Be A One Mand Orchestra with Fingerstyle Playing

Spanish Madness: A Taste of Classical-Style Fingerpicking
by David Isaacs

Imagine a reality where you have 6 hands, one for fretting and five for holding a pick. The musical possibilities would be endlessly astounding. Well, my friend, it is my infinite pleasure to inform you that with a little bit of guitar wizardry, it can be done.

Fingerstyle guitar can open an entire new world for pick-style players. If you’re used to only playing with a pick, the realization that you could potentially have four or five picks to use at once is a huge revelation! And while mastering fingerstyle is a serious commitment, you can learn the basics very easily. And luckily for us, the basics are enough to inspire slack-jawed awe in friends and family. This style is that powerful.

Looking to classical guitar as an introduction is a great place to start. Unlike in folk, blues, rock, and contemporary instrumental styles, classical playing has a standard approach that has been developed and refined over hundreds of years. That’s no put-down of the great fingerstylists in other genres. Groundbreaking players like Chet Atkins, Leo Kottke, Michael Hedges, and Jamplay instructors Preston Reed and Kaki King have expanded the boundaries of what you can do with an acoustic guitar. But there are as many approaches to fingerstyle as there are players, so starting with a standardized technique makes a lot of sense. You can then adapt your playing style as you progress.

In this installment of Weekend Warrior, you’re going to learn a handful of patterns that will not only introduce you to classical technique, but that can also be applied to other styles of music. We’re going to apply these patterns to an ancient chord progression that has been used as the basis for guitar compositions for hundreds of years: “La Folia de España”, or “Spanish Madness.” Here’s the chord sequence:

The Chords

All our examples will follow this same chord pattern, but each one will use a different combination of picking hand fingers. In classical guitar notation, we use letters that represent each finger:

p = thumb

i = index

m = middle

a = ring

To get started, let’s get comfortable with the playing position. A good basic rule to start with is to assign the index, middle, and ring fingers (i, m, and a) to the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st strings respectively. Bring these three fingers to the three open treble strings, and let the thumb rest on the 4th string. The fingers should curl, with all the knuckles bent and the fingertips pointing at the face of the guitar. Don’t pluck or apply any pressure yet…just let the fingers rest on the strings and feel how they respond to the weight of your hand. Your thumb should point up the neck, and the side of the thumb can rest comfortably on any of the three bass strings (6, 5, and 4). Bring the thumb to the 6th string, keeping the other fingers in contact with the treble strings. Pluck the string by lightly pushing the thumb towards the floor, brushing past the string. Then pluck the trebles one at a time by lightly pulling the fingertips in towards the face of the guitar. Repeat the sequence starting with the thumb on the A string and then the D string:

Open Strings

Notice how the thumb moves up and down, while the fingers move in and out. Keep the motions small and your hand relaxed. Classical players generally grow out the right hand nails, and take great care to keep them shaped and polished. You don’t need nails to play these exercises, but they do help focus the tone and give you a consistent point to bring to the string. If your nails are long enough that you can feel them touching the strings, it’s worth filing them to a smooth crescent that extends just beyond the fingertip: you don’t need claws! Whether you’re using nails or bare fingers, though, the idea is to allow the string to glide easily across the nail or fingertip.

Now let’s move into our chord pattern. In this first example, we’ll use the thumb and two fingers, index and middle:

Exercise 1

In this style of picking, your thumb generally plays the bass parts. Notice how the use of the inverted G/B chord in measures 4 and 6 gives us a nice smooth bass line connecting the A minor and C chords. Again, keep your movements small and economical. Repeat the chord sequence slowly and deliberately until both hands are confident. Don’t try to play loud; concentrate on creating a clean, warm sound.

Now let’s take a look at example 2:

Exercise 2

In this pattern, we’ll use the thumb on two different strings, alternating back and forth, while the thumb notes alternate with the following fingers: thumb-finger-thumb-finger. This pattern is also common in folk and blues, where it’s often referred to as a “folk pick” or “Travis pick.” The alternating thumb bass is the heart of this picking style.

Take a look at Eve Goldberg’s fingerpicking lesson on to hear this pattern used in a folk setting on an open G chord:

G Chord Fingerpicking Pattern

Taught by Even Goldberg

Eve Goldberg takes a look at how the G chord can be fingerpicked.
Show Interactive Tabs

Another approach to the same pattern might be to use three fingers instead of the alternating thumb: thumb on the downbeat bass note, followed by middle-index-ring (p-m-i-a). This creates a slightly different sound, because plucking with the thumb adds a natural accent. You might find that the alternating thumb pattern sounds more folk, while the four-finger pattern sounds more classical. Experiment with both and see what you think!

Exercise 3

Example 3 is a nice flowing arpeggio, or “broken chord.” The most natural and fluid picking pattern is simple, thumb-index-middle-ring or p-i-m-a. Take care to move slowly at first, allowing each finger to relax completely after plucking the string. You can also try doubling up with the thumb, p-p-i-m, and notice how it creates a different pattern of musical accents.

Our last example returns to the block chords we started with, but this time filled out as 4-note voicings. You’ll need to use p-i-m-a to pluck each chord, once again taking care to keep your movements economical and the hand relaxed:

Exercise 4

As you sit down to practice this weekend, start with the open string exercise and then add the other three in one at a time. Remember, repetition is important. You’ll want to cycle through each pattern numerous times, but slow and deliberate practice is essential! You really can’t practice too slowly, but you can definitely practice too fast. Do keep time, first in your head and then adding a metronome.

Start off slowly enough that you can move each finger deliberately and accurately. Then gradually pick up speed. If you’re using a metronome, going up in increments of 10 bpm or so creates a nice challenge. Your goal for the weekend should be to get all four patterns into your fingers at a slow tempo, and then you’ll be ready to start applying them to playing songs. Have fun!

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Thanks for reading.

I hope I've been able to make an impact on your playing.

Thanks again for joining me and our guest author, David Isaacs, on this musical journey!

Chris Liepe
JamPlay Content Director

Chris Dawson.  JamPlay Co-Founder

Chris Liepe is the content director at JamPlay. He was one of the first JamPlay instructors. His talents were quickly noticed, both on and off camera. Chris and the folks at JamPlay soon realized that he would be a perfect fit for the team. He hopped on board as a full time staff member in 2009 and has since been leading the charge towards realizing JamPlay's mission: providing affordable music education worldwide.

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