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Choosing The BEST Fingerpicking Pattern for a Song

"How do you decide what fingerpicking pattern to use for a particular song?"

This was a question a student asked. It was such a good question that I wanted to share it and talk about it here. 

The answer is very similar to picking (no pun intended) a strum pattern for a song. It’s all about having a repertoire of common patterns you can use. It won’t necessarily need to be an extensive repertoire. But you’ll start with the basics and add to it over time.

The basic patterns will be in 4/4 and 3/4 time. That means 4 pulses (or beats) per measure, and 3 pulses (or beats) per measure respectively. If you tap your foot to a song, you’d count 4/4 as:



(Turn on the radio and you’re 95% sure to hear a song in 4/4 right away)

For 3/4 time you’d count it as:



(Think about Bob Dylan’s “Times They Are A Changin”)

There are a number of patterns that you could learn that fit the bill. You just need to know which is which. First determine what time signature the song is in. It will more than likely be in 4/4 or 3/4. There are other time signatures but 3/4 and 4/4 will cover most songs.

Next, determine if there is already a fingerpicking pattern in the song. If the song is already played using fingerpicking you might be able to clearly hear the pattern. You can watch a video on YouTube and see what they’re doing. 

Let’s say you’re learning a song by John Denver. You can go online and find a lot of videos of people playing that song on guitar. You can watch what they’re doing and try to match one of the basic patterns to the song. Or you can try to play what they’re playing. 

(With YouTube, you can slow down the speed of the video. This is a great tool for learning songs!)

You'll find there are a lot of songs where one fingerpicking pattern just doesn’t fit. Especially if it’s played with several instruments. Here you’ll have license to change it up a bit. Use your judgment to play something that sounds good. Play around with a few different patterns and choose the best sounding one. 

Little by little over time you'll find you can imagine a pattern in your head that would sound good. This comes with practice and repetition. 

Fingerpicking Other Instruments' Parts

But what if the song is played on another instrument, like a piano? This is one of the hardest places to apply a fingerpicking pattern. You’ll just have to experiment and see what sounds best. There won’t be a right or wrong method here. 

You can always pull up YouTube again and see if someone else is playing it on guitar. If not, try a couple patterns you know.

Tips For Creating New Patterns

Here’s a good tip for patterns. In general, the first note in a pattern should be the root note of the chord. If you play an E chord, play the lowest E note first.

  • If you’re in 4/4, play patterns of 4 or 8 notes. Then repeat the pattern.
  • If you’re in 3/4, play patterns of 3 or 6 notes. Then repeat the pattern.

You can literally go up and down the chord, playing the notes low to high. Or you can mix the notes up. Just keep the patterns consistent.

Finally, keep in mind that a song might be a good choice for fingerpicking and strumming. There might be a part that sounds good with strumming. And then you’ll play a fingerpicking part where the song slows down. Again, you have license to be creative and use your judgment.  

Keep in mind that this is a process. It will get easier the more you do it, and the more patterns you know. 

Thanks for joining me today. Please leave me a comment and let me know if you enjoyed this lesson. And if there are any other lessons you’d like to see. 

Bye for now. 

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  1. I have been strumming for some years but finger style I have avoided.i am finding it difficult selecting what strings after the route string.i can’t get it to sound like the song .

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