When playing the guitar without a plectrum, you use your fingers. This playing style is also known as ‘fingerstyle’ or ‘fingerpicking’. A great advantage of playing in this way is that you can play multiple strings with more precision (plucking is the better word for it). Also, you get a much warmer sound out of your guitar. In this blog, I’ll take you through the basics of fingerpicking: which fingers to use and the best playing position, and whether you need to play with your nails or with your fingertips. If you’d prefer to just play with a plectrum, then check out our purpose-made plectrum blog.

Playing Guitar Without a Plectrum: Fingerpicking

What is Fingerpicking?

Playing an acoustic guitar with the fingers rather than a plectrum (‘flatpicking’) is much more common than with an electric guitar. That’s not to say it’s not done. Plucking the strings with the fingers is also known as fingerpicking, and if playing a classical guitar, rather than a steel-string acoustic guitar, this playing style is even more common. In the classical music tradition, every finger is given its own letter – which stands for its name in Spanish. The thumb is indicated by the letter ‘P’, for ‘pulgar’; the index finger by the letter ‘I’, for ‘indice’; the middle finger by the letter ‘M’, for ‘medio’, and the ring finger by the letter A, standing for ‘anular’. Generally, the little finger, or pinky finger, is not used, but just in case, it’s indicated by the letter ‘C’, for ‘chiquito’. If you start learning to play classical guitar pieces or some modern sheet music for fingerstyle guitar, then it’s worth knowing what these letters mean.

Playing Guitar Without a Plectrum: Fingerpicking

The Playing Position of Your Right Hand for Fingerstyle

Here, we’re working with the assumption that you’re right handed. In this case, you pick the strings with your right hand. If you’re left-handed, however, the following guide applies to your left hand in the same way. Start with placing the first three fingers (so your index, middle, and ring fingers) just under the three, thinnest strings of the guitar. Make sure that your fingerstips are pointing slightly upwards like you can see in the image at the start of this blog. From this basic position, you’re able to play the three thicker, lower pitched strings with the side of your thumb. The fingers pluck the strings up while the thumb plucks them down. Make sure not to grip too tightly and that your hand isn’t too tense as this could lead to wrist pain and maybe blisters. Also, don’t place your thumb and fingers too deeply between the strings as this can unintentionally dampen the strings, or make them sound out of tune. It’ll also make it more difficult to pluck them.

Playing with Your Nails

Much Spanish and classical music is traditionally played with the nails instead of the fingertips. For the most part, this uses the same basic technique and positioning as playing with the fingers. Only here, the tip of the thumb faces the string rather than the side. Playing with your nails combines the playing technique of fingerpicking with the bright sound of a plectrum. Just as when fingerpicking with the fingertips, make sure that your hand is not straining.

Looking After Your Nails

If using this technique, you need to actually have some length to your nails. The possible problem is that longer nails tend to be less strong and can break more easily – especially when playing steel strings. To start, getting yourself a nail kit is a good idea, so you can keep the edges of your nails smooth. This will reduce the chance of any little snags catching on the strings, and you can avoid having to sit through monthly manicure appointments. Some guitarists actually strengthen their nails using varnish or fake nails. Guitar legend, Harry Sacksioni even goes as far as gluing bits of teabag under his nails to keep them strong. There are also guitarists who regularly apply certain treatments that affect the keratine of the nail. But, when you use a thumb plectrum and a set of finger plectrums (see image below), you naturally don’t need to worry too much about the strength of your nails. If you are playing with a thumb plectrum, than the thumb sits in the same position as it does when playing with the fingertips.

Playing Guitar Without a Plectrum: Fingerpicking

So, what’s your preference? Four fingers or just a plectrum? Let us know in the comments!

See Also …

» Guitar Lesson Books & Song Books
» Acoustic Guitars
» Classical Guitars
» Steel-String Acoustic Guitars
» Electric Guitars
» Thumb Plectrums
» Finger Plectrums
» All Plectrums
» Other String Instruments

» Learn to Play With a Plectrum
» How to Tune Your Guitar or Bass
» How Do I Become a Guitarist?
» Reading Music: Rhythm, Tempo & Measure

1 response
  1. Michael Dailey says:

    Thank you! for creating this resource! It chock full of help for those of us who need it.

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