Fingerstyle Guitar vs. Classical Guitar

In the world of guitar, certain phrases have become a sort of “inside jargon”. On the surface, they imply something. But unless we’re familiar with the “scene” we may not understand the nuances.

Among these are the terms “classical” and “fingerstyle”. “Fingerpicking” could also fit. So let’s explore these terms and to what (in general) they refer.

What is Fingerstyle Guitar

If we look at the word “fingerstyle”, it means that we pluck the strings with our fingers, instead of a pick (plectrum).  We can use a classical or acoustic guitar for fingerstyle playing.

By this definition, classical guitar is included within “fingerstyle”. But if we look closer we find other differences.

Common Traits of Fingerstyle Guitar

When we explore fingerpicking style and guitarists who play fingerstyle, we find certain traits.

The traits below are sweeping generalizations, and outliers do exist. But stereotypes serve a use, and these are some for fingerstyle playing:

Steel-string acoustic guitar – Most self-identified fingerstyle guitarists choose to play on steel-string guitar. You might have guitar players who play fingerstyle on electric guitar, but very rarely.

Alternate Tunings – Though not always, fingerstyle guitarists frequently use non-standard tunings, as well as capos. Combining fingerpicking patterns in the right hand (picking hand) with open-strings as drones (notes that constantly overring) can give the music a full, rich texture.

Melody/accompaniment – Many fingerstyle guitarists choose to play a vocal-like melody, with accompaniment. Song-forms usually hold to verse-chorus patterns, much like pop songs.

Music self-composed or arranged – Most prominent fingerstyle guitarists tend to play their own compositions, mixed with arrangements of popular tunes. Players often prefer to play by ear or use TABs, as opposed to musical notation.

Self-Taught – Fingerstyle is most often self-taught. There is no consensus around what makes “good technique”. Any hand position (for both the left and right hand), or use of the body is generally accepted. While some players do take acoustic guitar lessons with others who play fingerstyle, those teachers are likely self-taught.

Doug Young Also Said it Well…

In an online guitar forum, Doug Young wrote,

“This is one of those confusing terms, where the word for a technique has come to mean a musical style. We have much the same situation with ”flatpicking“ where if you take it literally, then anyone who plays with a flat pick (rock players, jazz players, etc) would be flatpicking.
But instead it usually means a specific style of music, that you sort of know when you hear it. ”Fingerstyle“ usually means playing on a steel string guitar, and there’s a tendency to use or at least accept altered tunings (by no means universal), and to play one’s own compositions (again, not at all universal).
Fingerstyle is often thought of as being influenced by folk music, pop music, and often gets labeled ”new age“ because of some of the Windham Hill pioneers in ”fingerstyle“.
To make it more confusing, there are ”fingerpickers“ who vehemently resist the name ”fingerstyle“, even tho they share a lot in common, tho ”fingerpickers“ usually fall more into the Chet Atkins camp, or country blues, or…
And of course, you have ”fingerstyle“ players like Muriel Anderson, who mostly plays a classical guitar, and steel string players like Peppino d’Agostino, and Peter Finger who sometimes play classical on a steel string. Or Michael Chapdelaine, a classical guitar professor, who most often plays on a steel string, and might play Bach one minute and Hang On Sloopy the next.”

Examples of Fingerstyle Guitar


What is Classical Guitar

The term “classical guitar” can refer to a specific instrument, a style of playing, or a course of study. People often associate “classical guitar” with Spanish Guitar Music.

Common Traits of Classical Guitar

Below are some common traits of classical guitar. There will be exceptions, but these traits hold true the large majority of the time.

Focus on technique – While other styles may have other primary foci, those learning classical guitar spend consistent practice time on the “how” of playing, such as positioning the body of the guitar. Fine details of movement and position in both the left hand and right hand are common practice areas.

Read music – Classical guitar is most commonly played using composed music written in standard musical notation. This is in contrast with improvised music or self-composed music. (Again, some classical guitarists also compose, but these are few.)

Goals of music – Clean execution and premeditated phrasing are common goals of classical players.

Polyphonic (multiple musical voices at once) – Classical guitar music often has melody, bass notes, and accompaniment. This creates rich textures and complex technical requirements, which is why it helps to…

Study with a teacher – Because of the focus on technique and musical literacy, classical guitarists often study with teachers who have in turn studied with teachers. These could be in-person guitar lessons, or via video or online program.

Nylon-stringed Instrument – Classical guitars (the instrument) usually use nylon strings for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd strings. The bass strings are nylon with a metal coating. These instruments can be easily recognized because the treble strings look like fishing line.

Examples of Classical Guitar


Which is Better?

Music is a personal journey, and there are many roads to a fulfilling and rewarding musical life. Personal tastes are subjective.

That said, when it comes to the physical act of playing solo guitar, the classical guitar offers a straighter road to mastery. Because of the focus on movement and position, classical guitar technique may offer reduced chances of injury, including repetitive stress injuries (RSI).

For this reason, classical technique can benefit guitar players of every playing style and genre.

To quote Doug Young again:

“The main thing is… the techniques are very similar, with the classical approach tending to be a little more organized and methodical, so learn from both, and play what you like!”

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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