Can You Learn Fingerstyle Guitar First? Here’s the Answer


acoustic guitar | Sandy Music Lab

If you want to learn to play classical guitar, your favorite folk or country song, or Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” you need to be able to play fingerstyle. But is that something you should learn first or save until you have mastered strumming?

You can learn fingerstyle guitar first, but it’s more difficult than strumming. If you’re learning fingerstyle but find it too difficult, switching to strumming may eventually make learning fingerstyle easier for you. Guitar instructors often advise students to learn strumming first.

The longer you decide whether you should start with fingerstyle or strumming, the longer it’ll be until you can play. This article will guide you through the reasons for starting with either playing style. You’ll also learn some tips to help you stick with this wonderful instrument. 

Reasons To Learn Fingerstyle First

Many teachers will advise a beginner to learn strumming, not fingerstyle first. With that said, instructors also know that many students quit before mastering the guitar, even when they start with the easiest techniques. This is why it’s important to let desire and dedication influence you, not whether it’s easy or hard.

If you want to learn fingerstyle guitar first, then go for it — just don’t give up, and be open to switching to strumming if things feel too difficult.

Here are three reasons you should start with fingerstyle:

It’s What You Want to Play

If you know for sure that you want to play fingerstyle, then start with that. Yes, it’s more difficult, but you’ll be motivated to learn.  

While strumming may be easier, you’ll still never master the technique if you rush through practice. This only develops bad habits that you’re stuck trying to break later. So, if you start with fingerstyle guitar, take things slow and don’t let frustration discourage you. Practice makes perfect.

You Gain a Solid Understanding of the Guitar

When learning to strum, you focus on learning finger placement on chords and strumming patterns. You only need to know where to place your fingers to make chords.

For example, for a G chord, the first finger goes on the second fret of the A string, the 2nd finger on the third fret of the low E, and the ring finger on the third fret of the high E. Lessons on how to play the G chord focus on alternate fingerings. Most diagrams don’t show which notes are being played by each finger.

With fingerstyle, you learn to arpeggio chords, create melodies, and practice scales much earlier. So not only are you getting more knowledge about the guitar, you’re learning some music theory which benefits you once you start strumming.

You Don’t Need Other Musicians

Unless you are content to play chord and strum, you need other musicians. A rhythm guitarist, which you’d be when learning to strum, is essential in a band. However, a song needs a melody to sound different from another piece with the same chord structure.

Most popular music follows a similar structure. So, for example, a song written in the key of C will rely on the C, F, and G chords, with perhaps some variations thrown in. And often, those variations will be more complicated chords, like an augmented Cm thrown in. That’ll be more challenging for a beginner anyway.

So along with chords and strumming, you must learn licks, be able to sing, or play with others.  

When you learn fingerstyle, you can play recognizable songs without needing other musicians.  Although making music with others is fun, you can’t always find others to play with you. So, when you play fingerstyle, you’re a one-person band, giving you the opportunity to practice and play independently.

If you don’t have access to a songbook, check out these books of All Hit 1001 Songs available for free at the Internet Archive.

Reasons To Learn Strumming First

You should learn strumming first if you want to get started, or know that you want to play rock, heavy metal, or another style of music that relies on chords and solos.

Here are three reasons to avoid fingerstyle until you’ve mastered strumming:

Strumming Will Be Easier

If your goal is to start playing the guitar, strumming is easier. Use a tab to learn three or four chords, and you’ll be able to play tons of pop and rock songs.

It’s easy to use a guitar songbook with tabs, or to find online tabs to add riffs and solos. Of course, you’ll still need regular practice to improve your skills, but with dedication, you’ll be able to play a few simple songs after several sessions.

You Can Learn Bad Habits With Fingerstyle

One reason is that attempting to learn something too difficult might lead to harmful habits, which can stifle your growth and cause you to become trapped at a lower level of play.

These are three beginner mistakes you can make with your fingerstyle hand:  

  • Having the thumb too close to the index finger. Doing so leads to clashing fingers and thumb, which is a bad habit that could set you back in practice.
  • Placing your ring finger on the guitar body as support. You’re sacrificing the ring finger, and you won’t rely on the finger during arpeggios.
  • Grabbing strings creates a sloppy sound. Pluck the strings instead of pulling on them to produce higher-quality sound.

These mistakes will not only cause you frustration now, but they’ll limit your ability to improve, as it’s easy to get stuck in bad habits.

It’s Easier To Get Frustrated and Quit

For a variety of reasons, learning how to fingerpick on the guitar is not a beginner technique and should be tackled only when you’re ready. Because of these frustrations, you may become discouraged, angry, and it may lead you to stop not only fingerpicking but guitar altogether.

Instead of teaching yourself through video lessons and books, you might want to consider finding a qualified guitar instructor who knows fingerpicking. That person can teach you the skills, give you immediate feedback, and keep you motivated to succeed.

Tips for Learning Fingerstyle

Tips and suggestions for playing could fill a book, and if you plan on working with a teacher, they’ll have plenty of advice.  But if you want to start on your own, here are a few things you should know.

Learn PIMA To Read Sheet Music Written for Fingerstyle Songs

  • P = thumb
  • I = pointer finger
  • M = index or middle finger
  • A = ring finger

The letters come from the Spanish names for the fingers, and most fingerstyle tabs use this lettering.

Each of those fingers should be assigned to one of the three thinnest strings. The thumb controls the three thickest strings. Its purpose is to move between them and play the bottom notes of the chord.

Start Slowly  

The objective of learning guitar is not to play as fast as you can, but to play without making mistakes. Consistency is more important than speed when you’re learning. Once you’ve mastered the same pattern fifty times without messing up, you can take it up a notch and increase the tempo.

Keep Pushing Yourself  

When you’re confident in your playing skills, it’s important to challenge yourself. This ensures that you’re constantly improving. Take your playing to the next level by speeding up or slowing down the tempo. To challenge yourself even further, consider playing the song backward to test your memory and skills. You can also learn another finger pattern or try changing keys.

Learn How To Pluck the Bass String Correctly

The bass strings must be plucked harder than the other strings. Beginners typically don’t play them loud enough since they require more strength. As a result, the song will sound thin without the full-body sound of the bass notes. So, giving your bass notes a bit more punch will help your playing sound more polished.

How To Keep Yourself From Getting Burned Out

Many people who start learning guitar end up abandoning the instrument. This is due mainly to the lack of progress they obtained from practicing. Their dissatisfaction causes frustration and, eventually, the guitar winds up gathering dust.

  • Don’t put your guitar out of sight. Instead of leaving it in its case, buy a guitar stand or wall mount and display it. Even though it’s a cliché, out of sight is out of mind.
  • Just before practicing, do some stretching and relaxation exercises. Stretch your fingers, wrists, and arms. Make sure your neck is relaxed also. Stretching helps reduce the frustration that will occur during practice. Consider a short mindfulness meditation before you start to help you relax and clear your mind.   
  • Have a plan for what you’ll practice. Consider making a list of the skills or techniques you’ll be working on. If you haven’t bought a small notebook for your guitar, do so. Use it to write down your goals, when you accomplish them, and what you still want to learn.  You can also keep a list of songs you want to learn, artists you’ve heard about, and things you learn about music theory.  
  • Eliminate sources of distraction. Turn your phone off, put it on silent mode, and turn off notifications. Then put it across the room. Find a quiet place in your house if you live with others. The more distractions you can avoid, the better.

Practice every day for shorter periods rather than once a week for several hours. You’ll become a better player practicing 20 to 30 minutes every day instead of once a week for a few hours. Touch your guitar daily and make playing the guitar a regular habit. 

Bottom Line

Whether or not you should learn fingerstyle first depends on the style of music you want to learn. If you’re going to play classical or folk guitar, learn fingerstyle before strumming. But learn to strum first if you’re going to start playing without a specific style in mind. Then, after you’ve mastered strumming, you can progress to fingerstyle. 

They’re both essential techniques but start with the one that sounds like what you want to play.

David Sandy

Hey there! My name is David Sandy and I'm the founder of Sandy Music Lab. I've been playing guitar for several years now and created this site to be able to share and explore music with others. Check out my recommended guitar gear!

Recent Posts