Fingerpicking is not just for acoustic players. Electric guitarists can get down with it, too. Just ask Jeff Beck. The use of fingers along with, or sometimes instead of a pick is quite common. The electric guitar is a very dynamic instrument and using different methods for plucking strings is one of the ways to capitalize on dynamic variance.
Yes, you can fingerpick on an electric guitar and you should. The mechanics are very similar to fingerpicking on an acoustic guitar but the strings are often a smaller gauge and less taught. This means you will need to pick more softly but the technique creates an excellent tone.
Can You Play Electric Guitar With Fingers?
Yes, and you should. Too often, electric guitar players are quick to run to an effect pedal or piece of software for their tonal needs when the best place to start is with their own hands! The strings feel a bit different and aren’t usually as taught as those of the acoustic, but it’s not much of a transition. There is not much difference at all in the mechanics.
One of the great uses of fingerpicking with an electric guitar is hybrid picking. This is a combination of pick and fingers to get certain sounds of chords and to get a contrast in sound between the attack of the pick and the finger. It can allow the player to hit more notes with efficiency and be able to string notes together more quickly.
Another way to fingerpick with the electric is to tuck the pick away between the index and middle fingers. This requires picking with the fingers closed at their base rather than spread apart. You can then quickly fish out the pick from between those two fingers and get back to strumming.
Use of the thumb as a picker and strummer is common among guitarists like Jeff Beck who ditch the pick altogether. The soft attack of the thumb and fingers is sometimes more desirable for certain sounds, but make no mistake – fingers can be just as abrasive as a pick. Getting fingers up under the strings and pulling them up until they slap back down on the fingerboard gives the string quite the “snap”.
What Is The Best Electric Guitar For Fingerpicking?
Fingerpicking can be done on any electric, but typically if you are fingerpicking on the electric guitar, you are probably playing some form or combination of jazz or blues. It’s good to go with a guitar that has good response from the pickups to be able to have clarity at softer volumes without being too harsh when the plucking gets a little edgy.
In other words, a guitar that has some versatility to it is going to be your friend. A three-pickup configuration is usually best to get a variety of different tones at different volumes.
1. American Fender Stratocaster
To start, look no further than the classic American Strat. These are some of the most versatile guitars and the Strat is played across almost every genre. If you aren’t sure where you want to specialize in, or you would like to be able to play a little bit of everything, start with the Fender Stratocaster. American-made Strats are going to be the higher quality guitars with the better sound.
The volume knob is very accessible which is good for a finger-picker as he or she can use the pinky to change the volume as needed for certain musical parts.
2. Gibson Les Paul
Just like the Strat, the Les Paul is a classic for a reason. You can play just about anything on these guitars. The Les Paul is renown for its sustain, which is important for a finger-picking guitarist. Those notes need to be able to last for a long time and the Les Paul delivers.
These guitars tend to be a little more pricy, so feel free to check out the Epiphone versions. They don’t quite have the sustain, but still have a good warm tone.
3. Gretsch Hollowbody
These are some of my favorite guitars and I think they tend to be overlooked, especially among newer players. Jazz, country, blues, and contemporary rock are all good candidates for the Gretsch. It almost feels like an acoustic when you pick it up and play it. The hollow body gives the notes great resonance and the high notes tend to cut more, so they are heard really well.
I played alongside a worship leader for a long time who played one of these for a season. It sounds great in just about any setting, but it really shines when fingerpicking with a little overdrive or fuzzy distortion.
Fingerstyle Electric Guitar Songs
I Don’t Need No Doctor – John Mayer
When I first saw this performance, I had two thoughts: John Mayer is highly underrated as a guitarist, and I’ve got to start playing like that on my electric. I was six years into my professional career and I had no idea you could do that to an electric guitar. It was not long after seeing this that I was playing in a band that decided to cover this version that same year. See – rabbit chasing on YouTube can be beneficial!
This is a prime example of “there is no other way to get that sound”. Try to play this with a pick. I dare you. Nope. Can’t be done.
Mr. Sandman – Chet Atkins
Chet Atkins was one of the pioneers of fingerstyle way before Candyrat Records made it cool again. Chet, a.k.a. the Tennessee Guitar Man, almost exclusively played fingerstyle electric. The thumb pick is a huge benefit to be able to play the bass lines for these songs that really have two parts in the way a piano has two clefs of music. Chet also used his fingernails to help with the attack.
This song may not be the easiest to learn to play for even the most experienced guitarist, but it sure is a lot of fun to listen to. If you haven’t listened to much Chet Atkins, you really need to if you are wanting to be a fingerstyle electric guitarist.
Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers – Jeff Beck
What can one say about Jeff Beck? He’s the man. This song really displays what I meant earlier when I mentioned “dynamic variance”. The quiet parts are whisper-soft, and the accentuated parts bite hard. Jeff’s unique playing gives the guitar a certain life that nobody else has ever given it, and he did it without a pick.
May this song inspire you as a finger-picking guitar player to be an exaggerator. Hit all the ranges of volume and energy levels you can. Be drastic. Be dramatic. Be unpredictable. It makes playing and listening to the guitar very exciting.
Other Resources & Ideas For Fingerstyle Electric Guitar
One of my favorite rabbits to chase is looking at the influences of my influencers. Chet Atkins, for example, was one of my first guitar heroes. But it’s not like he was the first guitar player, much less the first guitar player of his kind. He was influenced by someone just like I was.
Django Reinhardt was one of these guitarists. You might have heard of him, but maybe never heard him. As I’ve said before of other musicians – he’s a legend for a reason. Look into some of his music even if you aren’t particularly into jazz. I know I’m not, but I get a lot out of his music even still.
Les Paul is not just a guitar. Les Paul was an actual guy if you didn’t know, and he was a pretty good guitar player. Guitar players everywhere owe a lot to this genius and he has served as a musical influence to nearly everybody, whether they know it or not. With fingerpicking, he was actually able to replicate a delay effect with his fingers. He didn’t know that delay was an effect that was being used in the studio, so he learned how to do it himself. He was also a master legato player, so for all of you Joe Satriani fans – Satch wasn’t the first guy to do it! Here’s a fun clip of him playing with Billy Gibbons a little over 20 years ago or so.
Speaking of Billy Gibbons, the song “La Grange” is an example of the hybrid picking technique that is so popular for blues guitarists. The pick is the “bass player” while the fingers pluck at the higher strings. There’s just something about the softer attack on the higher strings – it makes a sound you just can’t get any other way. It’s one of the key factors to the sound of this iconic song.
The benefit of hybrid picking is having the pick at your disposal whenever you need it. It doesn’t allow for some of the more complicated finger pickings of other songs like one might hear from jazz musicians, but it’s really simple to learn and a lot of fun. This song is really simple and a lot of fun, too by the way!
There is a lot to be said for fingerpicking on the electric guitar. I just about require all of my students to learn the basics of fingerpicking. Learning how to do it has more benefits than most people realize.
If you are interested in learning some fingerpicking, check out this post where we list the Best Fingerstyle Channels on YouTube.