Last updated on January 13th, 2024
If you’ve ever tried learning a song that uses a fingerpicking method on guitar, you’ll often see a repeating pattern in your picking hand as the chords change. Picking patterns are used to create rhythm and interest when playing a chord progression.
This post covers common fingerpicking patterns that you can apply over different chords and help you develop your technique. We’ll also look at fingerpicking exercises that you can work on to improve your skills. If you are still in the beginning stages of this style of playing, I would check out this post on how to finger pick on guitar (including exercises).
Let’s get started by reviewing the symbols used for fingerpicking.
Fingerpicking symbols explained
For the fingerpicking examples used in this post, we’ll use the following symbols for your picking hand:
P : thumb finger
i: pointer finger
m: middle finger
a: ring finger
c: pinky finger
You can check this post for more in depth information about guitar notation symbols.
Chords for the fingerpicking pattern examples
Here below are the chords we’ll be using for the fingerpicking examples in this post including the progression below the charts.
I suggest repeating every example or exercise below to get a better idea of the overall progression and transitions between chords.
We’ll start with easy picking patterns and gradually increase the difficulty.
Fingerpicking pattern 1: simple arpeggio
For the first picking pattern example, we outline each chord by playing low to high notes. We sometimes skip strings in between a chord shape to end the pattern on the highest note. This is a simple arpeggio, which means to break up the notes of a chord instead of playing them all at once.
Fingerpicking pattern 2: Arpeggio up and down
The next step is to play the chord arpeggio up then down. The rhythm can vary as you come back down the chord but here is one way that works well in 4/4 time.
Fingerpicking pattern 3: Mixed arpeggio directions
At this point, we start to mix up the directions for the chord arpeggio. In this pattern, we go up on beats 1 and 2 then mix up the directions on beats 3 and 4.
Here is another example of mixing arpeggio directions. In this pattern, we switch the direction on the 2nd and 3rd note but keep the pattern the same as the previous example.
Fingerpicking pattern 4: Using two notes on a beat
For this pattern, we are playing two notes on one beat. You’ll be picking the bass note and highest note of the chord shape to start each measure and then finishing from low to high, similar to pattern 1.
This is another example of playing two notes on a beat and then adding more notes to beats 3 and 4.
Fingerpicking pattern 5: Using more than 2 fingers on a beat
This fingerpicking makes the chord sound fuller by using fingers 1, 2, 3, and 4 at once. Your thumb (finger 1) moves down while your pointer, middle and ring finger move up at the same time.
Fingerpicking pattern 6: Repeating bass (Travis picking)
This is a popular fingerpicking pattern that includes a repeating bass note on beats 1 and 3 while the arpeggio continues to alternate on the higher strings. This was a characteristic style of picking by guitarist Merle Travis and is often referred to as Travis picking.
Here is another example of using a repeating bass pattern.
Creating sequences within a picking pattern
Another to consider when playing picking patterns is to create sequences to avoid sounding too repetitive. The sustaining note in measure two creates some space within the pattern. The sequence from measures 1 to 2 is repeated in measures 3 and 4.
Fingerpicking exercise 1 – Alternating fingers, same bass note
The following exercises will help you to develop your technique and create more independence for each finger. I’ll be using an E minor chord for these exercises but you can apply this to other chords using 6 strings.
In this first picking exercise, the bass note stays the same while fingers 2, 3, and 4 change above. You go from low to high then back down from strings 4 to 2 and then do the same pattern with strings 3 to 1 as you’ll see below.
Fingerpicking exercise 2 – Moving bass notes
In this 2nd picking exercise, your thumb moves on strings 6, 5, and 4 while your other fingers keep the same pattern.
Fingerpicking exercise 3 – String skipping
This exercise helps you to practice skipping between strings. You’ll see skips from strings 5 to 3, 4 to 2, and 3.
Fingerpicking exercise 4 – Combining movements
In this exercise, we are combining movements between the thumb and other fingers. The thumb alternates between the 6th and 5th string while your other fingers also continue to move around the top strings.
Fingerpicking exercise 5 – Using all picking fingers
Picking exercise 5 finally includes using the pinky which is not often used. However, an exercise like this can help you strengthen the weakest finger to pick. This exercise also makes you use your pinky when playing multiple notes at once.
Fingerpicking exercise 6 – String skipping using all fingers
Lastly, this exercise helps you work on skipping strings including all your fingers. The pattern is strings 6 to 4, 5 to 3, 4 to 2, and 3 to 1. Then you play the same skipping pattern from high to low.
For more advanced picking patterns, check out how to play Travis picking patterns on guitar.
Learning guitar fingerpicking patterns is a great way to create interesting rhythms for your chords. We can create these picking patterns using the notes within a shape of a chord.
Use the examples and exercises in this post over different chords and in chord progressions. I also recommend playing these pattern ideas over different time signatures and experimenting to see what you like best. If you need help developing this technique, here are 7 ways to get better at finger picking.
To learn more, try out these warm up exercises to improve your guitar playing.
All the best,
JG Music Lessons