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Thumb when fingerpicking

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Eminent Member
Joined: 17 years ago
Posts: 12
Topic starter  

Hey, I was actually on this site a few months ago asking about basic fingerpicking songs and such like. I've been practicing a bit, and am now onto slightly harder pickings such as:


and such like...Basically, a lot of songs that use all 3 "bass notes" or bottom strings. However, I seem to have picked up a habit:

When I play a song like this (and others) my thumb only picks the bottom two bass notes, my index finger covers the D string and my middle and ring fingers cover the last 3 strings...

Now, I can play the song perfectly well this way, but I was recently made aware that the thumb should be picking all 3 bottom strings, not just the bottom two...I know this means that two fingers are covering 3 strings, but they seem to manage it...anyway,here's my question:

I know that this is "wrong technique", but it works for me, and I was just wondering if, when it comes to more advanced fingerpicks, will this be a disadvantage to me? Basically, is there any disadvantage to playing this way?

Thanks for any help.

Famed Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 3995

Really I don't know if it could be considered as a disadvatange. You already can use the thumb and fingers separately so you only need to get used to other strings. I think it is easy. I'd try to use the conventional string-finger association also because sometimes you will need your thumb and three fingers simultaneusly. I guess if a technique has been developed in a specific way it must have a reason for it, I don't know.

Prominent Member
Joined: 17 years ago
Posts: 628

Hi there.

In my extremely humble and very much 'newbie' opinion.... :lol: I also read that the thumb was to cover the E, A and D strings and the three fingers play the G B and E, but....

Learning the fingering pattern of Dust in the Wind from a vid on YouTube posted as a lesson, it uses the thumb on the A string and then the first finger on the D, second on the G, third on the B (song doesn't use the high E).

Now, when I looked at the tabs before I saw the video, I tried using thumb on A and D. The finger pattern is far too fast to use your thumb on both strings - hence using the first finger on the D....So...

Looks like the mould is broken when it suits the fingering pattern....

D 8)

I'm nowhere near Chicago. I've got six string, 8 fingers, two thumbs, it's dark 'cos I'm wearing sunglasses - Hit it!

Illustrious Member
Joined: 21 years ago
Posts: 4921

There are a lot of different fingerpicking styles. Each has its own logic; the common thread is to avoid any awkward crossing of the fingers while you play.

The grand-daddy of fingerstyle is classical guitar. When playing classical, the thumb generally gets to play single notes on four strings (E through G), and the fingers get all six - although it's a pretty rare piece where A (the ring finger) needs to play the low E. Classical fingerings are worked out to avoid awkward string crossing, maintain separate contrapuntal lines, allow finger alteration on the same string for speed, and give the performer control over the timbre of the individual notes. I'll often practice the same piece using several different fingerings - I think the most I've done on one piece is six - as an exercise to develop control over the tone.

"Fingerpicking" is often pattern based, with the picking hand doing a repeating figure to produce an arpeggio. The style most commonly taught, which I explained in the article Finger Freedom in PlayGuitar! magazine, uses the thumb and three fingers... the thumb gets the three lowest strings, and each of the fingers is dedicated to a single string. The advantage of this method is that the picking is pretty mechanical - you simply memorize the picking pattern, and the thumb follows along with the chord roots and/or alternate bass notes. Learn a pattern and it becomes almost automatic... it seems like that's what you're thinking is "good" technique.

But that's not the only fingerpicking style. Merle Travis used thumb and two fingers, with the thumb providing an alternating bass. Depending on the chord being played, the thumb gets any of the four lowest strings, the index can end up on the fourth through second strings, and the middle finger gets the three highest. This style works well because the thumb lays down an alternating bass line in time with the count, and the fingers provide all the syncopation - sometimes playing on the beat, sometimes in between.

Incorporating other techniques can force a change in the way the fingers are used. If you're popping in artificial harmonics a la Tommy Emmanuel, you want the index finger freed up - that's got to hit the harmonic nodes. Because of the way your hand is built the thumb and index end up getting the same strings - even if it's the high or low E. The middle and ring fingers end up having to play differently too, covering a wider span of strings.

Some folks are even using a five-finger approach. I personally find that uncomfortable - the pinky is so much shorter and weaker than the others, so it's hard to get the same timbre and dynamics. But it sure isn't wrong if it gets you the result you want.

With so many ways to approach fingerstyle music, there's a lot of room for individual techniques. I tend to use four different picking styles frequently in my own fingerstyle playing - the "good" way for folk type accompaniment, the "free" string assignment for classical music, a modified Travis style for syncopated blues or ragtime (I'll sometimes use the ring finger if it seems to fit), and if I'm comping jazz fingerstyle the only real rule I follow is that I don't cross fingers that play at the same time... other than that, any finger gets any string that feels comfortable and follows the musical lines.

Nothing in what you're doing will hold you back in more advanced playing. In fact, I'd probably play what you tabbed out the same way you are - using a modified Travis style.

Guitar teacher offering lessons in Plainfield IL

Prominent Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 973

The idea that the thumb plays the E, A & D strings and the three fingers each play one of the higher strings is just a general guideline for beginners playing simple fingerstyle accompaniments.
A more advanced and useful guideline is that the thumb plays bass notes and bass melodies (which often include notes as high as the second string). This is because the thumb is best suited (and best positioned) to producing the expected 'solid' character of bass notes. The thumb may also play chord notes either for convenience or effect.

Upper (and lower) melody and chord notes are played by whichever finger is best suited to playing whichever string a particular note appears on. This depends on factors such as which finger is closest to the string at the time, and which finger was the last one used on the previous note. Ideally, if two or more consecutive notes appear on the same string, you don't want to play them with the same finger, when alternating them does it more fluently, efficiently and even gracefully.

Eminent Member
Joined: 17 years ago
Posts: 12
Topic starter  

Thanks for the help, people.

Estimable Member
Joined: 17 years ago
Posts: 62

Merle Travis used thumb and two fingers, with the thumb providing an alternating bass.

Actually Merle Travis played with only index and thumb, having the other thre fingers anchored on the guitar top. Also did Rev. Gary Davis, so fingerstyle guitar can mean all from two to five picking hand fingers used for playing, and Wes Montgomery played only with his thumb, though instead of using a flatpick. :wink: