Fingerstyle guitar is becoming increasingly popular, which means fingerstyle exercises are all over the place. But too many posts on this topic make it seem as though you must memorize a bunch of complicated sequences on the guitar to see improvement.
My idea is that fingerstyle exercises should be simple. Think of going to the gym: you don’t need 50 different variants on each strength-building workout, you just need to choose a few that work for you and do them consistently.
Below, I’ll show you two very easy exercises that will enable you to make huge strides in your progress. All you need to do is practice them a little bit every day, and you’ll be surprised at how fast you improve.
How to Read Fingerstyle Guitar Notation
Fingerstyle notation is often labeled based on what fingers you should use for the notes on each hand. Don’t worry if it seems like a lot to memorize at first—I think you’ll find it intuitive before long.
- Index = 1
- Middle = 2
- Ring = 3
- Pinky = 4
- Thumb = T (rarely used to fret in classical guitar, but more common in other styles)
- Thumb = p
- Index = i
- Middle = m
- Ring = a
- Pinky = c (rarely used, but is perhaps becoming more common)
Note that fingerings you find in guitar music aren’t usually set in stone. Feel free to do what feels most natural to you. That said, try to understand why certain fingerings are recommended before you change them.
How to Make the Most of Fingerstyle Exercises
The great Bruce Lee once remarked,
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
The main idea behind these exercises is perfectly captured in this quote. It’s not how many different fingerstyle drills you do, but rather how often and effectively you do them that counts.
These two exercises, once assimilated, will develop the core mechanism behind your playing. The first one trains your string-plucking (right hand), and the second one trains your fretting (left hand).
Taken together, you’ll find that these exercises will allow you to play guitar much better in general, as strong plucking and fretting skills are valuable in every fingerstyle guitar piece, no matter the style of music.
So, the way to make the most of these fingerstyle exercises is to embrace the grind. Do them for a few minutes today, then tomorrow, then the next day. Work on them for a few minutes twice a day, three times a day, or more. Basically, don’t work on them for too long (over 20 minutes), but return to them frequently.
Once you’ve been doing these exercises for a significant amount of time and you know them well, feel free to use them as a part of your warm-up. This way you still get in some technical work even if you’re focused on something else.
Fingerstyle Guitar Exercise 1
- Practice slowly 90% of the time, throwing in sprints
- Use p for all, then i, m, and a (isolating each in turn)
- Keep your left hand relaxed and off the fretboard
- Feel free to vary the number of plucks per string
- Concentrate on the quality of each pluck
Fingerstyle Guitar Exercise 2
- Go slowly at least 90% of the time, with occasional sprints
- Fret without sound—the right hand does not play, so the notes above only serve to indicate fretting positions
- Fret lightly for the most part, but experiment with different amounts of pressure
- Concentrate on finger placement and string transitions
The Value of Fingerstyle Guitar Exercises
We don’t often reflect on this, but beginner guitar players are often beginners in more than just one way. Superficially, we tend to focus on their guitar skills alone. But there’s an even more critical way in which beginners suffer from inexperience: their practice habits.
Guitar practice habits determine the fate of a guitar player more than any kind of initial musical ability. Effective practice facilitates progress, guaranteeing that the time you put in sees results.
Fingerstyle guitar exercises such as the ones above provide the best “bang for your buck” as far as practice time goes. These drills isolate your guitar-playing mechanism itself, meaning anything you play in the future, no matter what style of music, is going to much easier on a physical level.
My view is that beginners should spend most of their time building technique through fingerstyle exercises, focusing less on actual pieces until they cover the fundamentals of playing. That said, you should also work on music, but just a bit less than you might think, and certainly not exclusively.
If you like the two exercises above, you’re a perfect fit for my new eBook, Fingerstyle Fitness
. It offers 10 simple exercises that cover the fundamental left- and right-hand movements used in fingerstyle guitar.
The beauty of Fingerstyle Fitness
is that it follows the exact same philosophy outlined by Bruce Lee. Most guitar books give you countless exercises—so many as to be intimidating or discouraging. My aim is to give you a clear and straightforward path from zero to hero in fingerstyle technique.
You’ll find that all 10 exercises in the eBook can be learned in a few minutes. That’s not the hard part. What’s harder and more important is that you do the exercises religiously and well. And the more you do them (even for a few minutes at a time), the faster you’ll improve.
The concept behind these exercises largely comes from my own experience as a struggling beginner guitar player. I wanted very badly to play well and was frustrated and disillusioned with my rate of progress.
My turning point came when I realized that I could accelerate my progress not by plodding through songs, but rather by isolating the key techniques that all fingerstyle playing has in common, which I could then apply to any piece of music. Fingerstyle Fitness
is about sharing that exact method with you!
Fingerstyle guitar can be intimidating, but it’s not hard once you just get used to it. The secret is to put in time every day (or multiple times a day) until it feels more natural. And once you get to that point, I think you’ll discover how much fun you can really have on the guitar!
So, stick to these exercises, stay patient, and grind it out for a while. Trust me that you’ll find your efforts rewarded three-fold if you just keep at it. Best of luck!