From the September/October 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Sean McGowan
As guitarists, we sometimes experience frustration when we can’t play a certain musical passage or song due to limitations in our technical ability—and for good reason. When you consider the amount of work involved in fingering a simple chord, playing a scale, or synchronizing both hands to articulate a fingerstyle piece, it’s apparent how much control and independence you need to develop and facilitate in both hands for them to work together to create music.
In this Weekly Workout, we’re going to take a deep dive into building independence among the fingers of both hands, with the intention of having control not only over finger movement and hand coordination, but also musical articulations such as short vs. long notes, sustained chords, and more.
All of these exercises can be played fingerstyle or with hybrid picking (flatpick and fingers). Start by playing these examples slowly and assuredly, and consider adding them to your daily warmup routine when you first pick up the guitar. A little investment in these will pay off the next time you learn a more challenging piece.
Week One: Focus on the Fretting Hand
Start the first week by focusing on your fretting hand. Example 1 illustrates a finger-exchange exercise. Start in fifth position with the fingers spread out across the fifth to second strings, one finger per fret. Two fingers will then trade places, starting with the first and second fingers. As indicated in the tab, keep your fingers on the same frets, but switch strings (i.e., the first will move up to the fourth string, and the second will move down to the fifth). As these two fingers swap, the other two remain in place holding the strings down.
Work through the following variations, swapping the first and third fingers, the first and fourth, etc. Be patient, as you will definitely encounter some challenging moves, particularly as some of the fingers will need to skip over more than one string when they swap. Once you’re comfortable with the initial moves, try playing the swapped notes as short as possible. You can pretend the strings are extremely hot to touch, so you’ll pop the notes on and off, immediately releasing the pressure and resulting in a staccato sound. You don’t need to bounce completely off the strings, just simply release the pressure in the fingers that are trading places, while the other two fingers stay down. This effect will create a musical contrast of staccato vs. legato.
Example 2 is a powerful finger-switching exercise that was a favorite of classical guitar virtuoso Andrés Segovia. Pay close attention to the fingerings. Essentially, you’ll be using different combinations in moving through a chromatic scale in octaves. In Example 3, you’ll continue to explore the difference between short and long notes using only the fretting hand to control the duration. Start by sounding a Cmaj7 chord. Try to imagine each of the four notes as a vocal part—soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, top to bottom.
In the first measure, immediately after you pick the strings, keep your fourth finger (the soprano) held down on string 2, while the other three fingers release, as in Ex. 1. The idea is for one note to sustain and carry while the other three stop short, creating a sharp contrast. Continue this exercise, moving through the variations in the following measures. In each subsequent bar, a different finger will stay held down while the other three release, resulting in a staccato chord against a longer melody note. These types of independence exercises will do more to create control and dynamics in your guitar playing than practicing any scale or arpeggio type of exercise (although those are important, too.)
Beginners’ Tip #1
Make sure to stretch out the fingers of the fretting hand prior to playing through these examples, and take frequent breaks to avoid any fatigue or cramping in the hand.
Week Two: Focus on the Picking Hand
Now let’s focus on the picking hand. We’ll start off with a basic two-note pinch technique. Play the open C chord in Example 4 using your thumb for the fifth-string C, while your index finger (or middle if you’re using a pick) moves across strings 4, 3, and 2. This is an essential technique among folk and blues guitarists, as well as West African musicians. Listen to African guitarists or kora players—you’ll be amazed at how much music they can create using only two fingers!
Example 5 incorporates the thumb alternating between the fifth and sixth strings. In both this and the previous example, the thumb is picking along with the index finger. Now let’s try separating them, as shown in Examples 6 and 7. In Example 8, we’re moving across the strings with the index finger while the thumb alternates between two notes in the bass, resulting in more of a Kentucky thumb-style sound. A musical effect that is fun to explore is a two-against-three pattern (Example 9). Here, the index finger is playing a quarter-note triplet rhythm against the steady bass. This will really help strengthen your rhythmic acuity, in addition to establishing independence in the fingers.
You can also play scales and lines in double-stops, as shown in Example 10. This example illustrates a C major scale ascending in thirds, and then descending in tenths (an interval of a third plus an octave, featured prominently in The Beatles song “Blackbird”). Try exploring this technique the next time you take a solo or write a riff for an original song.
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Beginners’ Tip #2
As you explore the pinch technique, try using your middle or ring fingers in place of or alternating along with your index finger.
Week Three: Add More Fingers
Now let’s add more picking-hand fingers to the mix. Example 11 shows a basic claw technique using the thumb along with the index, middle, and ring fingers to pick all four strings simultaneously. Examples 12a–14c illustrate a number of variations where the chord is now split, creating an effect somewhere in between constant strumming and arpeggiating a chord. In examples 12a–c, a Cmaj7 chord is divided, with one note alternating with the three other notes, creating a 1:3 ratio. Examples 13a–b show two-note splits with a G13 chord, while the Dm9 chord in Examples 14a–c illustrates three-against-one variations. Try playing through a chord progression using this technique. You’ll find that splitting up the notes of a chord in various ways will add significant contrast and color to your rhythm playing.
Beginners’ Tip #3
To keep your rhythm strong and secure, try planting your picking-hand fingers on the correct strings, just prior to plucking them. This will ensure good tone and steady rhythm.
Week Four: Put it All Together
Now we’re ready to put it all together and combine these techniques by playing through a Kansas City–style jump-blues riff, featuring a moving bassline with chord jabs on top (Example 15). Try to make the chords as short as possible, using the staccato technique we explored in the first week with the fretting hand. This will be in contrast to a smooth-flowing quarter note bassline. Meanwhile, the thumb of the picking hand will propel the bass as the index, middle, and ring fingers take care of the chord jabs happening on the “ands” of the beats.
Beginners’ Tip #4
Try playing through the bass line first before tackling the chords. Map out in advance which fingers you’ll need to use to play both parts.
Take It to the Next Level
Here’s a short excerpt of an original fingerstyle composition titled “August,” which demonstrates the pinch and claw techniques in a different musical context. Having practiced these independence exercises, you’ll likely notice more fluency in the fretting hand fingers when playing the melody with regard to the contrast between short melodic pull-offs in the first two bars and the longer sustained notes in measures 3–5.