The History of Fingerstyle Guitar

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Because notes are struck by individual digits rather than the hand working as a single unit, fingerstyle playing allows the guitarist to perform several musical elements simultaneously. One definition of the technique has been put forward by the Toronto (Canada) Fingerstyle Guitar Association:

Physically, Fingerstyle refers to using each of the right hand fingers independently in order to play the multiple parts of a musical arrangement that would normally be played by several band members. Bass, harmonic accompaniment, melody, and percussion can all be played simultaneously when playing Fingerstyle.

This article provides and interesting read on the history of fingerstyle guitar. 

Steel string acoustic guitars


Fingerpicking (also called thumb picking, alternating bass, or pattern picking) is a term that is used to describe both a playing style and a genre of music. It falls under the “fingerstyle” heading because it is plucked by the fingers, but it is generally used to play a specific type of folk, country-jazz and/or blues music. In this technique, the thumb maintains a steady rhythm, usually playing “alternating bass” patterns on the lower three strings, while the index, or index and middle fingers pick out melody and fill-in notes on the high strings.

The style originated in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as southern African American blues guitarists tried to imitate the popular ragtime piano music of the day, with the guitarist’s thumb functioning as the pianist’s left hand, and the other fingers functioning as the right hand. The first recorded examples were by players such as Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie and Mississippi John Hurt. Some early blues players such as Blind Willie Johnson and Tampa Red added slide guitar techniques. Fingerpicking was soon taken up by country and Western artists such as Sam McGee, Ike Everly (father of The Everly Brothers), Merle Travis and “Thumbs” Carllile. Later Chet Atkins further developed the style.

Most fingerpickers use acoustic guitars, but some, including Merle Travis often played on hollow-body electrics.

Travis picking

This style is commonly played on steel string acoustic guitars. Pattern picking is the use of “preset right-hand pattern[s]” while fingerpicking, with the left hand fingering standard chords.

American primitive guitar

American primitive guitar’ or American Primitivism is a subset of fingerstyle guitar. It originated with John Fahey, whose recordings from the late 1950s to the mid 1960s inspired many guitarists such as Leo Kottke, who made his debut recording of 6 and 12 String Guitar on Fahey’s Takoma label in 1969. American primitive guitar can be characterized by the use of folk music or folk-like material, driving alternating-bass fingerpicking with a good deal of ostinato patterns, and the use of alternative tunings (scordatura) such as open D, open G, drop D and open C.

Ragtime guitar

As mentioned above, fingerpicking was probably originally inspired by ragtime piano. An early master of ragtime guitar was Blind Blake, a popular recording artist of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

In the 1960s, a new generation of guitarists returned to these roots and began to transcribe piano tunes for solo guitar. One of the best known and most talented of these players was Dave Van Ronk who arranged St. Louis Tickle for solo guitar. In 1971, guitarists David Laibman and Eric Schoenberg arranged and recorded Scott Joplin rags and other complex piano arrangements for the LP The New Ragtime Guitar on Folkways Records. This was followed by a Stefan Grossman method book with the same title. A year later Grossman and ED Denson founded Kicking Mule Records a company that recorded scores of LPs of solo ragtime guitar by artists including Grossman, Ton van Bergeyk, Leo Wijnkamp, Duck Baker, Peter Finger, Lasse Johansson and Dale Miller. One of today’s top ragtime stylists is Craig Ventresco, who is best known for playing on the soundtracks of various Terry Zwigoff movies.

“New Age” fingerstyle

In 1976, William Ackerman started Windham Hill Records, which carried on the Takoma tradition of original compositions on solo steel string guitar. However, instead of the folk and blues oriented music of Takoma, including Fahey’s American primitive guitar, the early Windham Hill artists (and others influenced by them) abandoned the steady alternating or monotonic bass in favor of sweet flowing arpeggios and flamenco-inspired percussive techniques. The label’s best selling artist George Winston and others used a similar approach on piano. This music was generally pacific, accessible and expressionistic. Eventually, this music acquired the label of “New Age”, given its widespread use as background music at bookstores, spas and other New Age businesses. The designation has stuck, though it wasn’t a term coined by the company itself.

Folk baroque

A distinctive style to emerge from Britain in the early 1960s, which combined elements of American folk, blues, jazz and ragtime with British traditional music, was what became known as ‘folk baroque’. Pioneered by musicians of the Second British folk revival began their careers in the short lived skiffle craze of the later 1950s and often used American blues, folk and jazz styles, occasionally using open D and G tunings. However, performers like Davy Graham and Martin Carthy attempted to apply these styles to the playing of traditional English modal music. They were soon followed by artists such as Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, who further defined the style. The style these artists developed was particularly notable for the adoption of D-A-D-G-A-D (from lowest to highest), which gave a form of suspended-fourth D chord, neither major or minor, which could be employed as the basis for modal based folk songs. This was combined with a fingerstyle based on Travis picking and a focus on melody, that made it suitable as an accompaniment. Denislow, who coined the phrase ‘folk baroque’ singled out Davy’s recording of traditional English folk song ‘Seven Gypsys’ on Folk, Blues and Beyond (1964) as the beginning of the style. Davy mixed this with Indian, African, American, Celtic and modern and traditional American influences, while Carthy in particular used the tuning in order to replicate the drone common in medieval and folk music played by the thumb on the two lowest strings. The style was further developed by Jansch, who brought a more forceful style of picking and, indirectly, influences from Jazz and Ragtime, leading particularly to more complex baselines. Renbourn built on all these trends and was the artist whose repertoire was most influenced by medieval music.

In the early 1970s the next generation of British artists added new tunings and techniques, reflected in the work of artists like Nick Drake, Tim Buckley and particularly John Martyn, whose Solid Air (1972) set the bar subsequent British acoustic guitarists. Perhaps the most prominent exponent of recent years has been Martin Simpson, whose complex mix of traditional English and American material, together with innovative arrangements and techniques like the use of guitar slides, represents a deliberate attempt to create a unique and personal style. Martin Carthy passed on his guitar style to French guitarist Pierre Bensusan. It was taken up by in Scotland by Dick Gaughan, and by Irish musicians like Paul Brady, Dónal Lunny and Mick Moloney. Carthy also influenced Paul Simon, particularly evident on ‘Scarborough Fair’, which he probably taught to Simon, and a recording of Davy’s ‘Anji’ that appears on Sounds of Silence, and as a result was copied by many subsequent folk guitarists. By the 1970s Americans such as Duck Baker, Eric Schoenberg were arranging solo guitar versions of Celtic dance tunes, slow airs, bagpipe music, and harp pieces by Turlough O’Carolan and earlier harper-composers. Redbourne and Jansch’s complex sounds were also highly influential on Mike Oldfield’s early music. The style also had an impact within electric folk, where, particularly Richard Thompson used the D-A-D-G-A-D tuning, but with a hybrid picking style to produce a similar, but distinctive effect.

Slack-key guitar

Slack-key guitar is a fingerpicked style that originated in Hawaii. The English term is a translation of the Hawaiian kÄ« hō‘alu, which means “loosen the [tuning] key.” Slack key is nearly always played in open or altered tunings–the most common tuning is G-major (DGDGBD), called “taropatch,” though there is a family of major-seventh tunings called “wahine” (Hawaiian for “woman”), as well as tunings designed to get particular effects.

Basic slack-key style, like mainland folk-based fingerstyle, establishes an alternating bass pattern with the thumb and plays the melody line with the fingers on the higher strings. The repertory is rooted in traditional, post-Contact Hawaiian song and dance, but since 1946 (when the first commercial slack key recordings were made) the style has expanded, and some contemporary compositions have a distinctly New Age sound.

Slack key’s older generation included Gabby Pahinui, Leonard Kwan, Sonny Chillingworth and Raymond Kāne. Prominent contemporary players include Keola Beamer, Moses Kahumoku, Ledward Kaapana, Dennis Kamakahi, John Keawe, Ozzie Kotani and Peter Moon and Cyril Pahinui.

Percussive fingerstyle

“Percussive picking” is an emerging term for a style incorporating sharp attacks on the strings, as well as hitting the strings and guitar top with the hand for percussive effect. Flamenco guitarists have been using these techniques for years but the greater resistance of steel strings made a similar approach difficult in fingerstyle until the use of pickups on acoustic guitars became common in the early 1970s. Michael Hedges began to use percussive techniques in the early 1980s. Current percussive fingerstylists include Tommy Emmanuel, Preston Reed, Kaki King, Justin King, Erik Mongrain, Phil Keaggy, Thomas Leeb, Eric Roche, Doyle Dykes, Michael Gulezian, Don Ross, Andy McKee, Antoine Dufour and Newton Faulkner.

Nylon string

Classical guitar fingerstyle

A wide range of musical styles can be played on the classical guitar. The major feature of classical fingerstyle technique is that it has evolved to enable solo rendition of harmony and polyphonic music in much the same manner as the piano can. The thumb, index, middle and ring fingers are all employed for plucking. Chords are often plucked, with strums being reserved for emphasis. The classical guitar excels in such performance and allows a high degree of control over the musical dynamics, texture, volume and timbral characteristics of the guitar. The repertoire is very varied in terms of keys, modes, rhythms and cultural influences. Altered tunings are rarely employed, with the exception of Dropped D.

Flamenco guitar fingerstyle

Flamenco technique is related to classical technique, but with more emphasis on rhythmic drive and volume, and less on dynamic contrast and tone production. Flamenco guitarists prefer keys such as A and E that allow the use of open strings, and typically employ capos where a departure is required. They often strengthen their fingernails artificially.

Some specialized techniques include:

  • Picado: Single-line scale passages performed apoyando but with more attack and articulation.
  • Rasgueado: Strumming typically done by bunching all the right hand fingers and then flicking them out in quick succession to get four superimposed strums. The rasgueado or “rolling” strum is particularly characteristic of the genre. 
  • Alzapua: A thumb technique which has roots in oud plectrum technique. The right hand thumb is used for both single-line notes and strummed across a number of strings. Both are combined in quick succession to give it a unique sound. 
  • Tremolo: Done somewhat differently from the conventional classical guitar tremolo, it is very commonly played with the right hand pattern p-i-a-m-i.

Electric fingerstyle

Fingerstyle jazz guitar

The unaccompanied guitar in jazz is often played in chord-melody style, where the guitarist plays a series of chords with the melody line on top. Fingerstyle, plectrum, or hybrid picking are equally suited to this style.

True fingerstyle jazz guitar, without the use of a plectrum, dates back to occasional use by players like Eddie Lang (1902-1933) and Carl Kress (1907-1965), but the style did not really fully develop before the invention of the electric guitar. George van Eps (1913-1998) was revered for his polyphonic solo guitar playing. Ted Greene and Lenny Breau were other masters.

A prominent master of modern jazz guitar finger playing was Wes Montgomery (1925-1968). He was known for using the fleshy part of his thumb to provide the bass line while strumming chordal or melodic motives with his fingers. This style, while unorthodox, was widely regarded as an innovative method for enhancing the warm tone associated with jazz guitar. Certainly Wes Montgomery’s influence extends to modern polyphonic jazz improvisational methods.

Today, fingerstyle jazz guitar has several proponents, from British player Martin Taylor to the pianistic Jeff Linsky, who freely improvises polyphonically while employing a classical guitar technique. Earl Klugh has also recorded several fingerstyle jazz projects on the solo guitar. Charlie Byrd played fingerstyle in a latin american style on the classical guitar.

There is no single technique of fingerstyle jazz, but players generally avoid the use of capos and altered tunings.

Solid-body electric guitar

The solid-body electric guitar is rarely played fingerstyle, although no great technical challenges are presented. Well-known exponents of fingerstyle electric guitar include Mark Knopfler, Jeff Beck (after years of pick playing), Duane Allman (when playing slide guitar), Robbie Krieger, Lindsey Buckingham, Albert King, Albert Collins, John Lee Hooker and Ry Cooder.