The thing about finger picking is that you must have the nails on your picking hand longer than the nails on your fretting hand. This leads to two problems: First, people think you're either some sort of cocaine addict or just plain weird. Second, it is very traumatic when you break a nail just before a performance. People such as Chet Atkins would sometimes wear a glove on their right hand, or just be very careful to open car doors and perform other daily tasks with their left hand. (No, this is not the reason Michael Jackson wears a glove on one hand! He can only play one instrument: The tenor pecker.)

Should you break a nail and need a "fix," there is a method whereby you can use ping pong balls, cut them in the shape you require, and glue them to the underside of the broken nail with super glue. Obviously, this is only recommended for adults who understand the risks involved. Some guitarists say that the ping pong replacement actually gives a better tone than did the original nail. I don't agree, but it beats the hell out of trying to use a pick if you're not a pick player.

The way nails are usually cut when playing the finger picking style is as such:
Note: This is described as if the gutar player is right handed, thus his picking hand is the right hand.

The Thumb is usually the longest of all the nails, typically it is used to play the bass lines. The nail usually get to be quite thick as it takes the most abuse. If you are looking at the back of your hand the nail is cut at a greater than 135 degree angle, before 180 obviously. It is cut this way so when your hand rests where it is supposed to, while playing the guitar, that edge of your nail is what you use.
The rest of the fingers are the exact opposite. They are all cut somewhere between 45 degrees and 0 degrees.

The nails do not come to a point, rather they are rounded. It's hard to explain, just imagine that that all your nails peak to one side.

Cutting your fingers in such a way are merely preference. Almost always the left hand nails are cut short so you don't click on your fret board. Some people prefer to have no nails and just pluck harder to get a louder sound. As with most things involving guitar it has a lot to do with the guitarist opinion.

A good example of how the thumb needs to be loud is Malagueña, which is an old Spanish folk song.
There is a solution for those who either don't want to grow or break their nails, or who don't like the feel of keratin scraping steel:


Fingerpicks are a strange merge of guitar pick and thimble. They fit over the fingers of the playing hand and, in combination with a thumb pick, can be used to play fingerstyle without nails.

side view    back view
     \         /  \
    _|         |  |
   |_|         |><|

Thumb pick 
top view
/     \ 
A thumb pick is also useful for people who ordinarily use flatpicks; since it wraps around the thumb, it's a lot harder to drop. It also makes alternate picking and hybrid picking easier, for much the same reason.

Aside from these important cuticle questions, there are other issues involved with finger picking.

If you're a hack like me, the simple thing to do is assign each string to a particular finger and simply rote memorize the picking pattern in question until it is imprinted on your brain. This works for folksy acoustic type rhythms which maintain the same general picking structure as the chords change, but probably doesn't work for fancy electric guitar wailin'. Yes, there are six strings but only five fingers, but rarely does a finger picking pattern require all six, and if it does the thumb can do double duty.

Fingerpicking is a method of using your fingers, instead of a pick, to play the guitar. While a pick is generally much better for strumming chords (as you might do around a campfire), or for playing riffs on a few adjacent strings, fingerpicking can take a simple chord progression and give it a much more melodic feel. At the same time, using five fingers instead of the one pick allows for playing some things that are simply impossible otherwise. Play two strings at the same time without playing any of the ones in between, or move from the 1st to the 6th string without the delay usually required to lift the pick that small distance.

This is important in a variety of styles of music, including (but not limited to):

Some examples of fingerpicking off the top of my head are:

How to fingerpick:

  1. Hold your hand so that your fingers are perpendicular to the strings, pointing downwards. Your thumb should be jutting out the the side, so that your whole hand looks like an upside-down L. This will seem somewhat awkward, but it will help keep your fingers from running into each other.
  2. In general, your ring finger should be used to play the 1st (bottom) string, your middle finger the 2nd string, your index the 3rd, and your thumb should be used for the top three strings. This is more a rule of thumb than an iron law. In some cases, it might be best to use your index finger for the 4th string, if your thumb is alreayd playing the 5th, etc. Once you've got the hang of it, feel free to use your own judgement.
  3. That's it for the basics. Like most of guitar playing, the bulk of it is just practice. Below is a basic pattern for you to work on.

The Travis Pick:
The Travis Pick is a simple pattern that has been used in a variety of songs, including Dust in the Wind by Kansas, Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul and Mary, and Julia, by the Beatles. Hold any chord, and play the pattern. If done right, it will take exactly one measure in 4/4 time. Shorten it to 2/4 (or if there are two chords in a measure) by just playing the first half. Take pretty much any chord progression you already have, and instead of strumming it, try it with the Travis Pick. C Amin D G might be a good one to use at the beginning.

It is shown below in standard tab format, with one difference: Whereas normally the fret to play is listed, here there will be a letter denoting which finger to use. The ring finger is not used. Rythym is shown above the tab.

I=Index Finger
M=Middle Finger

For 4 String Chords, such as D:

     1    +    2    +    3    +    4    +


For 5 String Chords, such as C and A:

     1    +    2    +    3    +    4    +


For 6 String Chords, such as G and E:

     1    +    2    +    3    +    4    +

That's it!

Harken, people who are interested in fingerpicking but without an interest in nail cultivation!

It is not strictly necessary to play fingerstyle with either your nails or fingerpicks- one can actually use the plain skin on your fingers to go at the strings. Just hover your right hand over the strings, as you normally would in fingerpicking... Now just pluck it with your fingertips and the side of your thumb. Wasn't too hard, was it?

1: You don't have to grow your nails long on one hand and short on the other, thus not looking like the coke-sniffing gimp mentioned earlier in the node.
2: You have a lot more control over the attack and tone you put into playing the strings, which was the main deciding point for myself. You can either gently pick the strings over the soundhole or even right at the neck to produce a more bassy, mellow sound, or really dig your fingers underneath the strings like a slap bass player would.

1: Volume is going to take a distinct hit. If you're playing with a friend and he's playing with his nails, you're going to have to dig into those strings with your raw, virgin finger-flesh extra hard.
2: Some say that the differing angles needed to dig your fingertips into the strings as opposed to your nails cause your right hand technique to suffer. I find this is most accurate for players of classical guitar, where excellent right-hand technique is more than necessary.

So all you fingerpickers out there, trying to learn the subtle arts of making your strings quiver in vibrating joy, do not worry if you have worse cuticle care standards than a guest on the Jerry Springer show. There is another way.

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