Plucking Along: How To Play Guitar With Your Fingers

It’s a given that you’ll need to use the fingers on your fretting hand to play the guitar; however, when it comes to the hand that you usually pick with, you can actually toss that guitar pick away and still learn how to become a fantastic player. The finger-style guitar method is a popular method of playing across many genres of music, it especially necessary for classical guitarists.


Finger-style Basics

When trying to learn how to play guitar without a pick, it’s not always as simple as picking the guitar up and doing so. There are techniques to it and learning them will help you play more efficiently and sound your best. 


Playing Position

Before discussing the picking hand, there are a few aspects of positioning that you will find helpful. First of all, finger-style guitar playing is usually performed sitting down, towards the front of a chair. Doing this will make you lean in slightly above the guitar, giving you full vision of your hands.

Your arm should be resting on the body of the guitar; ideally, your elbow should not be hanging off. If it is hanging off, it will change the right-hand’s angle, which is extremely important in this style of playing. Additionally, your wrist and most of your forearm should be able to hang freely over the strings. They don’t rest anywhere on the body of the guitar, as if you were playing an electric guitar.

These are just some positioning basics that should get you situated. They have helped me get comfortable and improved my hand position, so they should help you too when learning how to play guitar with fingers.

For more tips on how to fix your posture and hand-position, check out this video!

The Right Hand: Naming Your Fingers

Since you won’t be using a conventional pick, your fingers will be your picks, so to speak. When learning how to play guitar with your fingers, it is a good idea to have the fingers on your plucking hand named, for organization purposes and the sake of efficient playing.

Luckily, you do not need to put much thought into this because your fingers have been named for you already. You won’t need to call them Bob, Jim, John, and Tim, or something along those lines. Thankfully, they are also named logically and not some arbitrary and common human names.

The fingers on your “picking” hand will be named as followed:

  • “p” (pulgar) for the thumb

  • “i” (indicio) for the index finger

  • “m” (medio) for the middle finger

  • “a” (anular) for the ring finger

There you have it! From here on out, your fingers are known as PIMA, and this method is used in just about every finger-style guitar instruction. So, what about the little pinky finger? It’s just not used. You can most likely find some application for it, but with formal instruction, I’m confident it won’t show up often, if ever.

The names of the right-hand fingering are derived from the Spanish names of these fingers. This is fitting because some of the greatest finger-style guitarists come from Spain. Ever heard of Andres Segovia and Paco de Lucia, to name a couple of musicians? Another form of finger-style playing is Flamenco, which was also born in Spain. No matter the genre, the masters of showing how to play guitar without a pick were from this beautiful country.

Even my classical guitar is from Spain!


Right-Hand Strokes

As mentioned before, when learning how to play guitar with your fingers, it’s not as simple as just picking up and playing. At least if you want to do it the proper way and sound good. This article will teach you the two strokes that you should use when playing finger-style. These are the rest stroke and the free stroke.

The rest stroke is quite simple. This will be the form you use when learning how to play guitar scales because it is used when you are playing a series of individual notes on the guitar. The tip of your finger touches the string that you are about to play and once you have played the note, it should fall back and rest on the next string.

Also, rather than plucking the string, it is more like you are pressing on it, and that’s what makes it different from the next type of stroke. You will also typically alternate your “i” and “m” fingers when playing notes in succession, which is your index and middle finger, respectively.

The free stroke is the next stroke form that you need to know if you are trying to learn how to play guitar without a pick. This one is a bit more complicated, and it is used to perform things such as chords and arpeggios (which are just broken down chords).

Usually, you will find that your thumb, “P,” should lie around the 5th and 6th strings, whereas the remaining fingers will be on the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd strings. This makes them ready to pluck, and this stroke is how to play guitar without touching other strings.

Fun Fact: Arpeggio is derived from an Italian word that basically means “to play the harp.” When a harp is played, the notes are plucked beautifully. That’s precisely what you’ll be doing here.

On a side note, arpeggios are also very popular on the electric guitar, in the form of sweep picking. However, being lightning fast isn’t a prerequisite to being an arpeggio. The notes of a chord simply just need to be broken apart.

When learning how to play guitar arpeggios, it can be understood by breaking down the most basic chords. Let’s take a look at the simplest one: the C major chord.

The C major chord is in the first bar, in its natural state. It consists of the notes C, E, and G. The following measures show the C chord broken down into individual notes. When someone explains how to play guitar chords for beginners, this is usually the chord that they will start with. This is because its fingering is easy and it doesn’t contain any sharp or flat notes. The same goes for the C major scale.

As you can see from the example, the notes don’t need to be in perfect succession to be an arpeggio. As long as the notes are separate, it’s an arpeggio. You can make it long and across the entire fretboard and you can vary its rhythm.

For everything in this example, you would use the free stroke. You’d pluck that C chord, and then the following arpeggios. When you are trying to learn how to play guitar fingerpicking, you should be careful not to hit other strings by accident. Doing so is sloppy playing, and it won’t sound right.

Starting slow and playing clean is the correct way to learn how to play guitar fast and accurately. The statement sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s entirely true! You must create efficient and correct motor patterns, and speed will follow afterward. A metronome will help you develop these motor patterns and correct any mistakes. From there, you can move the tempo up as long as you’re playing cleanly.


How To Play Guitar With Nails

Having long fingernails can actually be advantageous to finger-style guitarists. While it’s not as useful for those trying to absorb how to play guitar for the first time, it is still helpful information for intermediate and advanced players. While this might not be relevant to you right at this moment, it may help you down the road once you have become more experienced.

Having long nails on the right-hand has one main perk. This benefit of learning how to play guitar with long nails is that the nail can produce sounds that couldn’t otherwise be heard with the skin of the finger. Typically, nails can create a louder and brighter sound with increased clarity.

Your fingernails also need to be maintained in order to produce a good sound. When trying to learn how to play guitar with your fingers, you can’t just let them grow as long as possible and expect to have a nice, professional sound. Therefore, filing and taking care of your nails is part of every serious classical guitarist’s routine.

As mentioned before, if you are just trying to learn how to play guitar fingerpicking, don’t worry about your nails too much. You can absolutely grasp how to play the guitar with your fingers without a set of nails on your right-hand. This extra sound palate is mostly for experienced classical guitarists, especially ones that are performing.

A beginner should focus on the essentials of playing first; however, if you are really curious, you can try to learn how to play guitar with acrylic nails. While I’ve personally never tried this, this is probably as close as you’re going to get to let your real nails grow out. I suppose this is the best way to try out the “long nail experience” without going through the growing process and maintenance.

If you are really interested in and insist on growing and maintaining your nails, you should at least be equipped to do so. This folding nail file was created for classical guitarists and allows them to carry one with them at all times, or store in their guitar cases. You will also have spares in case you break or happen to misplace one.

For advice on how to shape them, you can refer to this video:

Summary & Conclusion

When attempting to familiarize oneself with how to play guitar without a pick, learning proper finger-style technique is crucial. By doing so, you will know the most accessible path of where your fingers should go. This is efficiency, and it will result in cleaner playing with a better sound.

A beginner should start by learning the names of the fingers. The fingers are referred to as PIMA, and this is the bread-and-butter of finger-style playing. When you learn PIMA, you can move on and learn the strokes that you will use when learning how to fingerpick.

There are two main strokes that you need to know about. They are the rest stroke and the free stroke, and they are used in different situations. It is crucial that you get intimate with these two techniques so you can use them at will. It is inevitable that you will have to combine chords, arpeggios, and scalar passages at some point in your guitar career!

If you want the perfect guitar book for fingerstyle technique, I absolutely loved Christopher Parkening’s Guitar Method. Volume 1 of his series focuses on technique and basically everything we’ve talked about in this article, but in greater detail.

Don’t get bogged down about nails if you are a newer player. When starting out with the guitar, learning technique, how to play guitar chords, arpeggios, scales, as well as rhythm and timing will be much more critical during this stage of your playing.

So why should you learn how to play guitar without a pick? On paper, playing guitar with a pick sounds much more straightforward, right? That actually depends on the individual, but in most cases, this is true. However, good things don’t always come easily. By developing fingerpicking skills you can:

  • Play chords, arpeggios, and melodies simultaneously (just like a piano!)

  • Please many people (many genres of finger-style guitar playing is accessible to a vast audience)

  • Give yourself a constant challenge (using your fingers requires much more thought than regular picking; even as you become more experienced, it still common to think about what fingers you are using in order to make playing more effortless)

That being said, perfect practice makes perfect! I am still a student of the guitar myself, and I am just passing down what has helped me. I believe focusing on the guitar essentials are the building blocks of the finer aspects of the guitar.

Ditching the pick for a bit and learning how to play guitar with fingers was a humbling experience. However, it was also rewarding. Keep at it, and you will pluck the rewards from finger-style guitar playing! Pun intended.