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Acoustic Finger Style Basics

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Read Time: 10 min
This post is part of a series called An In-depth Look at Playing Guitar (Premium).
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In this tutorial I'm going to show you how to get started with some finger style patterns on acoustic guitar. This is aimed at the beginner who has yet to delve into this style of playing. On the surface this can seem very easy but it can be quite a frustrating technique to master. I'll show you two common right hand patterns and how you can expand them.


Most people assume that guitar playing is all in the left hand, after all that's the one that does all the fancy stuff moving around the fretboard. The fact is that without solid right hand technique and more importantly coordination between the left and right hands your guitar playing will sound like a washing machine falling down some stairs!

For guitarists there are two starting choices when it comes to the right hand. Plectrum or Fingers! Many players move on to use a combination of the two at once called 'Hybrid Picking' which is very common and very efficient.

If your interested in electric guitar you probably use a pick. That's cool but if you want to become a bit more rounded as a player learning some finger style patterns is essential for acoustic guitar tracks or more interesting electric parts.

There are many types of right hand finger style techniques and styles. Flamenco and Classical are two very traditional and complex styles with many rules which can take years to master even the basics. You then have more Folk and Contemporary styles like Claw Hammer, Travis Picking and Jazz (Chord Melody). While more free these styles still demand practice to build strength and independence. When I say independence I don't mean this in the sense that a piano player has right and left hand independence it's actually getting and the fingers and thumb to act independently in just the right hand. You'll see what I mean later!

What we're going to cover are two rudimentary patterns that form the basis for more complex styles. Nothing fancy just the basics. If you've never tried this it should keep you going for a couple of months to get them under your fingers. Don't forget this is right hand only, you'll just hold a static chord. When done right even a simple chord can sound pretty complex. When combined with hammer ons and pull-offs it can get very tricky but that's for later!

Tools And Notation

Before we start I'd like to point out that you can play with either your bare fingers or with some finger picks. I prefer to use my fingers as I like to feel the strings and never could get on with finger picks. You can find these picks at any music shop. You may just want to go for just the Thumb pick which is very common for a lot of players.

Secondly I've notated the examples using the right hand fingering as seen in the diagram below. We'll only be using three fingers on the right hand. The Thumb, Index and Middle fingers.

Leading Single Note

The first pattern type is based on a simple single note arpeggiated pattern. This pattern is very common and tends to work well in a more 'Folky' context. You'll find that just about every type of finger style playing has something in common. This is that the Thumb will keep a steady bass line while the Index, Middle and Ring fingers will play either the melody of a song or some kind of independent rhythmic idea. Getting the Thumb to stay constant is the hardest thing ever!!

When you start off, think of the Thumb as an unruly teenager!! No matter how many times you tell it to do something it will do something else! And just like a teenager wants to follow what all the other kids are doing your Thumb will want to do what the other fingers are doing. You need to fight this and keep it steady!!

Ex 1 - Thumb Pattern

Here's where we start. Fret an open G chord.

Open G

The first example is the bass line which alternates between the Root(6th String) and 5th(4th String) on the quarter note pulse. Get used to this first as it needs to keep going. It sounds simple but once you add the other fingers you might lose it!

Bass line in G

Ex 2 - Adding Index And Middle Finger

I'm going to jump right in now with the Index and Middle fingers. If the Thumb plays all the down beats then these two fingers play the up beats (8ths). I start with the middle finger on the B string and then the Index finger on the G string. Play this round for a bit so you can hear it.

We then add this to the bass line to get our first pattern.

Ex 3 - Alternating Middle Finger

We can add a bit of variation to this by alternating the string that the Middle finger plays. In this case between the B and high E strings. This is where you might start to get lost so don't rush it! Try to keep a steady pace and be accurate.

Ex 4 - 5th String Start

So far we've only dealt with G major which starts on the 6th string. So let's try the same pattern with a chord that starts on the 5th string, like C major.

It's exactly the same pattern but just using a different group of strings. Now our bass line is going between the Root and major 3rd of the chord on the down beats.

Ex 5 - 5th String Alternating Middle Finger

We can also apply the alternating pattern for the Middle finger.

In Context

So here's an example in context. This is a simple descending harmony in G major using the 5th string start. The pattern is the same until we hit the G/B where we start to alternate the middle finger. We end on a C/D where we get to see the pattern start on the 4th string with a slight variation.

Leading Double Stop

The second pattern I call the Leading Double Stop because the first beat has a well, double stop! Two notes together. In fact if you look closely you'll see it's the same as the first pattern but the first offbeat played by the middle finger is stacked on top of the first bass note. These two notes are played for a quarter note which gives the pattern a very different feel. I'd say as finger style patterns go this is the one you'll hear the most. Think 'Blackbird' by the Beatles! When played up to speed it has a real driving quality to it.

Ex 6 - Basic Pattern In G

So here's the basic pattern starting on the 6th string in G.

Ex 7 - Basic Pattern 5th String Start

Here's the pattern using the C major chord starting on the 5th string.

Ex 8 - Alternating Middle Finger

Now the G chord with the alternating middle finger pattern.

Ex 9 - 5th String Alternating Middle Finger

And likewise with the C chord.

Ex 10 - Ending Example

Here's a nice little ending in G major using this pattern.

Ex 11 - In Context

Here's this pattern in a musical context. This is taken from the soundtrack for the film 'Paul' with Simon Pegg. The piece is part of the road trip theme that shows up a couple of times in the movie. David Arnold who composed the soundtrack wanted something that was kind of a nod to 'Everybody's Talkin'' by Harry Nilsson. Because the part was double tracked I had to try and keep the pattern consistent so it would track well. It adds quite a lot of pace to the piece at the start too. The wonderful Julian Jackson played some great harmonica on it as well!

The only thing that moves is the top note. This implies a Major 7th chord on bars 3/4 and a Major 6th on bars 5/6. Quite a fun part to play and I got to crank it up when the bad guys show up too!! :)

Alternating Bass Lines

The last variation is going to focus on the bass line. Till now the bass pattern has remained quite consistent but now I'm going to start to move it about a bit more. This is where you'll start to notice some cracks appear in the Thumb independence. While your trying to concentrate on moving the middle finger in the second repeat (bar 2) and move the bass to the new pattern it might go wrong!!

Ex 12 - G Major Leading Single Note (Moving Bass)

In the first example in G the bass will move in a 1 - 5 - 3 - 5 pattern. This not only adds more harmonic interest but gives the pattern more movement. Keep this slow to start with. Just try it with the Thumb part to get the gist!

Ex 13 - C Major Leading Single Note (Moving Bass)

On our C chord our original bass was going Root - 3rd. The new pattern here is 1 - 3 - 5 - 3. This one is quite interesting as now we have to move the extra bass note (5th) to the E string directly below the root. You'll need to take your 3rd finger on the A string and move it to the 3rd fret on the E string. Watch out for the alternating middle finger version!

Ex 14 - G Major Leading Double Stop (Moving Bass)

Here's the same idea using the second pattern in G.

Ex 15 - C Major Leading Double Stop (Moving Bass)

And again in C!


So we've only covered two patterns here but they are the basis for many more advanced concepts. The trick is to start slow and make them flow. Keeping that bass going is all important. These simple exercises are a great way to start building a solid right hand technique for acoustic finger picking. You don't just have to use G and C, these will work for any chord you play on the guitar so try it with all the open chords then barre chords too.

This is obviously a very basic example of what can be done. The next step would be to start incorporating hammer-ons and pull-offs into the equation but that's something for another time. These basic techniques are the foundation of things like Travis Picking which is a really fun style to play but technically very difficult as it requires a rock solid independent Thumb!

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