Guitarist Cameron Mizell

New York Guitarist & Composer

The website of New York Guitarist Cameron Mizell.

Finger Picking Exercises for Guitar


For today's lesson we'll go over some exercises to strengthen your finger picking, and perhaps expand your vocabulary with some new patterns.

Finger Picking Basics

Finger picking is used by classical and flamenco guitarists who have developed a notation and vocabulary for a variety of right hand techniques. Average acoustic guitar players, such as singer-songwriters, or even the vast majority of gigs I play, only require the most basic techniques. Those are:

Rest Strokes: Plucking the string and letting your finger or thumb come to a rest on the adjacent string. For example, pluck the B string with your first finger and let it come to a stop against the G string. This helps accent a particular note.

Free Strokes: Plucking a string without touching any other strings. This is the most common way to finger pick. You can use free strokes on all the exercises below and get a great sound.

Finger Markings: The fingers of your right hand (or plucking hand) are identified with the first letter of their Spanish names:

  • p = Thumb
  • i = Index
  • m = Middle
  • a = Ring

Fingernails: While they're not necessary to play finger style guitar, well maintained fingernails will make your tone louder, brighter, and more expressive. Most well known guitarists, especially those that finger pick often, use their fingernails. Just like a guitar pick, you can adjust your attack to change the tone. Plucking the strings with the flesh of your fingertips only allows the option of picking hard or soft.

If you choose not to use your fingernails, it's not a big deal, but your fingertips will need to build callusesPracticing these exercises will probably hurt at first. Give it time, don't do too much at once, and let your fingers toughen up.

Finger Picking Exercises

Use this video to hear and see each of the below exercises performed. Click here to download a PDF of the exercises.

Exercise A

This is a very common pattern. It is similar to a classical piano technique you've heard time and time again called Alberti bass, which is simply a way to break up a chord in the left hand accompaniment of a melody. Many finger picking patterns on guitar serve the same purpose.

If you have trouble with it, start with just your thumb. It plays on ever quarter note alternating strings. The thumb playing quarter notes is actually quite typical, as you'll see in the other examples.

Exercise B

Exercise B is a variation on Exercise A. This time your thumb covers more ground, and your index and middle fingers play the B and E strings respectively.

Exercise C

n this pattern, the thumb only plays on beat one while the rest of your fingers get a work out. This pattern sounds great slow and fast. Try it slow at first, adding emphasis to the notes on the B and E strings and allowing the natural arc of the line to dictate the dynamics. As you speed it up, you'll find the emphasis is best felt on beats 1 and 3.

Exercise D

Exercise D introduces a technique sometimes called "pinching," where you pluck with your thumb and finger at the same time. This particular pattern is similar to the intro to "Dust In The Wind" by Kansas (though the chords in this example are different).

Once again, your thumb is playing quarter notes. Start with just the thumb, and then add the other fingers.

Exercise E

Here is another example using pinching, except this time it happens on beat 2. The thumb does the same thing as Exercise E, but the fingers have a more complex pattern.

Exercise F

This exercise is an introduction to the great Chet Atkins style of fingerpicking. The thumb plays eighth notes while the finger play a syncopated rhythm. Once you get the hang of it, try alternating the bass note between G and D.

Exercise G

Finally, Exercise G is a true test of finger dexterity! This is the pattern used in Heitor Villa-Lobos' "Etude 1," a veritable rite of passage for classical guitarists. Start slow, use a metronome, and gradually increase the speed.

If you found this post helpful, please see my other guitar and mandolin lessons on this blog. I am also available for private guitar and mandolin lessons in NYC or via Skype.

The lessons on my website will always be free, but if the information here has helped you or your students, please consider making a donation. Your contribution helps me afford more time to create more free lessons for this website.