‘Fingerstyle’ Guitar is the technique of playing the guitar by plucking the strings directly with the fingertips, fingernails, or picks attached to fingers, as opposed to ‘Flatpicking’ (picking individual notes with a single plectrum called a ‘flatpick’) or strumming all the strings of the instrument in chords. The term is often used synonymously with ‘Fingerpicking’.
Classical ‘Fingerstyle’ Guitar
A wide range of musical styles can be played on the classical guitar. The major feature of classical ‘Fingerstyle’ technique is that it has evolved to enable solo rendition of harmony and polyphonic music in much the same manner as the piano can.
The thumb, index, middle and ring fingers are all employed for plucking the strings. Chords are often plucked, with strums being reserved for emphasis. The classical guitar excels in such performance and allows a high degree of control over the musical dynamics, texture, volume and timbral characteristics of the guitar. The repertoire is very varied in terms of keys, modes, rhythms and cultural influences. Altered tunings are rarely employed, with the exception of Dropped D.
The unaccompanied guitar in jazz is often played in chord-melody style, where the guitarist plays a series of chords with the melody line on top. True fingerstyle jazz guitar, without the use of a plectrum, dates back to occasional use by players like Eddie Lang (1902-1933) and Carl Kress (1907-1965), but the style did not really fully develop before the invention of the electric guitar. George van Eps (1913-1998) was revered for his polyphonic solo guitar playing. Ted Greene and Lenny Breau were other masters.
A prominent master of modern jazz guitar finger playing was Wes Montgomery (1925-1968). He was known for using the fleshy part of his thumb to provide the bass line while strumming chordal or melodic motives with his fingers. This style, while unorthodox, was widely regarded as an innovative method for enhancing the warm tone associated with jazz guitar. Certainly Wes Montgomery’s influence extends to modern polyphonic jazz improvisational methods.
Today, ‘Fingerstyle’ jazz guitar has several proponents, from British player Martin Taylor to the pianistic Jeff Linsky, who freely improvises polyphonically while employing a classical guitar technique. Ken Hatfield and Joe Pass have been mentioned in previous posts. Earl Klugh has also recorded several fingerstyle jazz projects on the solo guitar. Charlie Byrd played fingerstyle in a latin american style on the classical guitar.
There is no single technique of fingerstyle jazz, but players generally avoid the use of capos and altered tunings.
‘Fingerpicking’ (also called thumb picking, alternating bass, or pattern picking) is a term that is used to describe both a playing style and a genre of music. It falls under the “Fingerstyle” heading because it is plucked by the fingers, but it is generally used to play a specific type of folk, country-jazz and/or blues music.
In this technique, the thumb maintains a steady rhythm, usually playing “alternating bass” patterns on the lower three strings, while the index, or index and middle fingers pick out melody and fill-in notes on the high strings.
The style originated in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as southern African-American blues guitarists tried to imitate the popular ragtime piano music of the day, with the guitarist’s thumb functioning as the pianist’s left hand, and the other fingers functioning as the right hand. The first recorded examples were by players such as Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy (see previous post), Memphis Minnie and Mississippi John Hurt. Some early blues players such as Blind Willie Johnson and Tampa Red added slide guitar techniques. Fingerpicking was soon taken up by country and Western artists such as Sam McGee, Ike Everly (father of The Everly Brothers), Merle Travis and “Thumbs” Carllile. Later Chet Atkins further developed the style.
Most fingerpickers use acoustic guitars, but some, including Merle Travis often played on hollow-body electrics.
Because notes are struck by individual digits rather than the hand working as a single unit, ‘Fingerstyle’ playing allows the guitarist to perform several musical elements simultaneously.
As you can see ‘Fingerstyle’ Guitar is a very versatile style of guitar playing. If you are interested in taking lessons please go to the GUITAR LESSONS section.