Fingerpicking a Folk song
Fingerpicking: picking with your fingers; simple right? It can be harder than it seems but with a lot of practice, it can bring you a lot of enjoyment…
If I could fingerpick, I’d be happy…
When I started playing guitar all I wanted was to be able to fingerpick through some songs. I thought if I could play a little bit of melody inside of playing the chords to a song, that would be enough. I turns out I wanted a lot more out of music but I was partially correct. The joy I get from fingerpicking a song is often the part I think and feel most about.
Let me be clear; I am not talking about the work, planning, and expertise that goes into playing a classical piece on the guitar, like Andre Segovia. I am talking about the friendly kind of picking that can make a folk song feel beautiful or drive it, like a fast moving train.
Classical fingerpicking labels
I studied classical guitar and the fingers are labeled in Spanish as follows; pulgar, indice, medio, and anular or p-thumb, i-index, m-middle, and a-ring finger. These designations (p, i, m, a) are worth memorizing out of respect for the history of the guitar.
Classical right-hand style requires a cupped hand plucking the strings with your fingernails, including the thumbnail. Nice rounded nails are the norm.
Merle Travis played with his wrist closer to the strings which enabled him to be able to mute the bass strings with the palm of his hand. He used a thumb-pick and his fingertips/fingernails. I have seen folk players play fingerstyle without a thumbpick which produces a softer, rounder sound. I have rarely felt enough control or clarity with just the thumb.
Notice in the following video that Mr. Travis played using his thumb, with a thumbpick, and his index finger. He played more elaborate melody in the bass with his thumb and seemed to plant his middle and ring fingers (m, a) on the pickguard of his guitar. A simple process, and yet, such an elegant sound…
For an example of some excellent finger style playing I suggest listening to Merle Travis playing Nine Pound Hammer in the following recording from 1951.
Merle Travis, “Nine Pound Hammer”
Other Listening suggestions can be found on my YouTube channel and at the end of this article…
Mix it up with a flatpick and fingers
I also play, at times, using a flatpick and my middle (m) and ring (a) fingers. I play bass notes and strum chords with the flatpick and play fingerpicking patterns with the flatpick and my fingers. You can also use this technique to play strings that are not next to each other on the instrument. This hybrid form of playing is helpful in having a fingerpicking style, whenever the need arises.
A little music theory
G Major Scale: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G
Or using roman numerals…
I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii, I Upper case stands for major (I) and lower case stands for minor (vi)
A chord can be made from any note of the G major scale. Some are major chords and some are minor chords. The theory of this can wait for another time. Just know that the chords from the G major scale are as follows:
G, Am, Bm, C, D, Em, F#dim, G
Briefly, chords are made up from notes of the scale, a “third” apart. Starting from G and counting each note a third apart gives us G, B, D or 1, 3, 5. Generally, the root of the chord you’re playing on a guitar will often but not always be the lowest note.
Rhythm guitar with a bass line
You can know that fingerstyle guitar can include strumming and occasional single melody lines. The basic first goal, as I see it, is to develop a rudimentary bass line. An alternating bass line is going to include the root and 5th of the chord.
In a G chord the root and 5th notes are G and D. In a root position G chord these note would be the G note on the low E (6th string, 3rd fret) and the open D (4th string). For starters, you can just alternate between these two notes.
Alternating Bass with a strum
Starting with the low G note you alternate from the G to the open D with your thumb. As this becomes comfortable you can brush all the strings or strum between each bass note.
Please note, (sorry for the pun…) this may sound easy and for some of you it may be easy. If you stumble over this please don’t worry. This is, as always, about what we are doing, not about where we are going or how great we are. I just assume you’re great. I’m great. It’s all good…
Alternate bass with the index/middle…
As soon as you’re ready, you use your index finger to play a B note on the second string (open) between each note. As this becomes comfortable you alternate from thumb to middle finger playing the G note on the high E string, 3rd fret.
Play these slow to start and keep your rhythm really steady. Slow and Steady wins over pushing to get fast (and sloppy)!
Tom Paxton’s, “Last Thing On My Mind”
Alternate bass fingerpicking pattern
Now that you have a little dexterity using your thumb and other fingers to pick strings, it’s time to get familiar with a picking pattern. Play each finger separately until your feeling good then… Play thumb, index, thumb, middle. Slow and steady, over and over. Gradually getting faster, keeping it clean and smooth.
Chords in G to practice with
Each measure has 4 beats represented by the slash marks in each measure. Chords are written over the measure and stay the same until a new chord is written. The root (R) and 5th are labeled on the chord diagrams above.
Playing a slow steady rhythm will produce the best results over time. As you change chords and fingerpick with more ease, gradually speed up your playing.
Easy ways to change up a fingerpicking pattern
Steady fingerpicking is a joyous sound to hear. Still, to move forward, keeping your playing sounding interesting there are some easy ways to “change it up”, as you go.
One way to add emphasis to parts of a song is to take out parts of the pattern ocassionally. Try just playing the bass notes for a measure, or for a whole verse. You can try switching back to thumb pick and strum for a section or even just a beat or two.
Another way to accent the sound of the bass is to mute the baseline with the palm of your picking hand as you play. I realize this may sound counter-intuitive, but listen to the Merle Travis video, to hear what I’m talking about.
You can do it!
If you are new to fingerpicking or even if you are still learning your chords I encourage you to try this when you feel ready. After you get the basic changes of a song try adding to your sound with some basic fingerpicking.
Tell me how this works for you. Ask any questions you like and I will try to address them in the best way possible.
I look forward to hearing from you and hope you have some good fun with this.
Some Listening Suggestions
Chet Atkins playing, “Mr. Sandman”
Tommy Emmanuel playing, “Blue Moon”
Check out my YouTube channel and tell me what you like and what you would like to learn about…