Fingerstyle guitar is more popular than ever. It's a flexible technique that appears across many different styles of music.
One reason for its popularity is that it allows you to play multiple voices on the guitar at the same time very easily (bass and melody). But is fingerstyle as hard as people say?
In this post, we set out to answer that question. Hope you enjoy!
What is Fingerstyle Guitar?
“Fingerstyle” refers to plucking the guitar strings with your fingers rather than using a pick.
It’s a bit like saying “electric guitar,” where you’re identifying a set of techniques more than a specific style, as you can basically play any piece of music without a pick.
That said, you’ll find that some guitar styles, such as rock, metal, and blues, are more characterized by pick-playing while others, such as classical and flamenco, are almost wholly fingerstyle traditions.
Fingerstyle vs. Fingerpicking
In a general sense, fingerstyle and fingerpicking are synonymous. They both refer to the process of using your fingers (rather than a single pick) to sound the guitar strings.
It’s all about context, really. People tend to associate fingerpicking with folk guitarists (such as the legendary Merle Travis) and use fingerstyle as a more catch-all term that includes classical, flamenco, and steel-string guitar players.
To get a sense of the diversity of all these finger-playing techniques, let’s see a couple of examples.
First, here’s Merle Travis (yes, he’s the name behind “Travis picking”) demonstrating his fingerpicking style with impressive showmanship:
Now let’s check out fingerstyle in a more formal setting. This is Nicola Hall, a remarkable yet relatively obscure English classical guitarist playing Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 in concert:
I hope even this simple contrast gives you a sense of the vast applications of playing the guitar with your fingers. You can cover a ton of musical ground with this cool technique!
How Hard Is Fingerstyle Guitar?
Fingerstyle guitar isn’t easy, but it’s more approachable than you might think. A lot of guitarists get psyched out about fingerstyle, feeling like it’s nearly impossible to learn if you’re used to strumming. The key is to just go for it!
And if you do manage to set aside the pick, you’re opening a whole world of new music. Fingerstyle allows you to more easily play all sorts of complex harmonies, giving you new musical possibilities.
Is Fingerstyle Harder Than Pick-Playing?
Fingerstyle is hard, but it’s not necessarily harder than picking. Both styles have their own challenges, so you can’t definitively say one is harder than the other without going into more detail.
What makes fingerstyle hard is that it requires your right-hand fingers to operate independently. You need to gradually build the strength and dexterity of each finger and assimilate many right-hand patterns. All of this takes lots of time and effort.
Pick-playing tends to be more intuitive, which is why most beginners start there. However, you can find advanced picking techniques (both in rhythm and lead guitar) that are as hard as anything on the instrument.
The point is, you shouldn’t avoid fingerstyle or picking because you’re afraid of difficulty. Rather, try to enjoy the process of learning something new, which is never completely easy. But keep in mind that the easiest things are rarely worth doing!
How Long Does It Take to Master Fingerstyle?
In a real way, no one has ever “mastered” the guitar. Life is short, and there’s an ever-expanding vista of guitar music, styles, and techniques. The greatest guitarists in history have understood their strengths and their limitations.
But maybe the real question is, how long will it take a beginner to become an impressive fingerstyle guitarist? I’d say that if you work hard, you can get pretty good in under six months.
Optimizing your guitar progress has almost everything to do with your perspective. If you believe in yourself and your musical abilities, you’ll go a lot further than someone full of doubts.
How To Start Learning Fingerstyle Guitar
The secret to fingerstyle is to spend a lot of time on the fundamentals—even more than you think you need. Remember that every small technique, from fretting to plucking, can always be done a little bit better.
I would start by watching a few videos on good fingerstyle form. In order to play well as quickly as possible, you need to make sure you have good left- and right-hand execution. I know this stuff can be boring, but it will save you a ton of time in the long run.
Next, I think you should learn some simple fingerstyle patterns and riffs. You can either pick up a book of Easy Fingerstyle Songs or go to Ultimate Guitar to learn simple tabs of your favorite songs.
One helpful thing is to always be willing to isolate one hand or the other. For instance, you should isolate your left hand if you’re struggling with a chord change, whereas you might isolate your right hand to get a tricky fingerstyle pattern down.
But at the end of the day, you need to be patient and persistent. No one learns fingerstyle overnight, so try to take some pressure off yourself.
I hope this post cleared up all your questions about fingerstyle playing. It’s going to take some time to get comfortable plucking with your fingers, but I know you’ll get there eventually.
If you’re eager to get started, you’ll want to check out these helpful Fingerstyle Secrets.
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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!