Have you always wanted to play guitar?

Learning fingerstyle guitar is a great place to start, as it will help you build a solid foundation for mastering any other style in the future. 

Read on for the basics, and also check out this Fingerstyle Guitar For Beginners class from experienced guitar player Kurt Berg. He’ll show you techniques, exercises, and everything you need to know to start playing your favorite fingerstyle guitar songs.

What is Fingerstyle Guitar?

Fingerstyle guitar is a playing technique in which you pluck the strings with fingers, fingernails, or picks attached to fingers.

Because playing with fingers allows more variation in the notes, fingerstyle guitar players often incorporate more melodies into their songs—with just two hands, they can simultaneously play a bass line, chords, a lead melody, and filler riffs.

What’s the Difference Between Fingerstyle and Fingerpicking?

Fingerpicking is what happens when you play the strings with your fingers in a specific pattern. This can be as simple as holding down a chord with your left hand and using the right hand to pluck strings one by one.

Fingerstyle guitar certainly involves fingerpicking, but it’s so much more than that. Fingerstyle is about orchestrating the music—arranging chords, melodies, and riffs, and figuring out how to play all of them at the same time. 

What Kind of Guitar Should You Use for Fingerstyle?

If you’re just starting out, any guitar you can get your hands on will do, but here are some characteristics to look for when you’re ready to invest in an instrument: 

  • Smaller body: Not only is a smaller guitar simply more comfortable to hold, but it also carries less tension on the strings, so it’s easier to play.
  • High responsiveness: Look for a guitar that produces a lot of sound without too much effort, since you’ll be alternating between notes very quickly.
  • Wider neck: More space between the strings means more room for fingers to move around quickly and a lower chance of hitting strings you didn’t intend to hit.
  • Balanced sound: Avoid guitars that have a bass-heavy sound—you want each note to come through clearly and not get drowned out by other frequencies.

A classic guitar (one with nylon strings) typically checks off all of the above points, but you can certainly learn how to play fingerstyle guitar with a steel stringed acoustic or even electric guitar.

How to Learn Fingerstyle Guitar

There are a few basics to cover, so let’s dive in!

Step 1: Strings

Your guitar has six strings—they’re referred to as the first, second, third string, and so on, starting with the bottom or the thinnest string.

Practice gently plucking each string with the thumb of your right hand until you get familiar with how they sound and how much force they require.

guitar
Berg plays each guitar string and explains what they’re called. 

Step 2: Finger Placement

The neck of your guitar has vertical lines, which divide the neck into frets. You’ll be placing the fingers of your left hand onto these frets to change notes. 

Try placing a finger just behind the metal bar and plucking the string with your right hand to see how the note changes. If it sounds muted or produces a buzzing sound, you’ll need to press harder. 

tune guitar
Berg shows where to place your finger on the frets. 

Just like strings, your fingers also get labels. Most guitar players don’t use the thumb of their left hand, so we start with the index finger and label them one through four. This will come in handy when you’re reading chord diagrams.

Berg with guitar
Berg explains how each finger is labeled. 

On the right side, the thumb usually plucks the sixth and fifth strings, the first finger plucks the fourth string, the second finger plucks the third, and so on. 

Give it a try now so you can get comfortable with playing different strings using different fingers. 

Step 3: Chords

At the core of all fingerstyle guitar songs are chords—or notes that are played simultaneously. You can read, practice, and memorize different chords from chord diagrams. 

Think of the chord diagram as the fretboard of your guitar when it’s standing upright. The vertical lines represent the strings and the horizontal lines represent the frets. The numbers indicate which finger you should use and where you should place it. The Os at the top represent strings you should play and Xs represent strings that remain silent. 

guitar strings
Berg explains how to read a chord diagram. 

Here’s the chord A minor as an example: 

A minor chord
Berg demonstrates how to play the A minor chord. 

Step 4: Reading Tabs

You’ll also need to learn how to read fingerstyle guitar tabs. Tabs are like piano sheet music for guitar—they tell you exactly what note to play.

The lines of each tab represent the six guitar strings, with the first string at the top and the sixth string at the bottom. The numbers represent which fret you need to hold down while you play that string. When two or more numbers are stacked, they should be played simultaneously. 

It’s important to note that tabs don’t indicate timing—you’ll have to determine the length of each note from listening to the song. 

G chord
Berg explains how to read a fingerstyle guitar tab. 

Step 5: Practice  

Now that you know the basics, you should be able to follow along with any fingerstyle guitar lesson, play from tabs, or even improvise. Be sure to practice the exercises in Berg’s fingerstyle guitar class—these are the building blocks you need to eventually play any song you like.

Best of luck on your fingerstyle guitar journey! 

Ready to Start Playing Fingerstyle Guitar? 

Fingerstyle Guitar For Beginners