by Scott Zimmerman

Fingerstyle guitar expands the possibilities of the guitar like no other technique. By using the fingers of the right hand, the guitar becomes a true polyphonic instrument, i.e. an instrument capable of producing multiple independent lines of music. In effect, the guitar becomes an orchestra with the ability to play bass parts, harmonic parts, and melodic parts, as well as, to create different tone colors (like the different instruments in an orchestra) by playing different strings, combinations of strings, by using a fingernail or the pad of the finger, etc.

The possibilities, like an orchestra, are nearly endless. And so, learning how to play fingerstyle guitar is a worthy endeavor for the sheer beauty of sound and unlimited musical potential. Let’s start with five steps to take in order to get started; and then, we will introduce a couple of beginning exercises so that you can start playing right away.

How To Get Started With Fingerstyle Guitar: There are five steps to begin fingerstyle guitar: 1) select correct guitar, 2) identify right hand fingers, 3) locate correct right arm and wrist position,  4) develop free stroke, and 5) practice with a metronome.

Select The Right Guitar

Although you can play fingerstyle guitar on any type of guitar, an acoustic guitar is the guitar of choice for beginners. The resonant sound of the acoustic guitar lends itself well to the sound of fingerstyle guitar. Also, the strings of an acoustic guitar are under more tension than an electric guitar and this will give your right hand fingers a better “foothold” on the strings, which will help in developing fluency in your fingerstyle playing. Note: If you only have an electric guitar, you can still learn fingerstyle playing.

Get To Know Your Right Hand Fingers

Up until this time, if you are new to fingerstyle playing, you have given most of your attention to your left hand, e.g. forming chords, fretting single notes, etc. Most likely, your right hand development has been confined to using a pick and either strumming or plucking the strings. Well, now it is time to give your right hand the attention it deserves! To that end, we will give the thumb and the first three fingers of the right hand their own names.

Whereas the left hand uses numbers to identify which finger to use, the right hand is given letters, i.e. P-I-M-A. The letters stand for the first letter of the word that names each of the fingers – in Spanish. (This style of playing became very popular in Spain and many fingerstyle techniques originated from this area.) P stands for pulgar, or thumb; I stands for indice, or index; M stands for medio, or middle; and A stands for anular, or ring finger. (The fourth finger, or pinky is rarely used, if ever, in most fingerstyle pieces; however, it is given the letter E, and is called mignolo, or little finger.)

Find The Correct Right Arm And Wrist Position

The most important thing to avoid when using the fingerstyle technique is an incorrect right hand wrist position; this can cause injury over the long term. Avoid placing the palm of your hand on the body of the guitar, which will create a severe angle between your hand and arm. The best way to find a natural wrist position is to relax your arm by your side and bring it up to the guitar while keeping the same arm and wrist position. The weight of your arm should be supported by the underside of your forearm resting on the top of the body of the guitar. 

The Free Stroke

The primary stroke used in fingerstyle playing is called the free strike. (The other type of stroke is called the rest stroke.) Each finger has three joints: the tip, the middle, and the knuckle. To make a free stroke, pull your finger towards the palm using the middle joint. The thumb will move down and out, which creates almost a circular motion as it returns to the string.


Think of each finger and thumb as a drumstick. Use a metronome to develop control and accuracy of each of your four “drumsticks”. When learning a right hand pattern play only the open strings while using the metronome (leave the left hand out). This will allow you to concentrate solely on developing the right hand. Once the right hand pattern is mastered, then add in the left hand. (Most tuner apps. have a built in metronome, or you can get a separate metronome app.)

Getting Started Exercises

Let’s get started with a few basic right hand patterns. The first pattern we will use is P-I-M-A. For this pattern, (p) will play the lowest note in the chord, while (i) will play string three, (m) will play string two, and (a) will play string one. For this exercise (i-m-a) will always play the same strings. However, the thumb, (p), will move between strings six, five, and four, depending on which chord we are playing. First, learn the pattern on open strings, then practice with the metronome, and lastly, add in the chords using the left hand. (A metronome setting of 60 bpm is a good starting point.)

Exercise 1: P-I-M-A using open strings

Exercise 2: P-I-M-A playing C and G7 chords.

 Note: The thumb (p) will move between the fifth and sixth strings.

Exercise 3: P-A-M-I using open strings

Note: For this exercise the (a) finger will be used after the thumb (p).

Exercise 4: P-A-M-I playing the C and G7 chords.

Next Steps

After you have mastered the exercises above, add more chords into your progressions. Remember to move the thumb to the lowest bass note of the chord while keeping the finger on the same strings. Also, remember to use the metronome to really lock in the rhythm. Below are two examples of extended chord progressions using these patterns.

Exercise 5: P-I-M-A Chord Progression

Note: When playing the Am chord the thumb will play the open fifth string, and when playing the F chord it will play the fourth string.

Exercise 6: P-A-M-I Chord Progression


Learning fingerstyle playing will allow you to play the guitar in new and interesting ways. It will make it possible to play solo guitar and create the illusion of multiple guitars playing at once, e.g. melody, rhythm, and bass. The best approach to solidly learning fingerstyle guitar is to work in a sequential manner, mastering each exercise or technique before moving on to the next. Be patient and keep at it, and you will slowly and surely develop your ability to play fingerstyle guitar.

About the author 

Scott Zimmerman

Scott Zimmerman is a professional music instructor with over twenty years of guitar performance and teaching experience. Scott holds a Masters Degree in Music Education from Peabody Conservatory.