FREE LESSON: Finger picking playing techniques – play strings with fingers

Finger picking means playing, hitting or plucking with the fingers, whether or not in combination with a guitar pick. This is a totally different technique than playing with a pick, but is applied in all musical styles and on various stringed instruments. Below we list the different possibilities such as playing with fingertips, combination pick and fingers (hybrid picking), fingernails (nail picking) and finger picks.

Finger picking : play strings with the fingertips
Finger picking on guitar

Finger picking is as the name says, plucking with the fingers instead of with a guitar pick. This gives a more acoustic and classical effect and moreover, you can play faster than with a pick. With finger picking, for example, it is easier to combine bass lines, chords or arpeggios with melody lines, in order to obtain a kind of top voicing. For example, guitarist Jacques Stotzem is a good example of this.

Finger picking is used in all styles, and is ideal for ballads, folk, acoustic and classical songs. The plucking is done with the fingertips (not with the nail), which also creates a softer and warmer sound compared to a pick or using the fingernails.

Hybrid picking: guitar pick and finger(s) combined
Picking on guitar with a pick or plectrum

Hybrid picking is the combination of a guitar pick and 1, 2 or 3 fingers. This technique can also be applied in all musical styles. The handy thing about it is the versatility: you can quickly switch between chord strumming and hybrid picking, which is almost the same as finger picking but with 1 finger less available.

Hybrid picking can be applied to any type of guitar, both electric, acoustic (western) as well as classical with nylon strings, but of course also on other stringed instruments such as bass guitar, mandolin, banjo, ukulele, etc.

Nail picking: play strings with the fingernails
Nail picking: play strings with the fingernails

A typical technique among classical guitarists, is playing strings with the fingernails. The sound is purer and sharper than when playing with the fingertips and comes close to a pick in terms of sound. The advantage is that fingernails are thin just like a pick. The disadvantage is of course that you need to grow the fingernails on the right hand, and that the nails may not break.

It is also advisable to play on a classical guitar with nylon strings, as steel strings such as on an acoustic guitar will cause the fingernails to wear off faster. Some classical guitarists file their nails into a certain shape so that they become more pointed just like a pick or a finger pick. And when a nail accidentally breaks off, professional guitarists have a good solution: superglue 🙂 !

Finger & thumb picks
Finger & thumb picks

An alternative to playing with the fingernails are the finger and thumbs picks. Those are slid on top of the fingertip. Sometimes only a thumb pick is used in combination with the other fingertips. So also a kind of hybrid picking then. These finger picks exist both in plastic (often nylon or celluloid) as well as metal. Plastic sounds softer and is closer to the sound of fingernails.

Metal sounds louder and sharper. The disadvantage of finger picks compared to playing with the fingers, is mainly that one literally does not feel the strings. Picks on the fingers is not so much used in pop and rock music, but rather in genres such as bluegrass and folk. And are also used on a range of other stringed instruments such as Hawaiian guitar, lap steel, pedal steel, dobro and banjo.

Indication of the fingers on a score or tablature
Indication of the fingers

For the right hand, the classic names from Spanish are often used: pulgar, indice, medio, anular. Since the English name is used for the left hand, such as T of thumb, you see the English names for the right hand more and more often on the internet nowadays.

Left hand
T = Thumb
1 = Index finger
2 = Middle finger
3 = Ring finger
4 = Pinky

Right hand (Spanish indication)
P = Pulgar (thumb)
I = Indice (index finger)
M = Medio (middle finger)
A = Anular (ring finger)

Right hand (English indication)

T = Thumb
I = Index finger
M = Middle finger
R = Ring finger

Below is an example of finger picking with a C-chord with English names. In the left version 3 fingers are used, in the right version 4 fingers. Which one suits best is personal and depends a bit on the speed of the song.

Guitar tab finger indication

Below is the same example, but with the classic Spanish PIMA names of the fingers.

Guitar tab finger indication