extend beyond the fingertips (if you’re a serial nail-biter, now would be a good time to ask forgiveness and start changing your ways). The goal isn’t to pick with your nails, alone. You want to play the string with your fingers, so you get volume and a nice warm tone. But the little bit of nail will brighten and articulate the note as you pick. This is especially important with classical guitars and nylon strings, since they lack the brightness of steel strings.



You’ll need to experiment to find the shape that works best for you. As you can see, each of my nails is shaped just a little differently to accommodate the way my fingers attack the strings. If you have thin nails that break or tear easily, it’s a good idea to get acrylic overlays on these three fingers (you might feel a little goofy if you’re the only guy in the nail salon, but it’s a great conversation starter). James Taylor also offers some tips for doing this yourself at his website (see: “Nails 101” at Because rough nail edges can mess with your playing, most finger-style players keep an emery board or fine-grit sand paper on hand to keep the tips smooth and even.
I highly recommend this, since you’ll start being able to tell a difference in your playing and sound when your nails need attention.

For the thumb, many players prefer using just the flesh and nail (like with the fingers). However, I’ve always found I could play faster, louder and cleaner with a thumb pick. It took me a while to find the ones that fit my playing best. Most tend to be too big and clunky, but the ones pictured below are great for my style. The orange pick is a Fred Kelly Slick Pick, and the white one is a Fred Kelly Speed Pick—my favorite. As you can see in the second photo, we’re not talking about a lot of pick, or “blade” hitting the string. The idea is to have the pick simply articulate the tone. And since your thumb is usually playing the downbeat and the bass note of the chord, you definitely want that string to speak.


Now, take a look at your hand position. It should feel relaxed, not too bent at the wrist, and not braced tightly against the bridge or body.


Pluck through the strings firmly but gently, so you get a nice even volume and tone from string to string. Try to think “efficiency,” and minimize your movements. Remember that you’re using the fingers—not the elbow or wrist—to produce all the tone. I always recommend practicing in front of a mirror, so you can see your mechanics. Your playing should appear effortless—which is, after all, the mark of a true professional. It takes work, but it’s worth it. I honestly think there’s no greater compliment to anyone’s playing than, “You make it look easy.”

So there you go: You’ve got the tools, now have at it. And prepare to bask in the awe and wonder of your admirers.

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Ronnie Brooks

Ronnie Brooks can be found lurking around Nashville, TN, where he writes magazine articles, Web content, songs, ad copy, jingles (little songs), and the occasional thank-you note. His songs have been recorded by Kid Rock, Joe Perry and Molly Hatchet; he’s played bass for Chuck Berry, produced Dolly Parton, performed on several Super Bowl ads, and seen the Beatles play live.

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9 years ago

Hey, Ronnie… Nice couple of articles. There really isn’t all that much going on with this picking technique but it sounds like you have three hands if you do it right! Neat stuff. I see you’re using your ring finger as well. I’m not there yet, but I’m beginning to get the hang of this. Thanks for the lessons.

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