Fingerstyle Patterns – The Theory


Understanding the theoretical basics behind fingerstyle patterns is important, for many reasons.

Firstly, you’ll understand what exactly it is you’re playing, and why. This sounds simple and obvious, but you’d be surprised how many guitarists are just following formulas, patterns, and numbers, not knowing exactly what they’re playing and why.

Secondly, you’ll start to notice common themes shared by fingerstyle patterns that on face value appear very different.

Consequently, and thirdly – You’ll then be able to compose, improvise or adapt better, more secure and stylistically sound fingerstyle patterns within your own playing.

The theory behind a fingerstyle pattern is a combination of factors – Including things like the pattern’s rhythm, which notes of the underlying chord the pattern highlights, and when. Understanding the theory behind a pattern means analyzing these elements and understanding why the guitarist made the choices they made when writing the part. It’s then important to compare and contrast the different patterns you have studied to discover what they have in common and where they differ, to gain an overview of fingerstyle playing in general.

The Main Factors To Consider:

  • The rhythms inherent in the fingerstyle pattern– When are you playing in relation to the beats of the bar? Is it on the beat, or is it an offbeat, syncopated pattern? Are you playing in 8th notes or 16th notes? Does it have a loose, swung feel, or is it straight and rigid? Is there something that always happens on beat 2 of every bar, for example? Why might that be? How does all of this relate to the style or genre of the song? Do certain musical styles favor certain approaches? (Hint: Yes, they do! But what are they?)

With these questions, you’ll develop an understanding of the different rhythms of the main fingerpicking patterns, and crucially, what those different patterns have in common, rhythmically. This element of ‘what do different fingerstyle patterns share?’ is how you’ll build the generalized understanding needed to be able to compose, create, and improvise your own fingerstyle playing.

  • Which chord tones are used and when? – Does the pattern begin on the root note? Where does it go next? Does it include an arpeggio (the notes of a chord played up like a scale then back down again), or does it jump about through a less fluent pattern? Are there notes in the pattern that aren’t in the underlying chord? Why might that be? Does it contain passing notes or embellishments, or is it just a pattern applied to a static chord? Again, how does all of this relate to the style or genre of the song? Do you notice the same answers to these questions coming up repeatedly with different songs within this genre? Does your favorite guitarist seem to regularly play the same kinds of patterns?

As before, these questions help you gain an understanding of the main fingerpicking patterns, and importantly, what those different patterns have in common. This element of ‘what do different fingerstyle patterns share?’ is how you’ll build the generalized understanding needed to be able to compose, create and improvise your own fingerstyle playing.

What Happens Next?

OK, so you’re now able to analyze both the main components of fingerstyle patterns – rhythm and harmony, and able to consider these things in relation to other patterns to find common threads within musical styles and genres, and discover what is particularly effective.

The final stage is to build this new knowledge into your guitarist’s instinct. Practically applying the knowledge of how fingerstyle patterns work, so you become a guitarist who knows that and can call upon that knowledge and skills whenever needed.

The best possible way to practice this is not simply learning some more complex fingerpicking songs (although you should do this too, to grow your repertoire and technique). The best way to practice this is to apply appropriate fingerstyle patterns to songs that aren’t originally fingerpicked. So you and only you are responsible for the execution of the fingerpicking of that song.

Take a song you know, or learn a new one, that’s not fingerpicked, then play along but not strumming the chords or playing the riffs as you usually would. Instead, play fingerstyle, using the skills and knowledge you’ve developed to play a fitting part. Hopefully, following all the work above, you’ll do this with natural instinct. If you’re not quite there yet, don’t worry, you’ll get there. This just means you have to use a bit more direct thought for now.

Incidentally, this could be a really nice way to begin working on an interesting, genre-changing cover too. Taking a non-fingerstyle song and translating it into something fingerstyle can be a great first step in that adaptation process.

Alex Bruce is a writer for Guitar Tricks and 30 Day Singer

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