Finger Picking the Guitar

By Warren Yates 

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Learn to play a musical instrument bluegrass style. 


This article is for the musician that already knows the very basic of chords arrangements.   If you are two or three days into it, then this is for you.

But I can't read music!   I can't either.  I have never seen a bluegrass band on stage reading music.  Play what you hear and what your idea of what it should be.  That's what makes it fun.  

 Click here to print off a picture of a guitar neck to make notes on.  You will use this as a tool forever.

If you are looking to learn "finger picking" then here's the place to get started.  This doesn't mean that once that you have read this article you will be able to play anything that you want, but it does mean that you will start to understand the fundamentals of playing.  No two musicians play exactly alike but they can sound very similar.  You and I might not hear the difference, but experienced musicians can.  As long as you are close, then there is a good chance that others will not hear a difference either.  The main thing with playing music is that you enjoy it,  if you're happy then it is good. Ok, here is how!  In order for your fingers to get used to picking certain strings when you need them to, you must learn a roll.  A roll is a pattern of notes that your fingers pick in a certain order using different strings.  It starts somewhere and repeats itself such as 123, 123, 123, 123.  If that were three strings on your guitar and you picked them each with a different finger the same each time, you are using a roll.  Let's try it for real.  Remember that you have six strings and the bottom (smallest) is number 6.  The second is number 5.  The next one up is number 4.    You are going to use your thumb (T) to pick number 4, your pointer finger (P) will pick number 5 and your middle finger (M) will pick number 6.  Now place your pinky against the body of the guitar to hold your hand in place over the strings.  This will help you to hit the strings more accurately.   With the proper finger (on the right hand) and the proper string, play this sequence,  (T)4, (P)5,(M)6.   Now do it again and again and again, 456, 456, 456, 456 until you are sick of it.  It will take quite a bit of practice to do it without going backwards or something.   As you get better you will start to run them together like this 456456456456456456.  There is no beginning or end.  Now you are doing a roll.  Take your left hand and use different chords so that you don't drive your self crazy with the same sound.  Click here to hear an example.  Now that you have heard it in Garth's music "The Dance" go back and listen to "Dust In The Wind" Best of Kansas [1999] and see if you can hear the roll in it.                       Finger Picking The Guitar

Tune with me!

This doesn't sound much like the radio to me.    No, and it won't for a while either, but until your brain can tell your fingers what to do and your fingers can tell your brain what they did, then you need to practice to build your  coordination skills.  You are not just playing and instrument, you are learning to play your body.     


I just don't have it in me.  Give it ten or forty years, you might be surprised.  Think about this, you know more now than you did before you started reading this article.  Just learn some tomorrow and you will be there faster than you think.           


Now I can pick 456 all day with the best of them.  Now what?  I guess we could throw an extra finger in there.  This four finger roll is what will get you going and on the road to learning more of what you hear everyday from the big bands.  It is not necessary to use anymore  fingers than four to pick with.  The pinky will always be a prop for the hand and since there are no more fingers left, four will do just fine.  Here is the roll that you have been waiting for,   (T)1,(R)6,(P)4,(M)5.  In this sequence (R) = ring finger.   Here it is in long hand.  Thumb picks the top string, the ring finger picks the 6th string, the pointer finger picks the 4th string and the middle finger picks the 5th string.  Now just do it again and again.  Make sure that the proper finger is on the proper string.  As you get better (like in two days) run them together so that you can't tell the beginning from the end.  It will be continuous.   When you can "1645" with the best of them, you can start learning to stop the roll, start the roll over and pick octaves even when changing chords.  When your fingers are able to follow the pattern, just keep the motion and change chords.  Now you can pick which ever strings that you want as long as they are in that order.  Move around to different positions and chords and see what you hear.  

Listen to the example above.                        Finger Picking the Guitar


Tablature is a form of sheet music that can be read without knowing how to read music.  It simply shows the string and fret with the order played.  The internet is full of it.


What are octaves.  An octave is two notes ( example C or D) that are the same but 8 notes apart either higher or lower.  When I say to pick octaves I mean pick two strings at the same time that are far away from each other that sound good.  Example; the thumb will pick the top string and at the same time one of the other fingers will pick the 4th, 5th or 6th.   It depends on what you need in your song.  Do it in this order, pick an octave and start the roll on that note.  Pick another octave and roll another section.  Pick an octave every time that you change chords and every time that you need to emphasize a note.  In fact, your continuous roll is not continuous at all, but you had to learn it that way to get you fingers to work when you wanted them to.  Listen to the example above.

I know that this doesn't make much sense, but keep working with it.  Once you learn this four finger roll then you will be able to play about anything that you want.  Your fingers will just go where you want them and you will not even have to think about it.  It will be hard to explain to someone else because it comes so easy.                                                          Finger Picking the 


Another finger picking roll.  Some rolls are much slower and at a different tempo.  For that you might need one like this.  The first note is an octave or two notes (one on the bottom strings and one on the top) where ever it sounds good.  Then pick the others in a pattern of four strings down and back up three.  Like this!  If you have practiced the roll mentioned above then your fingers will naturally fall into place.                              

Other pages of mine that you might find helpful.

Learn to Play the Banjo

Washtub Bass

Play Bluegrass guitar

Learn to Play Bluegrass Fiddle

Learn to play Bluegrass Mandolin

Play Bass Fiddle


Music Tools

Chord note pads.

Use these prints to make notes on your music.

Full Guitar Neck

Guitar Neck Ends

Piano 88 Keys

Piano Large Keys

Banjo Neck

Fiddle Neck

Mandolin Neck

Bass Guitar / Bass Fiddle

Build a Washtub Bass with a fingerboard

Computer Software

The new "Transcribe!" software allows you to slow CDs down to a 1/2, even 1/4 speed, without affecting the pitch.  It will help you to understand what is going on in the music.    Download a Free 30 Day Trial.   

 Click Here and learn more. 

 (c) Copyright 2007  

How to finger pick the guitar

country music style guitar, guitar playing, playing the guitar, finger picking, guitar chords, guitar rolls