Learning fingerstyle guitar is not as difficult at it might seem at first, with some proper instructional material and dedicated practice, you can learn the art of fingerpicking, or fingerstyle guitar.; read on…

What do you do with all those fingers?

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It is quite impressive to hear somebody play the bass and melody of a tune, with only 3 fingers. Then there is Doc Watson, who only used his thumb and index finger! Most people, however, use 3 or more.

What is the difference between fingerstyle and fingerpicking?

For some reason, fingerpicking sounds folksier than fingerstyle guitar, which sounds more classical. As far as I know, the two are interchangeable. I prefer fingerpicking because that is what I learned to call it, back about one-hundred years ago!

The reason I know you can learn fingerstyle guitar is because I did it. If ever there was a total klutz with no musical ability, it was me. My fingers are rather large and nobody in my family for generations had played an instrument. Nevertheless, I wanted to learn, really bad. After all, I was 16 in 1969, so it was only natural.

When I heard Jorma Kaukonen, from Jefferson Airplane, play Embryonic Journey, I was hooked. Then I heard Justin Hayward from the Moody Blues, Mississippi John Hurt and Doc Watson. Ahhh.. this was something I could relate to.

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If you have a thumb and 2 fingers you can play fingerstyle guitar

There are many ways to fingerpick the guitar, but basically, you use your thumb for the bass notes and your first two (pointer and middle finger) for the melody. Many people begin with the style known as Travis picking, named after Merle Travis, an amazing guitarist who is sadly no longer with us.

Generally, your thumb alternates between two bass notes, keeping the tempo going and adding a basis for the tune. It takes quite a bit of practice to keep it going when you use your other fingers, but this is really essential. You will certainly get off track while playing, but it is a bit like dancing, you just get back in the groove.

Your thumb plays the bass lines, much like a piano player plays with his left hand. The fingers resemble the right hand of the piano, playing melody. Once you get past the thinking part, fingerstyle guitar is a true gateway to creativity.

Homespun tapes put out a booklet in the early 1970’s that taught how to fingerpick. This is really how I learned to play. My first tune was Shoo Fly and I was so impressed with the results that I just kept going.

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Make use of the instructional material out there

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Next I learned Spike Driver’s Blues, by Mississippi John Hurt. This was a great tune to learn because it stretched my musical abilities a lot at the time. To this day people love the syncopated bass lines that accompany this old song.

They now have an amazing program where you can download instructional DVD’s and learn by watching, listening and reading tab. A great improvement over my little booklet! Now you can see Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Keb Mo, and dozens of other great guitarists!

Once you get the sound in your head you can learn to play it on the guitar. Try this simple exercise: use a metronome to set the temp and keep you in time, then just play the alternating bass notes back and forth. Once you can do this steadily, add a melody note with your middle finger on the first string. Play it in between the bass notes, which will give a syncopated bouncy feel to the music.

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After you can do this, add notes with your pointer finger on the second and third string. Learning the Travis picking pattern is a good beginning because you can use it for almost any song that has 4/4 time. You can easily vary the pattern to fit your own tastes and style, but you need something to build upon initially.

The Blues offer almost endless possibilities for fingerpicking/fingerstyle guitar as well. There are few things as satisfying as playing with a friend or two and improvising to play the blues. You can go almost anywhere in the world and find somebody to play 12 bar blues with.

It is easiest to use light gauge guitar strings to learn with. You do not need an expensive guitar, a quality used one will do just fine. Just make sure that you don’t get a cheap guitar that is difficult to play, you will get sore fingers and it will never sound right.

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