Fingerpicking Patterns

Maybe you’ve just started fingerpicking and want to improve your skills. Or perhaps you’ve just heard a beautiful finger-picked song or two and just want to learn to play something similar. It can be tough to know where to start, but we’ve gathered several great finger-picking 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.

Fingerpicking Pattern 2: The 3/4 Time

Just about any list of easy fingerpicking songs includes “House of the Rising Sun.” (video below left). 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 (below right). 

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.

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. Check out this video lesson if you’d like a straightforward demonstration of the PAMI pattern (this one starts with the thumb on the low E).

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 chord’s root note. 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 steady bassline 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 and D strings as you move through your bassline. You can add more notes from there, 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 supremely useful picking pattern is 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.

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 (below left) explains it beautifully and includes tablature so you can double-check your playing and ensure you have the right chord progression.

Especially if you’re a new player, while playing this song, there are a few things to look out for. 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.

This could be a challenge if you haven’t ventured into barre chords. 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 move your hand out of place accidentally.

As the instructor in the video (above right) 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.

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 & then the D string. Your first finger then plays the G string & 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, & 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 finger-picking pattern to start with, but once you have some experience with picking, it’s fun 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.

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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