Finger Style First Steps

Ready to take your first steps with fingerstyle? Learn the basics of this guitar technique and transform your playing!

View the full lesson at Finger Style First Steps | JustinGuitar

Hi. I’ve been practising fingerstyle and mostly getting the hang of it. Playing Everybody Hurts and House of the Rising Sun.

However I’m not sure if I’m getting the finger technique right. I feel I’m playing too quietly. On electric it’s mostly fine (because amp), for an acoustic I’m playing a Yamaha F310P which I have put 11 gauge strings on to make it easier to fret the F (12 gauge is standard). I’m not sure if it’s my technique or the strings. 11s are quieter for sure.

I mostly do a soft pluck, which rings the notes but quietly. If I do more of a pluck (or push), I can ring the note louder, but then it’s harder to move quickly through the strings. I note Justin mentions not to pluck them too much with the extreme examples in his video. However I’m not sure I’m plucking enough. Any guidance or videos that show how hard to pluck the strings?

Welcome to the community @jkahn!

Are you using your nails, or pads?

My impression ( I am a beginner, too) is you want to use the pad of your finger (or pad to nail if using nails) such that it pushes the string down as you pull your finger over it. You want as little side pull as reasonable and no pulling up.

Even with a nail, the nail should drag over the string in a way that pushes it down rather then pulls it or plucks it.

It isn’t really a pluck. If you pluck, you are pulling the string up or sideways, which not only adversely effects the tone, but takes more time and is harder to control.

Think of sliding your finger pad/nail over the top of the string in a way that pushes it down quickly and then releases it so it springs back up.

I am using 13s on acoustic and 10s on electric and I get a nice tone on both this way.

I hope that helps and makes sense.

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I’ve been playing fingerstyle for nearly 10 years now. When I started I cut my nails short and played using just the pads of my fingers and thumb. It worked well for me because I also had a guitar that has good “projection”. It’s a loud guitar.

As I progressed and started playing with others in a jam session, my fingerstyle could rarely be heard when surrounded by people strumming with picks. I think it was Mark Knofler that said a guitar pick is the cheapest amplifier you can get for a guitar.

A couple of years ago I started using a thumb pick and now use that for almost all of my fingerstyle and I use a normal pick and strumming on certain songs.

We recently had a musos gathering at a country town with a pub and when I was with the others at the pub playing and singing, I just used my normal pick / plectrum and played only strumming songs. They fit very well with the vibe of the jam.

Later, at the campsite around the campfire, I played my finger style standards and it sounded very nice. My wife, in particular, likes the finger style because it’s not as loud and intrusive as some strumming can be.

Choosing a guitar with good projection does make a heck of a difference. That’s for when playing unplugged which is most of what I do.

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Thanks for the quick replies guys.

I’m playing with the pads of my fingers. I’ve always kept my nails cut short. Suits my fretting hand well, maybe not the fingerpicking hand!

@Jamolay I said pluck a lot, but when I’m playing softly (and easily) it’s more like how you describe how it should be done. Good to know it’s more of a push than a pluck - which feels more natural tbh but quiet on my guitar. 13s would be a LOT louder than these 11s.

@tony Really useful info for context. Yes I’m comparing to the volume when playing riffs with a pick, which is a LOT louder. Fingerpicking is very mellow by comparison. My guitar had pretty decent projection with 12s (for a cheapie), it’s a lot wimpier now I’ve got 11s on it.

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I think you can still get the sound from it. You may need to adjust how firmly you strike the string. I struggle with the high e string and often am too gentle, really. When I try hard, I can make it ring. One of the (many) difficulties for me is consistency. I find it hard to find and stay at the correct attack and tempo (and string🤦🏼‍♂️) at the same time.

Higher tension also seems to make it harder. Classical guitar tension is far lower than steel strings. So maybe try lower tension strings. I currently am trying Straight up Strings, which are balanced low tension (like the expensive parabolic strings from Santa Cruz, but cheaper) AND I am currently tuning down a half (flat tuning) which takes my 13s to a nice low tension probably closer to 11s. I really enjoy the deeper rich sound and feel of thick but not rock hard strings.

You might peruse a few very beginner classical lessons. I have looked at a few and they spend time early on working on just this quality of striking the string.

Obviously, plenty of people are fingerpicking normal steel strings without my advice, so I think it really boils down to technique and practice, like everything else. I just over think everything and like to share!


Thought I’d provide an update here. I grew my nails a bit, and man, what a difference that made. They’re not even long - really short nails, but nails nonetheless, and it makes a huge difference when fingerpicking.

I still plan to change my acoustic back to 12 gauge strings, and experiment with a few string types to get more projection and better tone. The 11s I have are Martin strings btw, they’re a nice warm tone but quiet when fingerpicking and (ironically) noisy when sliding.

Thanks for the tips guys.

Got to confess here. I’ve been doing finger style for weeks now. Learn’t “House of the Rising Sun” mid-way through grade one and then just continued learning first strumming, then base note and strum and then finally fingerstyle. Just 'cos I think the song sounds so good whatever way you play it. But I guess that’s how learning by playing songs works. The song makes you think that sounds great that way but what if I try playing another way?


I’ve been doing Patterns 1-4 in Folk Fingerstyle | for a few months now, it’s a great course.

I cut my nails every week as I just can’t stand them grow longer than that, so I use the pads of my fingers for fingerpicking. In the second half of the week I notice the nails on my index and middle finger start to make a difference in the sound, but it’s nothing obtrusive.

Last year I bought a Dunlop plastic thumbpick (size L) and a pack of Dunlop .018 metal fingerpicks. I tried them for a few days, but they made my fingers feel much larger and heavier and were generally uncomfortable, making a brittle noise when touching the strings. My preciously developed “technique” (+ I managed to learn not to anchor my little finger against the body of the guitar for convenience) was reduced to nothing in a few seconds :unamused: So I reverted back to my bare fingers for picking.

However, a few days ago I read about Roger McGuinn and there’s this quote from him: "By combining a flat pick with metal finger-picks on my middle and ring fingers, I discovered I could instantly switch from fast single-note runs to banjo rolls and get the best of both worlds.” (The Business of Rock: Insights from Rock Bottom Remainder Celeb Roger McGuinn, co-founder The Byrds | Inkandescent Public Relations) I’ve never played a banjo, but this gave me an idea to give the metal fingerpicks another chance in combination with the flat pick and see what happens.

Another great son for the 6/8 time fingerstyle is Can’t Help Falling in Love by Elvis. Beautiful song and simple open cords.

The finger style pattern towards the end of the discussion notes needs to be fixed to T12321T12321. For some reason, it goes 123456. Quick fix.

@brownjars the 123456 is the count it’s in 6/8 time

Eddy Vedder - long nights ; also very nice, but not for beginners

Metallica - Nothing else matters, Justin has done a tutorial on it, it’s a beautiful song to learn!

That is a very pretty and interesting piece!
I started to learn that my first week after picking up a guitar (about 9 months ago). It has some stretches, hammer-on, pick-off, 16th notes, natural harmonics, and chunks (all plucking fingers picking at once).
I am not there yet!
Wife looks up from her book and complains “you have to keep going” when I get to my stuck spot. :slight_smile:

I have been using medeival to renaissance flute and drum tunes as practice for fingerstyle since before I started Justin’s course. I had to learn notation and translate into tab for myself, but after that it is easier to learn the tune. These kinds of tunes are often fairly simple and seem to be something I can handle with my poor fretting aim and occasional misses with the picking. Many can be played at a very slow tempo and still sound quite nice. - oh, and I am playing these on an electric set up to sound as acoustic as I can get. It doesn’t sound out of place.

Hello @Civillian1 and welcome to the community.

This is a Beginner Grade 2 section.
Cheers :smiley:
| Richard_close2u | JustinGuitar Official Guide & Moderator

@DarrellW re: Nothing Else Matters.
It’s something to aspire to. The first lesson is classed as Grade 3, then the remainder Grades 4 and 5.
Cheers :smiley:
| Richard_close2u | JustinGuitar Official Guide & Moderator

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I guess that I must have been living under a rock for 40 years. Had to Google Tommy Emmanuel as never heard of the guy. He seems like decent player on guitar :slight_smile:

For a D chord what strings am I plucking for the exercise shown below:

@Stuartw Good spot - thank you. It was an error in the layout on the web page. I have now corrected it.
It now shows as:

Hope that helps.

Cheers :smiley:

| Richard_close2u | JustinGuitar Official Guide & Approved Teacher