Fingerpicking drills/tips?

mrfixitmi

Country Gent
Gold Supporting Member
Mar 20, 2010
2,013
Michigan
@BohemianLikeMe
Wonderful question.
My son started out as a banjo picker using Earl Scruggs type rolls and books with the CDs. There are several videos, and other books readily available. This was a blessing and a curse. Studying classical guitar, gave him exposure to the multiple finger approach which was different than the Banjo rolls. The Aaron Shearer's book is an excellent classical guide book. He only uses fingers. He has a very nontraditional style, that is not banjo, and not classical, but it gets the job done. The professors did not want anything like banjo rolls to be used. The bottom line is you do not feel that you have to imitate anyone, but use what is comfortable to you. Yes he can do both, but prefers to use his own style and does his own arrangements.

If you want to use Banjo rolls, that is fine, if you want to use Classical that is fine as well. If a hybrid approach appeals to you, that will give you a unique sound.

Here is an example:
 

Duo Slinger

Country Gent
Sep 11, 2020
1,223
California, USA
+1 on this. Easy to find, excellent exercises.


geezer warning here :), my long experience

re: Travis picking
Basic Travis picking is relatively easy. But... realize that Merle Travis didn't really adhere to the strict version himself. He added a lot of extra multi-string "brushes" and stuff. So, YMMV

re: flat pick + fingers
Not to complicate matters further but you might experiment with using a flat pick and two fingers (m and a in classical parlance..) This is like Travis picking, but with the flat pick being the "thumb". Lot's of country guys play this way on electric. It allows you to shift from finger to flat picking quickly and easily. You get the best of both worlds, since you can still do flat pick strummy and percussive stuff plus the finger picking. If you are already a pretty good flat picker this may be a good way to go for you.

re: thumb pick + 3 fingers
The classic Chet style. Like classical but with a thumbpick. Sometimes you can use the thumb pick as a flat pick. He would play single lines and chicken-pickin stuff with the thumbpick. He could also do incredible sweep picking with just the thumbpick. I have always found this transition to be very awkward and hard to get used to, though I'm a pretty good "Chet style" player otherwise. I find it almost impossible to play strummy stuff with this "rig". It really depends on finding a thumb pick that's comfortable to you and then sticking with it. Plus practice of course. These are the best thumb picks i have found for this style:

re: thumb pick + finger picks
I would not recommend thumb pick + finger picks. This is a very "niche" style, AFAIK and not many folks are doing it these days. It's a bit archaic. It is a distinctive style, with the emphasis on style. Maybe comes from bluegrass banjo? A few famous players played this way, including Roger McGuinn and James Burton (thumb pick + one finger pick), Leo Kottke (I think?), some old blues guys. Kind of awkward and not versatile IMHO. Plus you have to keep track of all those picks...

Maybe spend a month on each and see which one you like best? Whatever you choose, it's a whole new world of versatility.. Good luck!
If I'm not mistaken, James Burton used a flat pick and one finger pick. Our beloved Blue Cap, Cliff Gallup, he used a pick and two fingerpicks, one on his middle and one on his ring finger. A lot of old slide guitarists used thumb and fingerpicks, if I'm not mistaken, but you're right, it's quite niche. BUT...

Merle Travis himself used a thumbpick and one fingerpick, as did legend Mother Maybelle. So... I think it still has a lot going for it.
 

GlenP

Country Gent
Double Platinum Member
Jul 23, 2019
2,569
WA
I got started in acoustic folk stuff, basic pima patterns, and I think Dust in the Wind was one of those first songs that I learned a more complex pattern from some other guitar player, I found some books and notes in my sisters lesson book from when she had taken lessons when I was a kid.

I recently found some of these instructional DVDs from Homespun in my local library, this is one of my favorites, they also have John Denver and Jim Croce videos, for example:

James Taylor has some of his own free lessons here:

I keep finding good books in my library here, trying some blues stuff lately, and old rockabilly, fun stuff. I have a lot to learn.
 

Henry

I Bleed Orange
Apr 9, 2014
19,240
Petaluma
Get some decent books with good songs or patterns and spend at least 20 minutes a day practicing. Imo fingerpicking requires a LOT of muscle memory, and the only way to develop competency is practice, and lots of it.
 

gfirob

Electromatic
Jul 5, 2019
52
Rochester, Vermont
I learned to fingerpick from John Fahey and Mississippi John Hurt when I was a teenager. My brother worked for his record company and Hurt would let some of us suburban white kids sit and learn from him. So if your starting place is black music or Piedmont picking, John Hurt and John Fahey are good places to start. Pop Staples learned from Charlie Paton and Fahey did his Master’s thesis on Charlie Patton. Fahey played with metal finger picks and a plastic thumb picks most of the time. John hurt used fingers so leathery from an entire life working in the fields that he did not need picks. We used to use “Buck Dancer’s Choice” by Sam Mcgee as a learning tool. Very fast, but this is white Piedmont picking.



Travis picking is very similar but much more sophisticated and from a later time. Chet Atkins too. These are country guys but fabulous pickers

Leo Kopkie was discovered by Fahey and was an amazing picker.

So you kind of have to pick the kind of picking that rings your bell. And I always play with metal picks and a thumb pick. It is hard for me to imagine getting the kind of punch and drive this kind of picking requires without them.
 

Andrew Griffin

Synchromatic
Oct 22, 2015
814
Confession: I've never been good at fingerpicking. I can do the basics, I can fake it for parts etc. But I was watching a Pops Staples video a few days ago and I realized that I've never really tried to properly learn how to do it. I came up through the garage, underground punk scene and while my technique is light years better than it was 15 years ago, I've never had a formal lesson.

So, I figure this site has a ton of excellent players-- what would yinz recommend as a starting point for fingerpicking? Any particular books or videos you'd recommend? I'm not particularly picky (heh) about the genre, I'd just like to get some good techniques to put in my bag o' tricks.

Also, are thumbpicks worth getting the hang of?
I've found that playing on open D tuning really has helped me with my fingerpicking. In a DADF#AD tuning it's easy to do an alternating bass with the thumb and then pick out a single note line above the bass that sounds halfway reasonable, so practice is fun. Once you're dialed into the simplest bass line, then mix it up and aim higher. I've had a lot of fun with it and I've been exploring different tunings to see what each has to offer. A week ago I smashed my ring finger on my left hand, which is going to make chord shapes hard until my finger heals, so I've decided to put my familiarity with open tunings to work as I learn how to play lap steel, since I can still hold a steel bar well. That way I can still play and keep working on my right hand techniques.
 

manunk

Gretschie
Feb 24, 2017
191
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Thumb picks can get you a distinctly crisp tone and you may prefer that for some tunes. I trim them down to 1/8 inch to keep my thumb close to the strings. I recommend that ypu get acrylic additions on 2 or 3 fingers too, to get good volume and even help with technique. File them down to preferred length.
 


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