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Fingerstyle Tutorial: The 6 Essential Fingerpicking Exercises You Need To Know

by | Mar 30, 2016 | Articles, General Updates, Guitar Lessons, Videos | 9 comments

In this fingerstyle tutorial you’ll learn the essential fingerpicking exercises you need to know in order to play most of the solos and arrangements from the great fingerstyle jazz guitarists, such as Lenny Breau, Joe Pass and Ted Greene.

Although this article is intended mainly for jazz players interested in fingerstyle guitar, the following fingerpicking patterns are well suited to developing fingerstyle techniques regardless of what style(s) you play.

If you are a beginner at fingerstyle guitar, I recommend that you start from the beginning of the fingerpicking exercises and work sequentially one at a time, focusing mainly on the ones that use open strings.

If you are more advanced, feel free to skim through the first few exercises but be sure to have a good look at the challenge studies throughout the lesson.

Handy PDF Download: Get access to a print friendly version of all the exercises and studies in this post for your practice.

I’m sure you’ve come across books that attempt to show you every inconceivable fingerstyle pattern and technique that’s possible.

However, most can be boiled down to just a handful of fingerpicking exercises, which will enable you to play nearly any fingerstyle jazz guitar transcription that’s out there. As you’ll see, there really isn’t that many patterns you need to know.

Regardless of what stage you are at in your fingerstyle guitar journey, keep in mind the points of correct right hand technique below, so you don’t fall into any bad habits.

First Things First – How to Play Fingerstyle Guitar

How to Pluck the Strings

In fingerstyle jazz guitar there is no set way in the method that guitarists use to pluck the strings. Feel free to experiment with fingerpicks, growing your fingernails, or using the flesh of the fingers only.

You could also try hybrid picking where you hold a pick with the thumb and forefinger and play fingerstyle with the other remaining fingers.

I use fingernails to pluck the strings, but they do break occasionally, so when they do I temporarily use an Alaska Pik fingerpick until the nail grows back.

 

PIMAC explained

In these exercises you’ll notice lettering like this:

fingerpicking-exercises-fingerstyle-tutorial-jazz-guitar-misc-1

 

These letters stand for the five picking hand fingers:

  • P = thumb
  • i – index
  • m = middle
  • a = ring finger
  • c = little finger (not used in these exercises)

Many of these exercises alternate the fingers between the index and middle fingers, or index and ring fingers.

In the above example, I’ve indicated to play the exercise with i and m fingers, then once you are comfortable with that try with p and i. The ‘sim’ means to continue the finger pattern for the exercise.

In fingerstyle jazz guitar (and most other fingerstyle genres), the thumb is usually reserved for the bass notes on the 6th, 5th and 4th strings.

 

The 6 Essential Fingerpicking Guitar Exercises

1. Basic Walking fingers

Walking finger exercises are a good start for a beginner of fingerstyle technique.

These exercises are pretty straightforward, however even if you are a more advanced player, check that you have good technique in your strokes as outlined below.

Watch & Play:

Different Stroke Types

There are two guitar fingerpicking stroke types that are important to learn for fingerstyle jazz guitar.

Take note of the correct finger picking action that the video above demonstrates. Many people develop poor fingerstyle technique by not being careful about their stroke motion when they’re first learning, and this can be tedious to correct down the track – so make sure you get this right from the start!

As outlined in the video above, the two different stroke types are:

  • Rest Stroke – pluck the string and then rest the finger on the string immediately adjacent to the string you plucked. Notice in the video how the fingers lean back a little when doing this type of stroke.
  • Free Stroke – pluck the string and don’t rest on any adjacent strings. Notice in the video how the fingers are more curved and positioned slightly forward of the string being plucked. The motion is similar to picking up a tennis ball, with the tips of the fingers moving into the palm of the hand. For free stroke, be particularly careful to avoid moving the fingers away from the palm of the hand – this will cause tension to build up in your hand and will inhibit your speed and fluency.

Exercises:

  • Stroke: Rest stroke until confident, then try free stroke
  • Finger combinations: i – m until confident, then try i – a

Walking fingers on open strings:

fingerpicking-exercises-fingerstyle-tutorial-jazz-guitar-1-1

 

Walking fingers on simple C Major Scale:

fingerpicking-exercises-fingerstyle-tutorial-jazz-guitar-1-2

 

Challenge: Walking Finger Study

Now that you are familiar with walking fingers, have a go at this short walking finger study. It sounds particularly nice if you try to hold on to the notes with your fretting hand as long as possible, so the notes ring on over each other (called a campanella effect).

 

Listen & Play:

Free Your Mind and Rest Awhile

fingerpicking-exercises-fingerstyle-tutorial-jazz-guitar-1-3

 

 

2. String Crossing

  • Stroke type: Rest stroke until confident, then free stroke
  • Finger combinations: i – m until confident, then i – a

Walking fingers can get tricky when you move from string to string, as you might tend to repeat a finger upon crossing strings. Be careful in the following fingerpicking exercises to ensure the fingers keep walking no matter what – as opposed to hopping!

 

Watch & Play:

 

Basic string crossing on open strings:

fingerpicking-exercises-fingerstyle-tutorial-jazz-guitar-1-4

 

String crossing across string sets:

fingerpicking-exercises-fingerstyle-tutorial-jazz-guitar-1-5

 

Challenge: String Crossing Study

Now that you’ve got this finger picking technique secure, here’s a little study I wrote as a string crossing workout. The fretting hand has to do a few tricky chord grips in this one.

Like the last study, it sounds good if you try to keep the fingers held as long as possible on each chord, with the open strings ringing on creating that neat campanella effect.

 

Listen & Play:

The Way of the Guitar

fingerpicking-exercises-fingerstyle-tutorial-jazz-guitar-1-6

 

 

3. The Thumb

  • Stroke type: Free stroke only
  • Finger combinations: p, p – i – p – m

In fingerstyle jazz guitar, the thumb is the bass player – playing single bass notes beneath chords or the odd bass line run.

Thumb strokes should be free stroke in a small circular motion, rotating mainly from the joint closest to the palm:

[misc-3: image of hand with jing arrow at thumb joint]

Note: Most players tend to use only free stroke for the thumb (the exception being flamenco players.)

 

Watch & Play:

 

Quarter notes on open strings:

fingerpicking-exercises-fingerstyle-tutorial-jazz-guitar-2-1

 

Crossing open strings:

fingerpicking-exercises-fingerstyle-tutorial-jazz-guitar-2-2

 

Alternating fingers and thumb:

fingerpicking-exercises-fingerstyle-tutorial-jazz-guitar-2-3

4. Two Fingers Simultaneously

  • Stroke type: Free Stroke
  • Finger combinations: m+i, p+i

This is where these fingerpicking exercises can get tricky for a beginner!

As the video below details, when you are using your thumb on these exercises, be careful that it doesn’t collapse into the palm and instead remains on the outside of the palm, otherwise your index finger and thumb will get in the way of each other when fingerpicking.

Rest strokes won’t work here as the notes are always on adjacent strings, so just stick to free stroke for these fingerpicking exercises.

 

Watch & Play:

 

Two fingers fingerpicking exercise on open strings:

fingerpicking-exercises-fingerstyle-tutorial-jazz-guitar-3-1

 

Two fingers moving through some string sets:

fingerpicking-exercises-fingerstyle-tutorial-jazz-guitar-3-2

 

Challenge: Two Finger Study

As you can tell, I’ve been a fan of mixing open strings with picking patterns lately. This study should test out your fretting hand chops too!

 

Listen & Play:

Swirlin’

fingerpicking-exercises-fingerstyle-tutorial-jazz-guitar-3-3

 

 

5. Three Finger Fingerpicking Exercises

  • Stroke type: Free stroke only
  • Finger combinations: p+i+m, p – i – m

This is where things start to get a bit more interesting. There are some great patterns to learn when you start using the thumb in combination with two other fingers.

Check out the video below for how the exercises should look and sound.

 

Watch & Play:

 

Three fingers simultaneously:

fingerpicking-exercises-fingerstyle-tutorial-jazz-guitar-4-1

 

Three fingers sequentially:

fingerpicking-exercises-fingerstyle-tutorial-jazz-guitar-4-2

 

Challenge: 3 Finger Studies

When I was more into classical guitar I practiced a well known set of 120 right hand studies by Mauro Giuliani. I was so dedicated to practicing these I would try to practice all 120 – every day!

Although there were many useful patterns in the set, all of them were on a straight I – V7 – I progression. Boring!

I couldn’t bring myself to inflict this on you as well, so here are a couple of similar fingerpicking exercises but with some more interesting chord progressions. Enjoy!

 

Listen & Play:

Jazzy Giuliani 1

fingerpicking-exercises-fingerstyle-tutorial-jazz-guitar-4-3

 

 

Jazzy Giuliani 2

fingerpicking-exercises-fingerstyle-tutorial-jazz-guitar-4-4

 

 

6. Four Fingers

Stroke type: Free stroke only

Finger combinations: p+i+m+a, p – i – m – a, p – i+m+a

These are similar exercises to the previous section. All you have to do now is add on the ring finger (that’s what the ‘a’ letter is referring to in the examples below).

 

Watch & Play:

 

Four fingers simultaneously:

fingerpicking-exercises-fingerstyle-tutorial-jazz-guitar-5-1

 

Four fingers sequentially:

fingerpicking-exercises-fingerstyle-tutorial-jazz-guitar-5-2

 

Challenge: Four Finger Study

By using some simple fingerstyle patterns like these, stock standard chord voicings can sound a lot more interesting. Check out the study ‘Southern Land’ below for an example of this:

 

Listen & Play:

Southern Land

fingerpicking-exercises-fingerstyle-tutorial-jazz-guitar-5-3

 

 

Further Resources

I’m sure there will be more posts on this site in the future on developing fingerstyle technique, however in the meantime check out these great posts on other sites for more fingerpicking exercises and ideas to develop your chops:

 

Handy PDF Download: Get access to a print friendly version of all the exercises and studies in this post for your practice.

I know a lot of the readers of my blog are interested in fingerstyle technique for jazz, and I’ve noticed there isn’t a lot of information out there online on the subject so I hope that this fingerstyle tutorial helps you get started and improve.

As you can see, by focusing on just the core fingerpicking patterns it really doesn’t need to take that long for you to develop a solid fingerstyle technique. Let me know if you liked this lesson about fingerpicking exercises by leaving a comment below.

If you liked this article and keen for more, enter your details below to get updates when new articles are released on this blog and also to receive some free goodies as well…

 

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9 Comments

  1. Paul

    Hi Greg,
    I like them all. The exercises are very good for Jazz beginners to start with for developing finger style rhythm playing.
    Thanks you for the posts.

    Reply
    • Greg O'Rourke

      Thanks for your kind feedback Paul, glad you are enjoying the posts!

      Reply
  2. Ian

    Thanks for posting this lesson. Looks to be very helpful.

    Reply
  3. Sunny Whaley

    Very thorough thank you!

    Reply
  4. Chris

    Great stuff. You put really a lot of effort into your site and your approach is just great – well structured and visualized . Keep it up! Bookmarked your site to come back once I have the time to get more into the Jazz stuff. ;)

    Reply
  5. Makeo

    Exciting..Slow steps makes for a great future for jazz guitar.
    Much appreciated.
    Thanks very much.

    Reply
  6. Charvie

    Thanks! I am just two days in and I can see my finger picking improving already…. Gives a lot of confidence :D

    Reply

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