5 Killer Secrets to Master Fingerstyle Guitar

5 tips for fingerstyle guitar mastery
If you’re like me, you probably first learned to play guitar by making simple chords and strumming along to your favorite songs. However, there may come a time when you want to explore fingerstyle technique. 

These 5 fingerstyle guitar secrets are the ones that helped me the most, so I'm happy to pass them on! 

1) Don't Worry About Fingernails

Fingernails are not required for fingerstyle guitar

When I first started learning fingerstyle, I found myself obsessed with fingernail-related questions. Should you be growing them out right from the get-go? How long should they be? Are they necessary for a good sound?

Many players online, especially within the classical guitar community, discuss the issue of nails first and foremost, as if they’re required for playing. I visited countless forums dedicated to nail-related concerns.

I believe much of this stems from the legendary classical guitarist Andres Segovia. He rose to outstanding prominence in the twentieth century, influencing multiple generations of guitarists. Although he was an excellent musician, he was traditional and conservative in many of his views.

For instance, he considered Flamenco Guitar to be more “noisy” than musical. Another one of his dogmatic ideas was that nails were essential for fingerstyle, and that anyone who didn’t use them was foolish.

Of course, Segovia was never the only phenomenal guitarist out there. A much more impressive figure in my mind is the nineteenth-century guitarist Fernando Sor.

He wrote much of the best classical repertoire, especially for beginning players. Some consider him the “Beethoven” of the guitar for all the memorable melodies he composed. His playing was so remarkable that he was widely considered the best guitarist of his time.

Sor’s opinion on fingernails? Not only did he prefer to play with the flesh of his fingertips, he believed that fingernails actually prevented guitarists from securing a proper sound from the instrument.

Sor even went so far as to convince Dionisio Aguado—himself a virtuoso guitarist—to embrace playing without nails after a lifetime of using them.

But How Do You Play Guitar without Nails?


Playing guitar without nails is easy, and many fingerstyle guitarists have preferred to do so. The key is to use the pads of your right-hand fingers to pluck the strings. Be sure to keep your nails short or else they’ll “catch” the strings, making an unpleasant sound.

As a beginner to fingerstyle, the main thing you should be focused on is training up your right-hand fingers to produce a good attack on the strings.

I would advise you to work up your skills at least to a high-intermediate level before you even consider growing out your nails. After all, it’s easy to transition from flesh to nails, but hard to go from nails to flesh.

Personally, I’m in the Sor camp of playing without nails and not missing them.

What’s the best flesh-playing technique? Place your fingertips on the strings and pluck. You should aim for a full sound. The trick is to push the string down a bit at the start of your plucking motion. This motion may feel awkward at first, but you’ll get used to it in time, trust me!

In short, the sooner you get nails out of your mind, the sooner you can concentrate on the music itself.

2) Isolate Your Right Hand

working with your right hand alone is key for fingerstyle progress

Let me tell you something right now: you’re going to feel overwhelmed at first. If you’re coming to fingerstyle from a strumming background, it’s going to feel like starting over. The key is to push through this feeling and try to enjoy the process.

For me, the easiest way to enjoy the process is to break down every big task into smaller pieces. One way piano players commonly do this is to practice playing a new piece with one hand at a time, then bringing them together once each hand is fully trained.

I don’t see any reason why guitarists can’t do this too! You may even find it relaxing, as I do, to make chord shapes with your left hand without playing a single note. Think of it as a finger ballet—silent, graceful, and well-rehearsed.

You’ll find isolating the right hand to be even more rewarding, since at least you’ll be playing music. In my experience, left-hand isolations can make you feel like a lunatic playing the guitar. But don’t worry, you’ll learn to appreciate each hand on its own in time.

For a total beginner, I’d start the right hand off with some very basic technique work. My ebook Fingerstyle Fitness, is perfect for this. It offers 10 simple exercises to master fingerstyle technique.

My Favorite Exercise for the Right Hand


One drill I love to do is to take one finger at a time and pluck each string with it ten times. What this looks like is the index finger striking the sixth string ten times, then the fifth string, then the fourth, and so on.

When you do this exercise, be sure to place extra emphasis on your ring finger. You’ll find that your index and middle fingers have a certain natural strength and coordination which your ring finger lacks.

You might also consider working out your pinky as well. Not only will you further develop the right side of your hand, but many guitarists these days pluck strings with their little finger in performance, and this trend seems likely to continue.

3) Be a Musician First

Focus on music to master fingerstyle guitar

Now that your right hand is off to the races, you might find yourself getting tangled up in fingerings. Lots of standard notation for guitar includes fingerings for both hands, which often clutters up the page. All this extra print can take your focus off the notes themselves and thus the music.

If you’re reading tabs, you probably have the opposite problem. Your notation basically has the minimum amount of information you need, and you probably could use some direction on which fingers to use for which strings.

In both cases, the key thing is to zero in on the music itself. If you truly understand the sound you’re looking for, I guarantee that your right hand will find a way to get the job done.

If you’re a total beginner to fingerstyle, this instinct will need time to develop. That said, do your best to relax and find fingerings that come naturally to you.

If the piece you’re working with already gives you a lot of direction for fingering, definitely make an honest attempt to play it as written. Anyone who promotes a fingering—your teacher, an editor, some renowned guitarist—probably has a good reason for it.

But remember that everyone is different! If you can’t get your fingers around a passage and you have a different sense of how you’d like to play it, don’t be afraid to ditch a fingering. I’ve encountered some strange fingerings in guitar music, and I’m sure you will too.

Speaking of being a musician, you could do worse than to learn some music theory. Understanding some of the technical aspects of how music works will really speed up your progress on guitar.

For more detail on how to get started learning theory, check out the best books for guitarists to learn theory.

4) Start Sight-Reading

sight reading is an effective and underrated form of guitar practice

Sight-reading is the art of playing to the best of your ability a piece that you’ve never had a chance to practice.

If you’re on the street with your guitar and someone drops some tabs or sheet music in your lap and asks you to play it, that’s sight-reading.

Good sight-readers can play many pieces right away, with no practice, just by following along with the notation they’re given and figuring everything out as they go.

Many guitarists don’t do any sight-reading at all. If that describes you, don’t worry one bit! You can go from zero to hero in sight-reading in no time.

The only true obstacle to your becoming a top-notch sight-reader is the belief that you’ll never be one. Holding such a belief will ensure that you won’t work to improve this skill, which in turn will result in your being a poor reader.

This is a vicious feedback loop I encourage you to avoid! Believing in yourself is a huge guitar-learning secret. You may be a level-1 guitarist watching a level-100 guitarist perform, but you should tell yourself that if any other person can get there, so can you.

Nothing is more essential to fast progress on guitar than a strong mental game. This is why children can often improve so quickly! They find it easier to believe in themselves and in a brighter future for their playing than we do.

How Do You Get Started?


If you have no experience sight-reading, start by getting your hands on material for complete beginners on the guitar. The idea is to try to find music that’s already pretty easy for you.

Undercut the difficulty level of your repertoire significantly. As you gain in confidence, you’ll enjoy reading more. As you enjoy reading more, you’ll be more willing to bite off more than you can chew. But protect your ego at first!

Attempt to play the easy pieces you choose very slowly, taking a break whenever you start to get frustrated. Definitely keep the sessions short—no longer than fifteen minutes to start.

Remember that you won’t be a beginner sight-reader forever. Much like going for a run, if you can push through the difficult stages of getting started, you’ll find a sort of cruise control taking over.

Both hands will improve immeasurably by this practice. But your right hand in particular will gain a kind of intuition about how to tackle almost any kind of passage.

If you sight-read consistently, you’ll soon find that you already “know” the best right-hand fingerings for what you’re playing without even having to look at what you’re supposed to be doing. At that point, your fingerstyle skills will be through the roof!

5) Trust That Slow Is Fast

5) Trust That Slow Is Fast

Most people don’t know that fog, as opposed to rain or snow , is actually the most dangerous road condition. The reason for this is that people tend to drive faster as their visibility worsens. When feeling nervous on the road, we often lean on the gas when we ought to be pulling the brakes.

Similarly, when many guitarists feel like the material they’re working on is too difficult or they feel overwhelmed, their playing tends to speed up, causing mistakes and frustration.

The surest way to have a bad relationship with the guitar is to have every practice session turn into an unpleasant experience. If you find this happening, it won’t be long before you don’t want to practice anymore at all.

All guitarists stand to gain from slowing down their playing, but fingerstyle especially demands it. We’re simply asking too much of ourselves to take a new piece, however easy, and bring it up to tempo right away.

The minute we acknowledge that fingerstyle is relatively hard is the minute we can accelerate our progress.

The Ultimate Secret


It may be hard to believe, but the ultimate secret to fast improvement is slow playing. This is the sense in which fast is slow. When you slow down, your accuracy and musical sensitivity increases dramatically.

You’ll suddenly be able to play passages much more cleanly than when you were rushing through them. Once you gain a strong foothold through slow and precise practice, you’ll find yourself speeding up naturally, without sacrificing musical quality.

You may think slow playing sounds easy, but it’s the opposite. In many ways it’s actually more formidable than fast playing.

Almost everything we do, we do fairly quickly and adeptly. To get a sense of how foreign slow playing is going to feel, I suggest you take a sip of water, sing, or walk across the room in slow motion. All of these things feel crazy, right?

The more you can get used to pushing through the “weirdness” of it, which takes a good deal of discipline, the better off your playing will be.

Another method to get yourself to slow down is get a metronome. Don’t be afraid to set it super low, as in 40-60 bpm to the quarter note.

If you’re working on chord changes, you can work on making the switch every two or three clicks at 60 bpm and go up from there. Always start slower than you can go at your fastest!


Getting started with fingerstyle can be hard work, but I’m sure you’re up to the task! Unless you’re a total beginner embarking on fingerstyle, you can rest easy knowing that only one hand needs to learn something new.

If you follow all of the advice listed above, I bet you’ll be surprised at how quickly and effortlessly you can improve.

So get those fingers moving, huh? Best of luck to you!

Are you looking to upgrade your gear or browse some awesome guitar learning materials? Check out my recommendations page to see all my favorite stuff. 

Want to streamline your fingerstyle guitar progress? I just released my new ebook, Fingerstyle Fitness, which presents 10 easy exercises to quickly develop your fingerstyle chops. Grab it today!