Beginning Finger-style Guitar (Part One)

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It All Starts with Travis Picking

Since I’ve been writing for Guitar-Muse, I’ve noticed most articles are aimed at rockers and electric players. There’s nothing wrong with that—I always keep a solid-body and flat picks handy. But it’s only one part of the guitar landscape. Fingerstyle techniques can make a huge difference in your playing and improve your precision and dynamics (and your understanding of theory, too) as you learn to pick out individual notes, rather than just strum over all six strings. In other words, it can make you a better guitarist AND a better musician.

First, let’s dispel the myth that “fingerstyle” only applies to country. The term covers a lot of musical genres; but broadly, it simply means playing with either the thumb (or thumb pick) and fingers. You’ll hear it in rock, blues, jazz, classical, country, folk, Latin—almost any style. Noted fingerstyle players include Jeff Beck, Lindsey Buckingham, Mark Knopfler, jazz great Joe Pass, and of course, the poster child for fingerstyle guitar: Chet Atkins.

Chet often said he started trying to emulate the piano, to get “that two-handed piano sound on the guitar.” After hearing Merle Travis on the radio, Chet put away his flat pick and never turned back. Not many people can play like he did (or any of the other guys mentioned earlier), but some fingerstyle tips might help you get started.

Let’s start by learning the basic “alternating thumb” pattern for Travis picking. Once you get this simple sequence, or roll, under your fingertips, everything will begin to make sense. Begin with a simple C major chord:


Using the thumb, first (index) and middle finger on your right hand, play in this order:
5th string (C): Thumb
3rd string (G): First finger
4th string (E): Thumb
2nd string (C): Middle finger

Left Hand (fret): Right Hand (finger):

E-------------------- ---------------------------------------
B----------1--------- ----------------------Middle-----------
G-----0-------------- ---------Index-------------------------
D--------2----------- ----------------Thumb------------------
A---3---------------- ---Thumb-------------------------------
E-------------------- ---------------------------------------

You’ve just started fingerpicking. That’s the basic roll—four strings. Now repeat. It may take a little while to get the “alternating thumb” sequence, and gain independence between your first and middle finger. But once the muscle memory kicks in, you’ll be able to start building up speed. Don’t rush this part—it will come with repetition. And playing the notes cleanly with a steady rhythm is the key to this style.

Once you’re comfortable with this sequence, let’s try an “alternating bass” pattern. This time we’ll use a basic A minor chord:


Same basic sequence, but a little more movement with the thumb as it alternates the bass notes between the 5th and 6th strings:

5th string (A): Thumb
3rd string (A): First finger
4th string (E): Thumb
2nd string (C): Middle finger

6th string (E): Thumb
3rd string (A): First finger
4th string (E): Thumb
2nd string (C): Middle finger

Left Hand (fret): Right Hand (finger):

E-------------------- ------------------------------------------
B---------1--------1- ---------------Middle--------------Middle-
G----2--------2------ -----Index---------------Index------------
D-------2--------2--- ----------Thumb---------------Thumb-------
A--0----------------- -Thumb------------------------------------
E-----------0-------- ---------------------Thumb----------------

For this sequence, you might want to practice the alternating thumb pattern first, then start working in the index and middle finger. Repeat until someone begs you to stop (that’s how mastery of any guitar technique usually begins).

These two patterns form the basic fingerpicking sequences for tons of songs. You might find yourself making adjustments for certain chords, but you now have the “gateway to fingerstyle” at your fingertips.

Check out these three videos for great examples of Travis picking applied in a non-country format (OK, Chet Atkins is country but just watch the whole thing—you’ll see what I mean). Good luck, pickers!

Fleetwood Mac – “Never Going Back Again”

Kansas – “Dust in the Wind”

Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler – “See You in My Dreams”

  • You can find plenty more lessons here!

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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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