On the mean streets of Baltimore in the 1970’s, being able to play “Dust in the Wind” meant you were to be respected and feared.
Okay, maybe that was a bit much.
But in my head, it sounded so good.
Especially if Will Ferrell was yelling it at the pledges in Old School, only to go and top it off with a heartfelt rendition of the Kansas classic at Blue’s funeral. (“You’re my boy, Blue!”)
Even if it doesn’t make you the neighborhood badass, learning to play fingerstyle will definitely make you a better, all-around guitarist.
Contrary to what many rockers think, all guitar does not begin and end with a pick. Any guitarist who has been playing for a few years (heck, even one year) and hasn’t explored fingerpicking is really missing the boat. There is so much good music to be played without the pick!
[Note: I’ve had more than one “electric guitarist” fall in love with fingerstyle. Before long, you may be telling people that you’re really more of an “acoustic guitarist”. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!]
Although it’s important for your right hand technique to be solid, it doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Forget the rigid “rules” of classical guitar. My students take a more relaxed, “pop” approach that has worked extremely well.
So follow me, fellow six-stringers, as we take 4 easy steps to fingerstyle success!
Take the Pop Music Approach
Unfortunately, many guitar books, videos and instructors still insist on teaching fingerstyle guitar from the classical perspective. While classical guitar is the pinnacle of fingerstyle, to be sure, the guitarist wanting to play pop styles – classic rock, pop, country and folk – would be best served to avoid the strict classical approach, IMHO.
I may take some heat for this, but my years of playing and teaching tell me that pop guitarists should embrace a method that is more relaxed and offers easier access to pop techniques, such as full chord “pinches”, palm muting and various percussive slaps and hits.
I seriously doubt that great fingerstyle players like James Taylor or Lindsey Buckingham would be able to do the things they do with a strict classical approach.
It’s All in the Set-up
Fingerstyle success can only be had with a solid right-hand set-up.
Although the two above methods share some common ground, my pop approach to fingerstyle set-up and technique differs from the classical approach in a few ways. Here are the four key points that I emphasize with my students:
1 – Form your hand into a “relaxed claw”.
The thumb should be straight and the fingers should be curved, but relaxed. No tension allowed! The wrist should also be fairly neutral, with just a gentle bend.
To check your set-up, rest your hand and arm on a table top or on the armrest of a sofa or chair. Your thumb, wrist and arm should all be pretty straight and your fingers should be curved and resting on their tips. It’s as simple as that. Now apply this same positioning to your guitar.
2 – Assign your fingers to specific strings.
The thumb should rest on, and be parallel to, string 6 or 5, depending on the chord, while the fingertips should sit on the individual strings to which they’ll be assigned. The finger assignment, of course, depends on the chord you’re playing, as well as which strings you’ll need to hear.
Using a C chord as an example, a good guideline would be to assign the thumb to string 5 and fingers 1, 2 and 3 to strings 4, 3 and 2, respectively…OR to strings 3, 2 and 1. The pinky finger is not typically used.
3 – Position your thumb correctly and the fingers will follow.
On the bass string of your choice, slide your thumb “ahead” of finger 1 toward the headstock; it should not be positioned behind or directly beside finger 1. This keeps your two digits from competing for space.
Another easy cue for finding the correct placement of the thumb is to gently point your wrist bone (below the thumb) at your face; this should slide the thumb along string 6 and ahead of the fingers.
The correct thumb position will, in turn, put your fingers in a more perpendicular position relative to the strings, as opposed to “scraping” them from a more parallel position – usually the result of the thumb being set back too far. More perpendicular = solid pluck.
4 – Keep your hand “quiet”.
The playing motion is that of a “quiet hand” – very little visible movement from the audience perspective – with the palm facing the strings and the curved fingers moving into the palm, like they are “walking” through the strings. Resist the urge to lengthen your fingers, open up your palm or to “hook” the strings and tug at them with your fingertips.
Check out this short video which will demonstrate all of the above points:
FYI, the Classical Approach
In contrast to the pop set-up outlined above, the classical approach calls for a more arched wrist and elongated fingers, as well as the thumb well ahead of finger 1.
The fingernails also play a critical role in the sound, as opposed to the skin of the fingertips. And due to the arched wrist, the palm is off the strings, which means no palm muting is possible. Of course, classical players have no need for palm muting, so for them it’s all good. Pop styles have different requirements.
Check out my Definitive Lesson: Thumb Placement for more on why the classical approach is inappropriate for pop guitarists.
The pop fingerstyle set-up works great for arpeggiated playing, such as Travis picking. When the tempo gets fast (as in “Dust in the Wind”, “The Boxer” by Paul Simon or “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac/Lindsey Buckingham), you’ll appreciate how the “relaxed claw” position keeps you close to the strings.
Country players of yesteryear, like Chet Atkins, were tremendous Travis pickers. The difference is that they were not all simply fingerstyle players; instead players like Chet often used the hybrid picking approach of a thumbpick plus fingers.
The thumbpick gives a strong attack to the bass notes, and it thumps nicely when accompanied by palm muting. Note that if you take away the thumb pick, the thumb itself would be sitting on string 6 as we detailed in the set-up section of the lesson. So our pop fingerstyle approach is really interchangeable with the thumbpick approach, and it also allows you to palm mute as you wish.
Chord “Pinches” and Percussive “Knocks”
Because our set-up keeps us nice and close to the strings, it allows for various common pop techniques to be used.
One of the most common is “pinching” chords, a la James Taylor. “Pinching” a chord is simply plucking multiple notes in the chord simultaneously with the fingertips. If you want to mimic JT’s sound, this is absolutely essential. I would go as far as to say that his entire sound is based on this technique – embellished with hammer-ons and pull-offs – and the “relaxed claw” setup makes this technique pretty manageable.
You can also easily move between pinched chords and arpeggiated figures by using our pop approach. Songs like “Fire and Rain”, an all-time acoustic classic, require both techniques to sound legit. Check out any picture of James playing his acoustic and you’ll see our pop fingerstyle approach in action!
Nifty percussive moves like string “knocks” (I call them this because your hand movement is akin to knocking on a door) easily flow into chord pinches with this setup. Nuno Bettencourt’s playing on “More Than Words” by Extreme is a great example.
To mimic Nuno’s sound, you “knock” on the strings and immediately adjust your fingertips to pinch the next chord. This is a pretty common move, especially when combined in the following order: “pinch”, upstrum with index finger, “knock”.
In the future, we’ll do more lessons on specific techniques, such as Travis picking, and on some of the songs featured above. However, this lesson should get you moving in the right direction.
Fingerstyle guitar requires a solid right-hand set-up. Let JB’s patented 4-step pop approach set you up for success!
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