Fingerpicking Patterns

Maybe you've just started fingerpicking and want to improve your skills. Or perhaps you've just heard a beautiful fingerpicked song or two and just want to learn to play something similar. It can be tough to know just where to start, but we've gathered together several great fingerpicking patterns to learn. We've included patterns for every level, so whether you're a beginner or an accomplished player, we hope something here will challenge you!

Fingerpicking Patterns You Should Know

Fingerpicking Pattern 1: One-Four-Five-Six

If you're looking for your first fingerpicking pattern to learn, this is a good one. But before we delve into it, you should know that we've flipped the string numbers. Tablature calls the low E the sixth string and the high E the first string. But when you're first starting out as a fingerstyle guitar player, it can seem more logical to label the low E as string 1. This site provides a handy illustration.

To play fingerpicking pattern 1, use your thumb to play the top string (low E). This is your bass note, and it provides a steady backbeat to the treble side of the pattern. Then, use your first finger on string four (G string), your middle finger on string five (B string), and your ring finger on string six (high E string). This is a fairly simple fingerpicking pattern -- you play thumb/first finger/middle finger/ring finger and then repeat. If you want to create a more varied bassline, you can try alternating which string you play with your thumb. So your first time through the pattern you could play the E string, and then play the A string the next time through. This video gives you a great close-up illustration.

If you're completely new to fingerpicking, be sure to start this pattern slowly. Choose an easy chord progression you're familiar with. It can be tempting to get excited and try to play quickly at first. But just like with most guitar-related skills, play as slowly as you need to in order to be technically accurate. The speed will come with time. Then, if you're ready, you can try out our next pattern.

Whether you're just starting out with a fingerpicking pattern or have some experience, you might find that you want a guided course. If that's the case, we think TrueFire is worth looking at. This guitar site doesn't get talked about quite as much as JamPlay and Guitar Tricks, but it has an absolutely massive library of over 40,000 guitar lessons.

It also has a unique feature we haven't seen elsewhere called In the Jam. This resource involves multi-tracked recorded songs where you can mute the track of the instrument you play. So if you're a lead guitarist, you can mute the site's lead guitar track and effectively play along with a full band. It's a great practice tool, especially if you're learning on your own. The site comes with a 30-day free trial so you can evaluate it before you commit.

Fingerpicking Pattern 2: The 3/4 Time

Just about any list of easy fingerpicking songs includes "House of the Rising Sun." And while both the chord progression and the pattern used are surprisingly simple, they give the song a haunting quality you won't soon forget. Many patterns seem to work this way -- even if it's not extremely difficult, an interesting fingerpicking pattern can breathe new life into even the most basic of chord progressions.

Fingerpicking pattern 2 is a little similar to pattern 1, but it's a little more complicated. And if you're playing "House of the Rising Sun," you'll need to sometimes use your thumb on the low E and sometimes use it on the A string. Your index finger, middle finger, and ring finger will be on the G string, the B string, and the E string, respectively.

First, you hit your bass note with your thumb. Then your index finger, then the middle finger, then the ring finger. After that, use your middle finger and then the index finger again. The result is a captivating ascending/descending fingerpicking pattern that works very well with songs in 3/4 time. It can be easier to follow a visual, so check out this easy video pattern tutorial. 

Don't be discouraged if this fingerpicking pattern seems tough to get at first. When you're new to fingerpicking, even "easy" arrangements can take some getting used to, but we promise it's well worth the effort! And once you've mastered this pattern, you can apply it to just about any chord progression you like.

Before we get too far, it's a good idea to briefly go over some basic fingerstyle pattern notation. If you've already been searching for picking patterns like this one online, you may have come across PIMA notation. This is a quick and easy way of labeling the fingers on your picking hand. Here's what they stand for:

  • P - thumb (from Spanish pulgar)
  • I - index (from Spanish indice)
  • M - middle (from Spanish medio)
  • A - ring (from Spanish anular)

Sometimes, sheet music for fingerpicking will show these letters next to individual notes, which is a great way to help you quickly understand any pattern you need. The pinky usually isn't included in PIMA notation because it's not often used in fingerstyle. However, if the pinky is used, it's usually indicated with an E.

If you're liking fingerpicking so far and think you may want to get more into fingerstyle guitar, Fender Play is a site worth checking out. This learning site can teach you many different genres, but the "folk" path, in particular, gives you a great introduction to fingerpicking and to PIMA notation. Fingerpicking can be tough to learn on your own, but the visuals that come with this course help break it down beautifully. First, you'll have an instructor who demonstrates the fingerpicking pattern, and you can follow along to sheet music/tablature. At the end of each lesson, there's a "practice" section where you can run through the fingerpicking pattern you've just learned.

Fender Play tends to appeal to newer and younger players because many of its key concepts are taught using excerpts from popular songs. And while it doesn't have a whole lot of material for more experienced players, it's an effective and affordable way for newer players to learn fingerpicking and more. Plus, an annual membership comes with a 10% discount on Fender guitars, amps, and gear. So if you're in need of both a new guitar and a quality guitar course, it's a good option to look into.

Fingerpicking Pattern 3: The PAMI

Now that you know about PIMA pattern notation, you'll have a much easier time quickly figuring out patterns. However, some beginning to intermediate players tend to fall into a trap -- they master one fingerpicking pattern, get comfortable with it, and then use it for just about everything. Try not to do this. As soon as you master one fingerpicking pattern, it's a good idea to then move on to another one (or try it on a more challenging chord progression). As you incorporate different patterns into your practice routine, you'll steadily become a more well-rounded player.

Fingerpicking pattern 3 (PAMI) is a great way to add a slight twist to the previous patterns we've looked at. PAMI just means that you play thumb/ring/middle/index. If you learned how to play the "House of the Rising Sun" pattern above, you've already used the PAMI pattern for part of the song. Learning it separately will ensure that you aren't just relying on muscle memory!

This useful page offers a fairly simple pattern using the PAMI pattern. In this pattern, you place your thumb on the D string, index finger on the G string, middle finger on the B string, and ring finger on the E string. However, you can experiment with placing different fingers on different strings while still following the pattern. If you'd like a straightforward demonstration of the PAMI pattern (this one starts with the thumb on the low E), check out this video lesson.

If you'd like more instructional content geared toward guitar beginners, you might like ArtistWorks. This is one of the smaller educational sites out there, but it has some outstanding features. Namely, when you're in a course, you get individualized feedback from your instructor via video exchange. This means that you upload a video of yourself playing a pattern, and your instructor sends you constructive criticism.

ArtistWorks doesn't offer a huge variety of courses, but new players might appreciate the intensive course for acoustic guitar beginners. More advanced players with an interest in jazz can pick up new fingerpicking styles from Martin Taylor's Fingerstyle Jazz Guitar course. If you're committed to learning and want to receive individualized feedback, ArtistWorks just might be the right platform for you.

Fingerpicking Pattern 4: Travis Picking

Pattern 4, Travis picking (also called clawhammer picking) is named after legendary musician Merle Travis. Essentially, it involves using your thumb to play a steady alternating bassline pattern of two notes and then using other fingers to add in other notes. The "claw" part of the pattern name refers to the fact that your picking hand is often shaped like a claw in order to use your index, middle, and ring fingers.

Depending on the complexity of your pattern, you can even create a melody (using your other three fingers) over the existing bassline. This pattern can be hard to explain, but this video by YouTube guitarist Paul Davids does a beautiful job of building a Travis picking pattern from the ground up. As you can see, even though the chord progression is relatively simple, the fingerpicking pattern is extraordinarily dynamic.

But how should you start Travis picking for the first time? This lesson advises you to start with the open C chord. Practice playing quarter notes on the A string. Because your fretting hand is holding down a C note on this string, your thumb is picking the root note of the chord. Work on playing at a steady pace and keeping all the notes at equal volume.

Next, practice alternating picking two notes between the A string and the D string. This is the steady bassline that forms the backbeat of the Travis picking pattern. You can then add in a melody note --start by adding in the B string (when fretting the C chord, this string makes a C note). You can do this by "pinching" the B string and the D string as you move through your bassline. From there, you can add in more notes as illustrated in the video tutorial. Be patient with yourself, though -- unless you're an exceptionally fast learner, you likely won't master this fingerpicking pattern overnight.

This is a supremely useful picking pattern that's well worth the time it takes to master. There are plenty of variations on the Travis picking technique, so this is a pattern that can take you far. If you find that you like fingerpicking and want to continue to work on your playing, you might want to check out Guitar Tricks. Guitar Tricks is one of the largest sites for guitar lessons we've been able to find, and it will help you keep your practice focused and goal-oriented. 

A full-access membership gives you access to over 11,000 lessons taught by 45 instructors, and new lessons are uploaded weekly. The site also has an impressive collection of highly detailed song tutorials in many different genres. There isn't a free trial option, but if you find that it's not for you, there's also a generous 60-day money-back guarantee.

We especially like Guitar Tricks because it covers just about every genre. However, it's especially remarkable in that you can take technique lessons on your own. This introductory page covers the site's intro to fingerpicking. And if you find a fingerpicking artist or two you'd like to emulate, Guitar Tricks even has selected Artist Studies to let you take a deep dive into an accomplished guitarist's style and pattern choices.

Fingerpicking Pattern 5: Hey There Delilah

The fingerstyle patterns out there are seemingly endless, and some (like this one) don't necessarily have a name. We've called this one "Hey There Delilah" after the song by the Plain White T's. This is a great fingerpicking pattern for newer players, as it's not especially complicated but still sounds great. 

The song itself has a relatively simple chord progression, but the fingerpicking pattern incorporates a skill we haven't yet come across on our list -- plucking two strings at once. Almost all of the song involves the same pattern -- you're using your thumb to play a root note as a bassline, and you're using your index and ring fingers to pluck two strings (usually the B and G string) at the same time. This video tutorial explains it beautifully, and it also includes tablature so you can double check your playing and make sure you have the right chord progression.

Especially if you're a new player, there are a few things to look out for while playing this song. The first is the chord progression itself. Most chords are simple, but F#m may be new to some. And as the instructor points out, the song is written using a barred G chord. If you haven't ventured into barre chords, this could be a challenge. But if a barre chord is too difficult, you can always use an open G in the chord progression for now.

The other thing to watch out for is keeping your fingers in place throughout the pattern. Since you're moving two fingers at once in this pattern, it's easy for you to accidentally move your hand out of place. As the instructor in the video suggests, you may want to use your pinky to anchor your hand by touching it to the high E string while you aren't using it. It's also helpful to keep a slight arch in your wrist. This will help isolate the muscles in your fingers and keep your hand in place.

Simple tips like these can go a long way toward improving your fingerpicking. And if you want to learn more patterns from world-renowned guitarists and guitar teachers, you might want to check out JamPlay. Like Guitar Tricks, JamPlay is a guitar site that offers thousands of lessons and courses. And even a quick look at their popular courses shows you two fingerpicking options -- Adventures in Fingerstyle (taught by Maneli Jamal) and Crafting Fingerstyle Melodies (taught by Trevor Gordon Hall).

However, a Jamplay membership gives you access to more than courses -- with a standard membership, you get access to live courses, master courses, customized progress reports, and a song library with interactive tabs. With higher-level memberships, you also receive helpful guitarist toolkits and even 1-on-1 consultations with a guitar instructor.

Fingerpicking Pattern 6: Putting Things Together

Thus far, we've gone through several fingerpicking pattern options, and many of them involve a technique or two that you can use in different patterns. This one has some similarities to Travis picking (namely because you alternate playing strings with your thumb). It also resembles pattern 4 a bit because you sometimes use two fingers to pluck two strings simultaneously. Here's what it looks like.

First, you start with your thumb on the A string and then the D string. Your first finger then plays the G string and your middle finger plays the B string simultaneously. (This is a similar motion to what your three fingers are doing in fingerpicking pattern 4). Your thumb goes back to the D string, and your ring finger then plays the high E.

Your middle finger plays the B string, your index finger plays the G string, and your middle finger plays the B string again. It can be a little hard to follow this pattern written out, but the video tutorial will give you a good sense of the general style and feel. This would be a tough fingerpicking pattern to start with, but once you have some experience with picking, it's a fun one to learn.

You might have noticed that the video tutorial for this pattern (as well as for other patterns in our list) demonstrates using an acoustic guitar. After all, when most people think of fingerpicking through a chord progression, they picture an acoustic guitarist. But if you prefer electric guitar or just want to try something a little different, any fingerpicking pattern works equally well on an electric. After all, Tom Morello, renowned guitarist and co-founder of Rage Against the Machine, believes in using outside-the-box playing techniques and a strong creative vision to forge your identity as a musician.

And while Morello isn't necessarily known for fingerpicking specifically, using this technique in alternate ways can help you develop a strong creative voice. That's just what Tom Morello's Masterclass, Tom Morello Teaches Electric Guitar, aims to do. In this somewhat non-traditional course, Tom will take you through the guitar playing techniques that helped make him famous. And while the class does offer some technical advice, much of its focus is on developing your own voice as a musician. To get a sense of the ethos of the class, check out this inspiring class trailer.

Final Thoughts

Whether you like the traditional sparkling sound of a fingerpicked acoustic or want to try out some patterns on an electric guitar, fingerpicking is a great way to diversify your style and have a lot of fun while playing guitar. We hope that our list has helped you start learning (or has helped you pick up a new pattern or two). But what do you think? Are there any great patterns we should have included? Please let us know in the comments, and don't forget to share if you found it helpful!         

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