There really is no absolute in terms of whether to learn fingerstyle or pick style first. However, if you are a beginner, at first, you will need to spend most of your time developing your left hand by playing chords and single note melodies. The right hand can then be more fully developed later. The “key” in the beginning is to stay motivated and positive about your playing while you are developing the basic skills that will allow you to eventually reach your musical goals. One pitfall for many guitar “newbies” is to set expectations too high, or to try and “cram” the learning into a short amount of time. This is a recipe for frustration and failure. And so, in order to avoid this, let’s take a look at the general stages of what to expect and what to focus on as you start playing guitar, and how fingerstyle playing fits into the “big picture” of guitar learning.
Should I Learn Fingerstyle Guitar First? It is not necessary to learn fingerstyle playing first. Based on what feels most natural, use either your fingers or a pick while you learn the basic skills of chord playing and single-string playing.
The Two Primary Stages Of Beginning Guitar
Stage One: To Pick Or Pluck – Use What Feels The Most Natural
As a beginner, you will have the most success if you go with your natural abilities right from the start. This includes whether to use your fingers or a pick. Most of my beginning students find it easier to use either their thumb or finger to sound the strings because they can “feel” the strings. The pick can create a barrier to this sense of feel and can make it difficult to find the strings you want to pluck. You can expect to get a small blister on your thumb from strumming the chords if you overdo it. This is common; however, it will heal quickly and then you will have a good callus and it will no longer be uncomfortable. See our article here for tips on how to get your fingers conditioned for playing.
During stage one, your primary focus will be on the left hand. You will want to spend your practice time learning basic chords and single-string playing, e.g. scales. See our article here for beginning scale and chord exercises. This is a strategy of divide and conquer. Think of your left and right-hand development as separate skill sets, and focus on the left-hand skills first; then, move on to the right hand.
Stage Two: Specialization
After you have developed the basic skills of chord and single string playing, it is time to choose some more specific goals. One way of deciding on what to learn next is to let your musical interest be your guide. For example, if you want to play acoustic music, then learning about fingerstyle is a good next step. See here for information on beginning fingerstyle. If you are more interested in rock or blues, developing your picking technique is the next step. Either way, overtime, you will develop both fingerstyle and picking techniques. At this point, it is just a matter of choosing which you prefer to learn first.
A Hybrid Approach
I like to introduce both right hand techniques, i.e using a pick and fingers, early for beginning guitarists. (Sometimes, if one way of playing becomes too familiar, it can be hard to introduce the other technique, because it feels like you are going backwards in your playing ability.) One way to introduce yourself to both techniques is to use a hybrid approach. For example, when you are learning and practicing chords, use a pick to strum the chords.
It is much easier to strum chords than pick individual strings when you are first starting out because you do not have to be as selective with pick placement, as when playing single strings. While learning the basic chord shapes, you can simultaneously practice single string playing by using scales. Using your thumb and/or fingers to play scales may not only be easier than using a pick, it will lay the foundation for further development later for fingerstyle technique. As mentioned above, in the beginning, use what is most comfortable and natural for playing scales, i.e. thumb or fingers.
Methods For Plucking Single Strings
Method 1: Using Thumb
Using the thumb is perhaps the most natural and most common beginning fingerstyle technique. Try resting your fingertips on either the wood of the guitar below the strings; this will give your hand support so that your thumb can freely move. (Caution: If you choose to strum chords with your thumb, remember to take breaks to avoid blistering your thumb.)
Method 2: Using Index Finger
This method is less intuitive but yields a very nice tone and allows for more subtle responses to the string than the thumb. Start by resting your thumb on the wood above the strings or on the sixth string (the thick string). Then, pull your index finger up toward the palm of your hand as you pluck the string. You will be sounding the string from below and pulling through the string in an upward manner. Because the fingertip is very sensitive, you will be able to “feel” each string and find the correct string to pluck.
Fingerstyle playing is a beautiful way to play the guitar. However, learning beginning left hand technique and an advanced right hand technique at the same time can be overwhelming and may lead to frustration and failure. You will have time later to develop the more advanced fingerstyle technique after you have acquired the basics of the left hand. Don’t worry that you may be “harming” your guitar playing by not learning fingerstyle first- you won’t! The most important thing is to keep playing so that you will naturally progress on the instrument. As long as you don’t give up, you will be able to learn many techniques in due time.