Fingerstyle accompaniment

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Fingerstyle accompaniment, also known as pattern picking, is a style of playing in which the fretting-hand holds chords, and the fingers and thumb of the picking-hand play the individual strings in set sequences (patterns) to provide a rich and interesting rhythmic accompaniment, often used as an alternative to strumming.

These lessons, which are aimed at anyone new to fingerstyle, but who already knows at least a few of the more common chord shapes, present some common and useful patterns (in tab) that can be used as accompaniments to a wide variety of songs. You can sing over them or have someone play another instrument over them as a melody, while you provide an attractive backing with a distinct fingerstyle sound. As you become more confident and fluent, you can add embellishments in the form of grace notes, passing notes and even change the pattern to accommodate changes that occur in more complex songs. Fingerstyle accompaniment is also the ideal introduction to the more advanced and complete style of playing known as solo fingerstyle playing, in which you provide not only the backing, but also the melody.

Basic technique

The general guideline of fingerstyle accompaniment playing is that the strings are played by certain fingers of the picking hand, as follows:

The thumb plays strings 6, 5 & 4

The index finger plays string 3

The middle finger plays string 2

The ring finger plays string 1

However, in more advanced arrangements, where we add lots of bass runs and fill-in notes, we can abandon that rule and follow a rule that originates with classical technique, which is: If two or more consecutive notes appear on the same string, we can play them by alternating two (or even three) fingers to avoid playing two notes with the same finger. In simple fingerstyle accompaniments, though, it rarely happens as we’re mostly just playing across the strings of a chord.

Finger direction

In standard technique, the thumb plays downstrokes and, with the exception of finger strumming or some specialised styles, such as the banjo-inspired style known as ‘frailing’, or flamenco strum-roll (rasgueado), the other fingers always play upstrokes. Unlike with the fretting hand, nails can be a definite advantage here, as they can give a clean note with good tone. Many fingerstyle players allow their nails to grow just enough to achieve that. Others may prefer not to use nails and others will attach thumb and/or fingerpicks to use instead of nails. It’s all a matter of individual preference.

These are just general rules that apply only at the basic level and are constantly broken whenever another fingering option is seen to be obviously better in certain situations. For now, however, we’ll go with those basic guidelines.

To see how the picking hand is held, and how the thumb and fingers move to strike the strings, take a look at one of Kirk’s more advanced solo fingerstyle video lessons.


When writing out fingerstyle patterns or any music using individual fingers of the picking hand, there are various ways to indicate which fingers to use by assigning letters to them. The system that we’ll use is the standard used by classical guitarists worldwide, in which the letters are derived from Spanish and often known by the acronym: ‘pima’

p = THUMB (from Spanish pulgar)

i = INDEX FINGER (from Spanish indicio)

m = MIDDLE FINGER (from Spanish medio)

a = RING FINGER (from Spanish anular)

The fretting hand fingers are numbered as standard from 1 to 4 (from the index) exactly as you often see in chord diagrams. The thumb isn’t marked.

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Pattern 1: 4 beats

This is a simple four beat pattern that will work for many songs written with four beats to the bar (measure). Most songs are like that, so there are literally thousands of songs that this pattern can be used with.

It will work best for songs that flow smoothly rather than jump around rhythmically. It would work well for a song such as “Imagine” but not for a song such as “Freight train”.

Six string chords

First we’ll show how it looks using a six string chord: E minor. Hold E minor as follows: Finger 2 on fret 2 of the fifth string and finger 3 on fret 2 of the fourth string. You are probably very familiar with this shape. An easy way to write the frets and strings of chords is by using six numbers to represent the fret used on each of the six strings For example, 022000 is how we would write the most common shape of E minor. The six digits are the six strings from low to high and the actual numbers are the frets that we hold the string at. 0 means it’s an open string. (Sometimes X is also used to indicate that a particular string is not be sounded, e.g., the very common four-string D major chord can be written as XX0232.)

Hold the chord E minor (022000)







Note by note guide

First, we start with the bass note played by the thumb (p) on the sixth string.

We let that note ring out while we then play the open third string with the index finger (i).

Next we see that the number on string 2 is exactly below the number on string 1. That means we play the two strings at the same time, the second string is played by the middle finger (m) and the first string is played by the ring finger (a).

Then we again play string three with the index finger (i)

Next is string four. As we said at the beginning, the general rule is to play the bass strings: 4, 5 & 6 with the thumb (p) so that’s what we’ll do.

The remaining four notes are exact repeats of the notes following the first bass note on string six, so they’re played in exactly the same way.

Holding unplayed notes

You may have noticed that you’re holding a note of your E minor chord on the fifth string – but it wasn’t played. So you can, if you like, not bother to place it all, or, as you are probably familiar with that shape, it might be easier to just leave it on, even though it’s not being played in this particular pattern. When you are more advanced, you might exercise your musical judgement and actually play that string. That would be a good reason for leaving it on. On the other hand, when you’re more advanced, you might need that finger for something else. In that case you’ll take it off.


As this is a four-beat pattern and there are 8 evenly-spaced notes to be played, (not counting the doubled notes on strings 2 & 3) we count them as “one and two and three and four and

Playing from the chord’s root.

A general feature of fingerstyle patterns is that the first note played is usually the root of the chord. In other words the name of the first note is always the same as the name of the chord. This isn’t a fixed fingerstyle rule. It’s just a good and very common way of doing it to guarantee a good strong note to start the pattern with.

In the above example we used the chord of E minor, so we started on the sixth string open, which is the note E, i.e., the root.

Five string chords

Now we’ll look at the chord C major using the shape X32010 (X means that we don’t play that string.). Instead, we are going to start on string 5 because that’s where the root C is. Here’s the pattern:







The only difference between playing the pattern on this chord compared to our first chord (E minor) is that we start on string 5. Our thumb is now alternating between strings 5 & 4

Four string chords

Finally we’ll look at the common four string chord shape of D major, (XX0232) which has the root (D) on the open fourth string.







The big difference here is that, starting our bass note on the fourth string, means we can’t alternate our bass note to a higher string – there’s no room. So we just repeat that bass note whenever we play four string chords.

Incomplete patterns

So far it has been assumed that the chords involved don’t change until the next bar (measure). If they do, such as after two beats, you can restart the pattern with the new chord until the end of the bar. If the chords change irregularly or more rapidly than two per bar, then this pattern is probably not suitable for that particular song.

Audio Examples

1. E minor - played slow then faster. The slow version lets you hear exactly how the pattern should be played, and the fast version lets you hear how the chord notes flow together in harmony.

2. Played over a changing chord sequence keeping strictly to the finger style pattern

3. Played over a chord sequence with decorations. This gives a more improvised and less predictable feel and is the style of playing you should always aim for.

4. Decorated chord sequence accompanying a melody

Pattern 1 E minor.mp3

Pattern 1 chord sequence.mp3

Pattern 1 decorated.mp3

Pattern 1 chord sequence plus added melody.mp3

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Pattern 2

This pretty pattern is a little more intricate and provides an even flowing sound. Although not often found in songs, it’s an excellent finger exercise that aids independence of finger movement due to the fact that the fingers are not always moving in a linear sequence, but are continually crossing strings.

The chord shown is the 5 string chord A minor, but as with the first pattern, the string you start on depends on whether the chord is a six string chord, such as G or E or E minor, etc. or a five string chord, such as C or A minor, etc., or a four string chord such as D or D minor. The same rule applies – play the first bass note on the string that has the chord’s root.







Audio examples

1. Slow version of the pattern then faster over a changing chord sequence

Part 4 follows

Pattern 2 with chord sequence.mp3

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Pattern 3 (3 beat)

This simple pattern is commonly used to accompany songs with 3 beats per bar (measure). Again there is no alternating bass here, just the root note in the bass followed by the upper chord notes. Like pattern 1, the two uppermost notes are played together by fingers m & a.







Audio examples:

1. Slow version of the pattern, then fast over a changing chord sequence

2. Greensleeves – using the following chords:


-|Am--|C--|G--|Em--|Am--|E7--| Am--|Am--|



3 beat Em then chord sequence Em D Am.mp3


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Pattern 4 (Travis style picking)

This 4 beat pattern is based on the picking style pioneered by the legendary country guitarist Merle Travis. It has a distinctive rhythmic flavour often associated with old time country music but is also very effective in different settings, with examples as diverse as Kathy’s song by Paul Simon or Brain damage by Pink Floyd.







This is the most difficult of the patterns because of the uneven rhythm, which gives it its distinctive ‘fingerpicking’ feel. But if you start slowly and count the beats aloud as you play, it will eventually become second nature.

Remember that the bass notes, played by the thumb, occur on the numbered beats 1 -2 – 3 – 4.

The other notes come exactly between beats 2 & 3 and beats 3 & 4 and are played with the appropriate fingers. The first note on string 1 is shown in brackets to indicate that it can be played or omitted. It can, alternatively, be played on string 2 or 3.

The whole rhythm can be counted as:

one - two and three and four –

Five string chords

Five string chords are played by doing exactly as we did with the other patterns. Simply move the thumb up to begin on the fifth string, instead of the sixth, so the bass now alternates between strings five and four.

Four string chords

Four string chords, however, are played completely differently with this style. In order to preserve the characteristic alternating bass line, we have to alternate the thumb between strings four and three. The index finger now has to play string two and the middle finger now plays string one as can be seen in the following example in D







Audio examples:

1. G major played slow then a fast sequence of chords: G C D G.

2. Intro to the Beatles song Julia, this pattern includes the note on the first beat played on the first string as seen in the first tab example.

Pattern 4 G slow then fast sequence G C D G.mp3

Pattern 4 Julia intro.mp3

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The above examples represent just a few of many commonly used patterns found in (mostly acoustic) songs. Aim for fluency in all of the patterns, and then think of how to decorate any pattern to make it your own. You can always interrupt the pattern at any point to substitute a bass run of passing notes between chords - or squeeze in extra notes in the form of hammer ons or pull offs as has been done in some of the decorated examples given. In short, be as creative as you like, always keeping within the rhythm of the song. You can even make your own pattern from scratch.

The next step up from decorated accompaniments is solo fingerstyle playing, where you are playing bass, melody and harmony at the same time. This is one of the most complete forms of guitar playing there is, and achieving fluency in fingerstyle accompaniment will take you more than half way to mastering solo fingerstyle playing.

Good luck :smilinguitar:

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