The Heartwood Beat, Issue 13: Fingerpicking Hand Position

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Fingerpicking Hand Position

This past week I introduced yet another beginner to fingerstyle guitar–that is, picking the guitar with thumb and fingers instead of a flatpick. Every time I teach those first steps–how to orient your picking hand, how to play a simple pattern–I relive the excitement I felt when I first started down that musical path. Learning to play fingerstyle opens so many new doors, and it’s a thrill to watch a student cross the threshold.

Whenever I teach fingerstyle, I start with picking hand position. Good positioning decreases tension in the hand, and improves accuracy and tone. There are several ways of doing it, each with their benifits and drawbacks. I’m going to teach the Classical Position, which I use most of the time. It’s inspired by lessons I took with classical guitar wizard Michael Nicolella.

I hope this discussion will be helpful both for beginners and experienced fingerpickers who want to take a second look at their technique.

Here’s how it works:

1. Hold A Lemon: Imagine you’re holding a lemon with your picking hand. That’s the shape it should be in as you pick. The knuckles are curved slightly, and the hand is relaxed.

2. Tilt Wrist: If you hold your guitar like most rock and folk guitarists, you put your guitar on your right leg when sitting (if you’re right-handed), which orients your guitar neck more or less parallel to the ground. This poses a problem for your picking hand. To get good tone, your fingers need to pluck strings at a nearly perpendicular angle–up toward the sky–but if you keep your wrist straight, they’ll be picking more toward the bridge of the guitar. This will cause what I call “slicing”–picking the strings at an angle that causes wimpy tone and scratchy sounds on the wound strings.

Fix this problem by tilting your hand down. You can do this by getting into normal flatpicking position, and then totally relaxing your wrist (but not your arm), so that your hand droops but your palm’s still facing your guitar.

Note that the ideal ergonomic position for your hand is to have no bend in the wrist, so just tilt a little. If you want to avoid tilting altogether, hold your guitar in classical position when seated (a big change that I’m not willing to make), or stand up and point your guitar neck toward the ceiling, like this: (Suzanne Vega playing my favorite song of hers, “Gypsy”):

3. Make a Cross: To keep your thumb from bumping into your pointing finger (when you play two strings simultaneously, for example), straighten your thumb and point it toward your headstock. Your thumb and first finger should make a cross.

4. Keep Thumb Straight: The most ergonomic way to pick with your thumb is to move the joint where the thumb meets the hand. The other two knuckles should stay straight. It can be harder to use your nail in this position–grow it out longer (yes, fellas, I’m talking to you too) or use a thumbpick.

5. Plant Before You Play: This is a good tip for any fingerpicker. In most fingerstyle songs, your fingers are assigned to particular strings. Before you start playing, plant your fingers on the appropriate strings so that they can feel what they’re about to play. For example, if your pointing finger is picking the 3rd string, slot the fingertip between the 2nd and 3rd strings, and rest it against the 3rd string.

OK, fingerpickers: Repick, and slice no more!

Enjoy the music,


Comments 5

  1. Hi! Thanks for this “lesson” ! it really helped me out. I’ve been trying to improve my picking for quite a while but this really made the differance.

    But I still have one question regarding nr 2 (tilting the wrist). If I play like this (plucking towards the sky) shall I form my nails so that it’s formed like a pick with the top looking like this ^ or shall I keep forming them like I did when I plucked towards the bridge. With the top slightly to the right of the centre of the nail.

    Thank you!

    1. Hey Ludwig,

      Interesting question. I’m a rock climber, so I’m just happy if my nails don’t look like they’ve been run down a cheese grater. But all the fingerpickers I’ve seen who pick with their nails have a natural, rounded shape to them.

  2. Sometimes when I’m explaining it to my students too I talk to them about having their thumb sticking out a little like they were getting ready to hitchhike… which of course only works if they are older. I like your suggestions. I hate standard classical position too. Moving the neck up works great standing up. I do have the kids sometimes move their hand over more like Suzanne Vega’s too. I love watching the kids starting to move into doing more complex finger picking stuff. Have you seen Edgar Cruz’s video of him playing Bohemian Rapsody for fingerstyle guitar? The video comes with tab. Some of my teenaged students have been doing that and that’s a lot of fun too.

    1. Hey Rick,

      I teach a simplified version of the Iron and WIne cover of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” Fingerpicking “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane” or “Let it Be” would be a good start too.


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