Fingers or Pick? I prefer both and I recommend all guitarists learn to play with their fingers. You never know when you might find yourself with a guitar and no pick. You know that dream you have when you show up to school and you forgot to wear pants? Instead of feeling like that, learn how to fingerpick! But is Fingerstyle harder than strumming?
Strumming is easier than Fingerstyle because you play all the notes relevant to that chord. Fingerstyle is harder than strumming because you are picking individual notes and this requires greater finger dexterity.
Learning to fingerpick or play fingerstyle can also open up a new world of musically creative possibilities. Different apparatuses produce different sound qualities, be it a pick, fingertip, or fingernail. There are also differences in techniques for each method which will also allow for different musical possibilities.
What’s The Difference Between Strumming, Fingerpicking, and Fingerstyle?
The first thing we must do is get on the same page in terms of the vernacular. Although strumming can be performed with the fingers, let us assume that strumming is done with a pick. Fingerpicking is simply foregoing the pick and using the picks God gave you. Fingerstyle is a particular style of acoustic guitar playing that utilizes the fingertip, fingernails, and often the use of a thumb pick. It has really become its own genre.
Fingerstyle tends to blend classical, flamenco, jazz, and folk, and can be quite a bit more aggressive than the standard fingerpicking of, say, James Taylor. Many fingerstyle artists will grow their fingernails out or use artificial nails in order to gain attack and volume. This tends to be one of the more difficult styles of guitar, so learning standard fingerpicking should be considered before jumping into this increasingly popular genre.
In strumming the guitar, the pick is typically held between the thumb and index finger in such a way that the pick can be secure without the player having to grip too hard. Using various combinations of down- and up-strokes, rhythms are created. Pick density and material play a part in the overall tone, as well as how hard a player strums.
There are various techniques that are available to the wielder of a pick. With the acoustic guitar, flat-picking is a technique used to pick individual notes in a melody or to arpeggiate a chord. A good example of excellent flat-picking is in bluegrass music.
The aggressive strumming of Spanish guitar is quite the crowd-pleaser with boldly fast triplet rhythms that will shave the hair off a cat. While this type of strumming is usually found in Flamenco music with nylon string guitars, steel-string strummers like Shane Bernard of Shane & Shane have been using it in more contemporary music.
Electric guitar players use the pick for many other techniques such as pinched harmonics, pick tapping, pick sliding, and obnoxiously scraping the pick across the strings creating a sound not unlike screeching car tires. Strumming will still be the main idea with electric players, though, including the use of palm muting.
Fingerpicking creates a more unique, softer sound since the fleshy parts of the fingers become the picks. Classical players use this the most and will use all five digits. Contemporary guitarists really don’t need to use all fingers, though it can be helpful. I typically use the thumb, index, and middle fingers with the occasional ring finger, and this is how I typically teach other guitarists.
I’m a guitar player from North Carolina, so I didn’t pick up my fingerpicking technique from classical musicians. I learned how to fingerpick from banjo players. Learning how to fingerpick with the guitar is similar in terms of the mechanics. Banjo players (banjists?) learn and practice “finger rolls” which are just finger patterns that are repeated throughout a piece of music. Guitarists can do the same, but there will typically be more deviation since we have more strings and more complex chords.
Fingerpicking and fingerstyle are often used synonymously, but there are actually different things. Fingerpicking is simply a technique, whereas fingerstyle is just that – a style. It is a collection of techniques that create an entirely different way of playing the guitar.
The early 2000s saw the rise of the Fingerstyle genre with artists such as Don Ross and Andy McKee becoming hugely popular on YouTube. Candyrat Records, as a result, has become a household name in the fingerstyle world, signing other artists like Antoine Dufour, Calum Graham, and Marcin Patrzalek.
Fingerstyle is fingerpicking on steroids. Fingerstyle guitar players usually either grow and shape their fingernails a la Nosferatu or will use artificial nails. A thumb pick is often added as well, given the angle at which the thumb approaches the strings. Heavy use of harmonics, right-handed hammer-ons, and using the body of the guitar as if it were a drum are some of the other defining characteristics of the genre. Oh, and by the way, the guitar is almost always tuned differently.
Should I Learn Fingerpicking First?
No, it is much more beneficial to start by learning to strum with a pick. Fingerpicking really should not be learned first, much less fingerstyle. The reasons are many. For one, basic rhythmic skills must be developed first in order to learn how to fingerpick properly and effectively. Using a pick is much easier to learn rhythmic ideas than spreading your brain out into three, four, or five different places to tell each individual finger what to do. You know when you were a kid and you tried to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time? Yeah, it’s so much worse than that with fingerpicking.
The left hand (for most players, the left hand is the fretting hand) also needs to be developed. A lot of your attention will need to be placed on your right hand with fingerpicking. That may not be the best way to go when you are first starting out because learning chords and how to properly fret the notes is so vital in the beginning.
Every year, I have at least one new student who all but refuses to play with a pick because they insist it will be easier for them to learn with their fingers. As much as I try, I can’t make them play with a pick to start off. Almost all of these students get discouraged fairly quickly and drop out.
I am all for playing guitar however you feel comfortable, but I am also a strong advocate for learning how to play with good habits. There are no “rules”, but there are parameters, and those parameters need to be learned first. You can color outside the lines all you want, but you need to know where the lines are first. If not, it is a recipe for discouragement.
Learn a bunch of chords, be able to play a handful of songs at regular speed, then feel free to start experimenting with fingerpicking. It really doesn’t take long to get to that mile marker.
How To Start Learning To Fingerpick
Just like a banjo player, learn a simple pattern. Start with a single chord, then move on to a chord progression. With each chord, change it may be necessary to change which strings you pluck, but try to stick to the same pattern. When reading sheet music or tablature that is specific to fingerpicking, look for little italicized letters next to the note heads:
p = thumb
i = index finger
m = middle finger
a = ring finger
c = pinky
Start with exercises or etudes that use the thumb, index, and middle. That may as far as you ever need to go. Most guitar players can get by just fine with just those three fingers. Getting into more advanced fingerpicking such as that which is found in classical music will require the use of the other fingers.
As quickly as you can, learn a song or two that uses fingerpicking. Some good examples that are fairly easy on the right hand are songs like “Home” by Phillip Phillips, “Hey There Delilah” by the Plain White T’s, or the classic “Stairway To Heaven” by Led Zeppelin.
Is Fingerstyle Guitar The Hardest?
As I mentioned, fingerpicking can be quite discouraging to a fresh beginner, but after getting a few chords down and understanding the basics of guitar rhythm, fingerpicking becomes much easier and it is a smoother transition. It’s a great tool to have in your arsenal, but it’s also possible to go sans pick for the rest of your playing career. Hey, it worked out pretty well for a guy named Jeff Beck!
Once you have learned the basics of fingerpicking and you feel relatively comfortable playing popular songs that use the technique, there’s no problem venturing out in the waters of fingerstyle. Beware – fingerstyle is a different animal. It’s fun, but it takes a lot of focus and an open mind.
Fingerpicking is very manageable, but there is a lot to have under your belt when it comes to fingerstyle. Here are some things to consider when you start learning, and I would go in this order:
- Learn how to fingerpick and use a thumb pick.
- Learn a few alternate tunings. Start with DADGAD.
- Experiment with using cut capos to create alternate tunings.
- Consider growing out your nails and using a hardener, or just use fake nails. It’s not 100% necessary, but it really helps.
- Learn how to play harmonics and the various locations of harmonics on the neck.
- Work on popular fingerstyle techniques such as right-handed hammer-ons and slapped harmonics.
It’s a short list, but a tall order.
How Long Does It Take To Master Fingerpicking? What About Fingerstyle?
You know what? I don’t believe anyone has ever mastered a technique or even the guitar as a whole! If so, there wouldn’t be so much new music and the rise of new, uniquely talented guitar players. But, I digress.
It takes as long as you want it to. Set a goal, then decide for yourself how long you want it to take, then figure out how much you have to practice to get there. Account for life’s curveballs and adjust accordingly. Generally speaking, most of my students don’t set goals, and that’s okay – they are just having fun and that’s really what the guitar is all about. Most people who practice 30 minutes per day for 6-7 days per week usually see a vast improvement in just a few months. Calluses and dexterity tend to develop at roughly the same rate for most people, but the mental part of playing is what takes intentionality on the part of the player.
If you are like most of these semi-serious students and your practice is extremely focused and you are consistent, you could be well on your way to “mastery” (whatever that means) in just a couple years with a fairly casual practice schedule that is doable for most working adults. That timespan shortens significantly with goals, additional practice time, and the mental discipline of Bruce Wayne.