Classical Guitar Technique Tips for Fingerstyle Players

“Technique” is how we use our hands on the guitar. It includes form, positioning, and movement. Here are a few tips for fingerstyle guitar players from the classical guitar world.

For most fingerstyle (fingerpicking) guitarists, technique has not been a formal study. As a traditional music form, most fingerstyle players are self-taught.

As with anything self-taught, we come to do things in ways that are not the best. We form habits that could be better. This is normal.

Luckily, we can come to recognize the areas for improvement in our playing.

Don’t Copy Other Players’ Finger-Picking Technique

As said, most fingerstyle (mainly acoustic guitar players) and fingerpicking guitar players are self-taught. This includes the famous ones.

There is a big difference between fingerstyle and classical guitar technique.

The icons of the fingerstyle world are usually successful despite their guitar technique. Not because of it. They have worked with the poor mechanics and suboptimal movement patterns (fingerpicking patterns). They have built fans and admirers, but this does not mean they are playing guitar as well as they could.

So copying someone’s style may work against you. If you are interested in playing your best in the least time possible, there are better ways.

Many of the elements you would tend to copy may not have been intentionally chosen. Instead, they may consider it a fault or weakness in their playing. Or it may be that they copied someone else’s self-taught style.

Don’t Brace the Little Finger

Holding the little finger on the top of the guitar restricts finger movement. It creates unneeded tension in the picking hand. When we “brace” the pinky finger, we are likely to tire out faster. We may cramp, or experience pain.

It is better to let the little finger float freely. It can follow the movements of the ring finger.

We may feel more stable when bracing the little finger. But this is false security. We usually do this as beginners, then become accustomed to it as we progress.

It’s better to resist the urge to brace and instead become comfortable with a floating picking hand. We may miss more notes at first. But in the long run we will be able to play guitar more fluidly.

Avoid Sharp Angles

Avoid sharp angles in your wrists. These not only restrict movement in the fingers. Sharp angles can also lead to injury.

This may happen if the guitar is too low and we play a bar chord, for example.

Consider the range of movement of the wrists, from full flexed (curled) to fully extended (back). And also from side to side. Find the midpoint in these ranges.

From straight (in line with the forearm) to the midpoint of the range – this is the safest hand position for the wrists. Depending on the music, we may move within and beyond this range. But ideally we don’t reach the extremes of the range of movement.

Move from the Big Knuckle

Most self-taught players pull up on the strings with the right-hand fingers. This is to pluck the strings.

In classical guitar technique, we push through the string to play it. This is not only easier in the picking hand. It also sounds better. It activates the string in a circular motion, instead of back-and-forth. It creates a warmer tone quality (sound). Pulling (snagging) the string creates a thinner, twangier sound.

For more on right-hand technique, See the tutorial: How to Learn Classical Guitar Right-Hand Technique

Use Slow Practice for Fingerstyle Mastery

To improve at any style of guitar, it helps to be intentional. When we set challenges for ourselves then work to meet them, we improve.

One way to get constantly better at guitar is to slow down. The more control and intention we bring to our playing, the better it will sound at top speed.

We want to play fast. This is normal. But often the biggest obstacle to this is excess tension and sloppy playing. We can reduce both of these with slow practice.

Instead of playing “all out” all the time, instead, choose something specific and play it to a high level. Work to play it cleanly, without mistakes, and with ease and grace.

Then, ramp up the speed, maintaining these qualities.

Any Small Improvement in Guitar Technique or Practice Will Compound Over Time

If you decide to release a braced little finger, avoid extreme angles or any other of these fingerpicking technique tips, the results will compound over time.

You’ll avoid common injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive stress syndrome. You’ll enjoy practice sessions more because you’ll be more engaged with the fine details of your work.

In this way, you’ll continue to improve your guitar skills. You’ll break through the “glass ceiling” that many self-taught players hit. You’ll see constant progress and discover new and useful techniques and practice strategies.

If you want to build a foundation of good guitar technique in your playing, consider joining The Woodshed® Classical Guitar Program. Even if classical music pieces are not your thing, classical guitar technique makes playing any style or genre of music better. Click Here to learn more about it.

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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