Fingerpicking, or what is now known as “finger style guitar” (and boy, we have to come up with alternative names these days for everything in order to make them more marketable, don’t we?)(get it? “alternative” is a pun, you see, because we couldn’t sell music to people unless we gave it a genre title that made people feel good about themselves and had nothing whatsoever to do with the music and…oh never mind.), is not everyone’s cup of tea. I know guitarists who have never even attempted to use their fingers. I half suspect that these souls have picks glued onto their hands. I also know guitarists who only use their fingers. Even playing the electric guitar.
For those of you who have always thought fingerpicking guitar might prove too difficult for you, delude yourselves no longer. Like anything else, it simply takes time, practice, and a good push in the right direction. And while the first two items are pretty much under your own control, I can at least try to help out with the third.
And here to assist with the pushing is another old chestnut, The House Of The Rising Sun, a Public Domain song performed by the Animals waaaaaay back in the sixties (background info on the song here). It’s also been covered by Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, Woody Guthrie and many other artists.
To prep for this lesson, you might want to read (or reread) Picking Your Poison, or at least the first part, which deals with fingerpicking. Okay?
Just to make matters even more interesting, we’re going to learn two different fingerpicking patterns for House of the Rising Sun. The first will be very straightforward, simply arpeggiating the chords in a very easy finger style. Then we will go on and doctor that version up a bit, throwing in slightly more complex picking which will include a bit of a moving bassline as well as using a standard alternating bassline (which we learned about last time) in a few spots. Are you ready?
Okay, first the chords for the song. And there are five of them! We are progressing right along, aren’t we?
Some people play this song with a regular F major chord instead of an Fmaj7. I have chosen the Fmaj7 chord for two reasons: first, I prefer the way it sounds and, second, it is easier for a beginner to play than a regular F.
And now I also want to say a word about timing. I’ve written this song out in what is known as 6/8 timing. Don’t freak about this. There is a simple explanation and it’s just another one of those things where you’re going to wonder “So what was the big deal about, anyway?”
The time signature (along with the key signature) is one of the first things you encounter when you read music, so you might as well learn just what it means at some point, no? The time signature usually consists of two numbers written one on top of the other, almost like a fraction except there is no line (other than the lines of the staff and that doesn’t count). These provide you with two important pieces of information about the song that you are going to play. The top number tells you how many beats are in a measure (and we learned about measures in Before You Accuse Me). The lower number (lower in position, not (necessarily) the lower number in terms of value) indicates which note is going to count as “one beat.” The vast majority of music you are likely to encounter will be in 4/4 timing:
Sometimes you will see “4/4” timing written out as “C.” This is short for “Common Time.” As well as “C” there is also a “C”with a vertical line slashing it. It looks like the symbol for a penny and, of course, my keyboard does not have one! This is known, appropriately enough, as “cut time,” or
There are also songs, many marches, in fact which are in 2/4 time. And you have undoubtedly heard songs that use 3/4 timing as well. Waltzes are in 3/4:
Probably eighty-five to ninety percent of all songs are written in either of these two time signatures. 6/8 timing is very similar to 3/4 in that it has the same kind of “triplet” feel. It’s easier to count in groups of threes rather than sets of six, isn’t it?
For right now, all you have to worry about is getting the right count. Later on this year we’ll examine the whys and wherefores (and isn’t that totally redundant?) behind various time signatures. For now, simply notice that each measure is six eighth notes strung together – so your count will be very smooth and totally without incident. There is nothing at all here to trip you up in any way. Promise.
Up And Down
Now, if you’ve read Picking Your Poison, I am going to ask your indulgence as I (momentarily) tell you something different than what I did in the article. The easiest way to start learning to fingerpick is simply to get your fingers going using the simplest pattern possible. We’re going to start the same way I suggested in my earlier article, by making an up and down arpeggio of our chords. To start with, begin with your bass note and play three strings in a downstroke with your thumb (yes, even though I told you to just use your thumb on the lowest three strings! Hang in there with me on this!), then play the first three strings in an upstroke with your fingers. If you can, try to use the following fingers:
on your upstrokes. Getting used to using all of your fingers is usually the hardest part of fingerpicking. Many people seem to have a natural tendency towards just using one or two. But if you get yourself into the habit of employing all of your fingers early on, you have a great chance to find that playing finger style guitar is nowhere near as hard as you thought it might be.
Let’s look at each of the chords and practice picking each of them. Play each chord until you feel comfortable with it. Don’t move on just for the sake of moving on. This will take time for some of you, yes, but the time you spend on it now will pay all sorts of dividends down the road. You will notice that the picking pattern is simply straight eighth notes and that I’ve set them up into groups of three notes apiece, two groups per measure. You’ll also note that I’ve tried to denote the “thumb” notes with downward flags and “finger” notes with upturned flags.
How is it going? If you’re feeling okay with your progress, then the next step, believe it or not, is to go right ahead and play the song! Take your time and just get used to using your fingers and thumbs in a coordinated manner. You will be surprised at how quickly it comes to you.
See? That wasn’t so hard at all, was it? Are you ready to try it again with a (slightly) more complex fingerpicking pattern? Sure you are!
Getting Back Into Position
Okay, now that you’re used to getting all of your fingers in on the action, let’s tackle this song again. This time, we will concentrate on using our fingers in the more “traditional” way, which means that we should try to keep our fingers on these “targeted” strings whenever possible:
The best way to proceed from here is to take this a measure or two at a time. Remember, whenever possible, make things easier on yourself by taking something that looks very difficult and breaking it down into smaller, manageable pieces. Measure by measure, note for note if you have to.
You’ll notice as we progress that I’ve given the strumming a more interesting bassline. Here, in the first two measures, you can see (and hear) how the Am arpeggio smoothly melts into the C chord:
Again (and yes, you will get tired of me saying this) take your time with this. Do it as slowly as you have to in order to work all your fingers into the mix. This is not that fast of a song to begin with! But speed without clean and clear notes sounds like so much mud. When you’ve satisfied yourself with the first two measures, move on to measures three and four:
In these two measures you will notice that since your bass note is on the 4th (D) string, you have to immediately switch to your fingers. Measure four is a particularly good one with which to practice your fingerpicking. You will repeat this pattern (albeit with a different string for the bass note) in the last four measures of the song:
The only other challenge is in measures seven and eight, which is where the E chord appears for the first time. And now you can see why I had you practice it in the last set of measures. If you spent some time working on that E arpeggio pattern, then you will not find it too difficult to add in a bass note with your thumb on the fourth beat of the measure. Yes, you will be playing two notes simultaneously on that fourth beat – the bass note (B – second fret on the A string) with your thumb and the open high E string with your ring finger. The “trick,” if any, is to be certain to have your E chord formed on your fretboard right from the start. This way you have only one hand to worry about! As you can certainly hear, this particular picking pattern involves an “alternating bassline,” just like the ones in Margaritaville. Here you are alternating between the root (E – second fret on the D string), the fifth (the aforementioned B) and the root again, only an octave lower (the open low E string). And then back up again. You will find you can play this E chord with the alternating bass in a lot of other songs:
Well, that should take care of everything, I think. Why don’t we put together the whole song?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction into fingerpicking. Next time out we will dust off another classic and learn another picking pattern, this time concentrating on playing two notes at the same time.
As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or even songs, riffs, leads or techniques that you’d like to see covered in future Songs For Beginners pieces. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at email@example.com.
And stay tuned for some upcoming Songs For Intermediates which will delve into more fingerpicking as well as theory, chord voicings, open and alternate tunings and arrangements.
Until next week…